Jessica Newman

Our January 2015 Staff Spotlight is with Jessica Newman. Jessica works out of Steenbock Library and has been one of the most important individuals involved in getting the new BioCommons up and running.

How long have you been with the Libraries and how did you get your start?

I have been with Steenbock since September of 2011…or earlier if you count my two practicums at Steenbock while I was a UW-SLIS student. Prior to attending SLIS, I received a B.S in Biochemistry from UW-Madison (double Badger!), and worked on campus for several years as a laboratory researcher—first in the Department of Ophthalmology studying retinal degeneration, and then in the Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, studying causes of glaucoma. I liked the information-seeking and organizational aspects of research, and I loved working with people. Being a science librarian seemed like the natural next step, so I applied to library school.

I was very fortunate that Steenbock had a new position available for an Undergraduate Services Librarian when I graduated from SLIS. Steenbock was interested in expanding undergraduate support services in the library and the Undergraduate Services Librarian was to have “primary responsibility for providing a dynamic learning and research environment in support of undergraduate student success.”


It was exciting to take on the challenge of developing that environment, and it felt pretty intimidating at first (and sometimes still does). However there were/are three major factors in place that really helped map a path forward:

Excellent examples of campus libraries already leading the way on providing teaching and learning spaces. Especially College Library and Wendt Library, with WiscCEl, student services and tutoring centers.

The willingness of staff at both of those libraries to meet with myself and other Steenbock staff to grant tours of the space and talk about logistics was beyond helpful.

Supportive and forward-looking leadership at Steenbock and at the GLS administrative level.

Very strong campus partners: WISCIENCE (formerly the Institute for Biology Education) and the Office for Undergraduate Advising. This partnership was the key to getting us where we are today: poised to remodel Steenbock space over Winter Interim and open the BioCommons!

You’re a driving force behind the new BioCommons. Talk about what it is, and how you were involved?

The BioCommons is a biology learning commons, and it is officially open! It’s on the first floor of Steenbock Library. It is a joint Educational Innovation project, formed in partnership with Steenbock Library, WISCIENCE, and the Office for Undergraduate Advising. The BioCommons will be a “welcoming home base where students can connect with each other, as well as a central gateway to the biosciences where they can find information, get engaged in high-impact learning experiences, access support services, and integrate their experiences into a meaningful whole” – geared particularly towards first-year, first-generation, and underrepresented minority students. A brief project report on the BioCommons can be read here.

The BioCommons will feature three private rooms (for advising or other consultation), three semi-private rooms (for tutoring or similar services), a lounge area, and a large flexible space for lectures, seminars, workshops, resource fairs, etc; as well as mediated access to Steenbock conference rooms and computer labs and study rooms. When the space is not being used for BioCommons events, it will be open to all library visitors. There also is a virtual component to BioCommons – a collection of online resources created by WISCIENCE.

I’ve been part of the BioCommons planning team since the idea of a biology learning commons was first brought to Steenbock by WISCIENCE and bioscience Deans. I’ve been very involved with all of the planning phases for the project: gathering stakeholder input, holding piloting programming, designing the space, and planning for assessment. As I mentioned, the remodel took place over winter break. We have already had a lot of pilot programming, and are getting several things lined up for the spring semester.

What’s the most interesting part of your job?

Working in cross-campus partnerships has been a very exciting and rewarding experience! It has given me the opportunity to chat with many of the units on campus that serve bioscience undergrads, and get different perspectives on what the needs are. I also really enjoy being on the reference desk and being part of the Steenbock instruction team.

How do you see your role evolving?

Once the BioCommons space is ready, and BioCommons staff is in place, I will have more time to focus on programming Steenbock can offer undergraduates in the BioCommons, and how we can use the space to partner with other campus units. We are very fortunate to have Miguel Ruiz, a UW-Madison Libraries’ Resident Diversity Librarian, on board to work with Steenbock to help develop new programming in the upcoming semester.

What do people often not realize about Steenbock?

That the first floor is actually on the lower level–or the garden level, as we like to say. The main entry (and only public entry) is on the second floor, which creates all kind of confusion! People are often surprised by the wide subject areas of our collection. From Agriculture, Bee-keeping, Cookbooks, Design, Environment, Fashion…..all the way to Zoology!

Do you ever get to step away from work for some fun?

Yes! Every night. (‘Fun’ to me mostly means staying in and making dinner and watching laptop television). I also am trying to run a little more, even though I am slow, and I recently took a class at Boulders Climbing Gym, even though I am scared of heights. My daughter and I love to ice skate and we live right next door to Olbrich Gardens skating rink, so we look forward to doing that in winter. It is never too cold for us to skate. And I have a mischievous Labrador Retriever who keeps me on my toes. His name is Marley (he came that way).

Nobody would ever guess that one time I…? Didn’t have a television as a child or for several years of my adult life. There are huge gaps in my knowledge of popular culture! However, nowadays having a laptop is the same thing, so I’m catching up. See answer to question above.

Favorite thing about the libraries…GO!

I love how libraries feel full of possibility for change, and how there is so much interest in new ideas in the library community. Also I like having such wonderful coworkers at Steenbock and all the campus libraries.