Working Together to Improve the User Experience: a Conversation with Susan Stearns of the Boston Library Consortium

This post by Anne-Marie Green originally appeared on the Wiley Exchanges Blog. 

Q. Can you tell us about your background and your current position?
A. I’m a librarian by training and worked early in my career in both academic and corporate libraries.  However, the bulk of my career has been spent on the library software vendor side, working for companies such as Faxon Research Services, NorthernLight Technologies, InMagic and most recently, the Ex Libris Group.  I came to the BLC (Boston Library Consortium) just over a year ago as the Executive Director.  The BLC is a 17 member consortium of academic and research libraries in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut.  We focus on resource sharing, consortial collecting, and collaboration.

Q. What do you feel are the biggest challenges involved in running a library consortium?
A. Well, I’m very lucky to have such a smart, experienced, and committed group of member libraries.  Since the majority of the real work of the BLC is done by its various “communities”, I depend greatly on the volunteer efforts of librarians and other staff across the consortium.  So, my job is to keep them engaged and to provide value that is at least equal to the effort they are expending.  It never gets dull!

Q. You’ve worked for both corporate and academic libraries.  What are the major differences?
A. Today the major difference is that there are very few corporate libraries left, which makes me quite sad.  The primary difference – and one that I relished – is that corporate librarians are often one-woman [and even occasionally one-man] shows.  In the largest corporate research library I worked in, there were only 3 staff and I was the only professional.  You really need to streamline everything and stay completely focused on working closely with the researchers to meet their needs.  I must admit that my work in academic libraries seemed somewhat more removed from the teaching and research functions at the time, although that is clearly much less the case these days as libraries are more directly embedded in departments and schools as well as in instruction.

Q. What are the biggest concerns among librarians in your member institutions?
A. I would never speak for my members so this is my opinion only.  And, we are a diverse consortium so concerns and challenges vary.  However, because resource sharing has been such a cornerstone of our work and because resource sharing and collection development are increasingly overlapping areas, particularly as academic library budgets remain stagnant, we all share the concern that we do the best possible job of cost-effective sharing of quality resources.  That can mean looking at shared collecting, ensuring our institutional repositories and other digital collections are easily discoverable and deliverable, working collaboratively both within the consortium and with other regional libraries to ensure the preservation of scholarly content, and working to streamline the delivery of physical materials.

Q. What are some ways librarians and publishers can work together to create a better experience for both librarians and end-users?
A. What a great question and one I have been thinking quite a bit about after the BLC’s Letter to the Editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education concerning ebook pricing.  That letter and subsequent follow up has resulted in opportunities for me and others within the BLC to meet one-on-one with a number of the major scholarly publishers.  We bring different perspectives to what are, in some cases at least, the same issues.  Discussing our goals, understanding user behavior, and focusing on ways to improve the experience of using scholarly ebook resources are mutual goals that I hope we continue to discuss vigorously.

Q. How do you see libraries evolving in the future?
A. I believe academic libraries will continue to focus on the myriad of ways they support the mission and goals of their individual institutions.  To do this, I expect new forms of collaboration across libraries will continue to evolve.  I believe academic libraries will continue to lead the way, working closely with publishers, to achieve a more lasting transition to open access for both journal and monographic materials in ways that result in a more cost-effective ecosystem that provides high quality scholarly content when and where it is needed.  Finally, I hope that academic research libraries can find the appropriate role to play in the growing need to manage research data.  That is a challenge we all must work together to address.

Q. What is your favorite library in the world and why?
A. The Philo [Illinois] Public Library District.  I spend much of my childhood in Philo (just outside Urbana, home to the University of Illinois) and my mother, Josephine Bunch Stearns, was one of the founders of the public library there.  How could I not love it?