Chief Librarian Opens New Chapter in Her Life

Various careers took her on the road less travelled

Rebecca Graham

On paper, the career path followed to Guelph by Rebecca Graham, U of G’s new chief information officer and chief librarian, appears deliberate and obstacle-free, including a lifelong love of libraries; an ahead-of-her-time interest in information technology; and numerous positions at prestigious research libraries, each one a rung higher on the library ladder to the top.

So here she sits, with a friendly demeanour underpinned by obvious focus and drive. No doubt she is where she belongs and happy to be here.

But that road to Guelph was long and winding. Think Kansas, the U.S. Air Force and a trucking company.

Serendipity had a hand, too.

Today Graham has no intention of resting at the helm. She considers every job a learning opportunity, and is a firm believer in the importance of libraries to local and global communities.

“It’s about service and protecting free, open access to knowledge, and that’s becoming increasingly critical,” Graham says. “The role of the library has changed over time – they are not the libraries that we grew up with – but it’s here to stay.”

Graham has lots of ideas, including increased public access, open textbooks, new data-handling tools and more services available outside the library building.

As CIO, she’ll oversee strategy and policy administration for information technology, services and resources in both the Library and Computing and Communications Services.

That unique IT-library combination is what drew Graham to Guelph. Having developed an early interest in computing and data, she has witnessed the emergence of technology and the transformation of library systems and services, from replacing hard-wired systems with desktop PCs to digitizing archives and journals.

She’s experienced resistance, too. “When something has been done a particular way for a long time, it’s hard to change; libraries are no different.”

But she adheres to an age-old “library law” that these institutions are living organisms. “And being a living organism, we change, we evolve, and that’s critical,” she says. “To me, it’s not about being tied to historical roles and constructs but instead thinking about it in terms of the end product – how to serve our users – and trying to leverage the set of opportunities I feel have the potential to help the institution advance its mission.”

Libraries serve a vast and diverse audience: students, faculty and the general public. How those people search for information is changing, and so are their expectations and demands. “So in addition to traditional services and resources, libraries are being asked to do more and more.”

That means embracing IT and all it has to offer, she says. Patrons expect to use technology in their search for information. For the library, it’s the most efficient way to reach the most people.

At U of G, the lines between IT and library services had already been blurred, and that had tremendous appeal, Graham says.

“Change is a culture that you have to develop over time, but here the culture already existed. Guelph has an innovative approach to open learning, accessibility and technology, and the opportunity was perfect for me.”

Graham appears calm at work, but her personal life is a bit chaotic right now. Since arriving at Guelph at the end of May, she’s returned periodically to Massachusetts to her wife, Eva Piessens, a medical doctor and infectious-disease specialist, and their nine-year-old twins, Gabriel and Noah. They plan to join Graham in July.

Everyone is ready for a new start in a country that she says is a bit more open-minded on just about everything, including the definitions of family. “Canada just gets it on so many levels.”

Graham was raised in Kansas in a family with two older brothers. Both were in the military.

“I came from a family that did not appreciate the value of education,” she says. “And as someone who had never been any place other than Kansas, I saw the military as an opportunity to see the world.”

She enlisted in the U.S. Air Force at age 19 and was sent to Germany, where she first developed an interest in data information systems. But she knew it wasn’t a long-term option. In the 1970s, it was difficult enough being a woman in the U.S. military, let alone a lesbian.

“I knew I had to figure out what was next.”

Back in Kansas, she went to community college for data processing and landed a job in the county public library. “I always loved libraries.”

After six months, her boss left and Graham was promoted. She stayed nine years before “a matter of the heart” took her to Ohio.

Looking to expand her interest in technology and information systems, Graham went to work for a trucking company, applying cutting-edge technology on the manufacturing line.

“I had to be at work at 5 a.m. and have the system up and running for the truck line to start at 7 a.m. If the line could not start, it cost $300,000 an hour, so the pressure was on you.”

She missed the library in those days – badly. “It encouraged me to finish my undergraduate degree – that is for sure.” She earned a degree in organizational management from Wilberforce University in Ohio, but it was just a stepping stone. “I knew I wanted to go to library school.”

Turns out that the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign needed a full-timer to implement their automated library system; Graham had introduced the same system in Kansas. “They said I could go to school part-time and that they would pay for it.”

After graduation, she worked as the library’s manager of integrated systems before taking a job at the Digital Library Federation in Washington, D.C. It was there she met Piessens, then working at Georgetown University’s medical school.

Graham later headed computing services and the digital library program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

A couple of years later, she and Piessens were expecting twins and started talking about moving to Boston to be near family. Piessens found a job and moved first; Graham was to stay behind to finish up work in Baltimore. But Piessens went into labour 10 weeks early.

Between days spent in a neonatal intensive care unit – “The boys had to learn to eat, basically” – she landed a job as co-director of Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library of Medicine.

From there, she went to Harvard College Library as associate librarian for preservation, digitization and administrative services. Besides looking after administration and managing a $90-million budget and 12 library buildings, she was responsible for the preservation and digitization program. She also led a project to expand the library’s digitization of special collections, particularly in support of teaching and learning.

How did she wind up here?

“Canada was always on our radar,” she says. “I had heard of Guelph – that it was a place that was very innovative, and that had appeal for me.”

She flew in for an interview and left with her fingers crossed. “I came away with the feeling that Guelph has a great sense of community, and that was very important to me.”