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A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

"Hold on Tight": An Interview with Earl Griffith, Denison University

Amanda Mottorn

Account Executive, Readex

Earl Griffith is collection development librarian at Denison University, an independent liberal arts college founded in 1831. Located in the charming Ohio town of Granville, Denison was chosen as one of the select "Colleges that Change Lives." In this interview with Readex account executive Amanda Mottorn, Earl reflects on such topics as his own career choice, the changing field of librarianship and faculty-library collaboration. He concludes with advice for new librarians.

Earl, what led you to attend library school?
As an undergraduate student I worked in the university library after trying some other jobs on campus, none of which suited me very well. After changing majors numerous times, I finally realized that the option to go into library work was right there under my nose all along. I had a good mentor in Jean Wiggins at Morehead State University and greatly admired the rest of the library staff there.

What was your first job after receiving your M.L.S. at the University of Kentucky?
I worked at the Raleigh County Public Library, located deep in the southern West Virginia mountains in the town of Beckley. Primarily, I did public services. You don't have an office in places like that. The service desk is your office. I worked there for about 2 ½ years and enjoyed many things about it.

Tell us about Denison and what drew you to this environment.
I visited the campuses of Denison University and Kenyon College one day on a lark in the mid-1980s. Prior to that, I had not been around private education or liberal arts colleges at all to speak of. Such places were mysteries to me. I was perhaps searching for something, and both campuses struck me as being very desirable places to be. I liked the size and scale, the aesthetics, the sense of history, and other aspects of these campuses. They appealed to my imagination somehow, so I set out to land a job in a place like this.

What has surprised you most about recent freshmen classes?
They tell me that microfilm is "retro" with some apparent delight. At least I think "retro" is a good thing in their view, but I could be wrong.

What are the strengths of the William H. Doane Library?
Unquestionably, the staff is the #1 strength. The level of leadership that various people exhibit in their areas is quite compelling. The consortia in which we operate also represents remarkable strength.

You've been at Denison for about 17 years. What change in that period has had the most impact on your library and your colleagues?
That's easy. It is the advent of the World Wide Web and delivery of information via the Internet. A close second might be the creation of OhioLink and the change this brought about in a lot of our assumptions about how we obtain content and conduct resource sharing.

If I have occasion to answer a question like this one again about the time I retire, who knows what the answer will be? It might be the open access movement if that really does change everything, or it might be mass digitization by Google and others. It may be something else that no one has thought of yet.

What has been the impact on your library of fully searchable digital works?
The impact of the e-journal is inestimable. Just the sheer number alone of full text journals we can offer now vs. the number of journals we could offer 10 or so years ago is staggering. Being able to deliver all of that content to the desktop has been huge. By acquiring some of the major full text historical digital collections, both serial and non-serial, this has made it much easier for faculty in some fields to do research and to get their students into primary material.

It is surprising to me just how quickly we seem to be moving forward to reduce the size of the footprint of the past and pare down older physical collections. We see this in the reduction of the size of reference collections, often in conjunction with implementing Information Commons or Learning Commons. We see it in the idea of shared depositories. We certainly see it in the idea of retiring or replacing some legacy materials, as the past is coming to be called in some quarters, with online versions of that material.

Any recent successes or failures in conveying to users the value of your library for their immediate research needs?
Some of my colleagues could probably answer this better. Personally, I am being asked by some faculty about e-books. Anecdotally, it seems as if interest in and acceptance of e-books is growing. On several occasions recently, I have been able to point faculty to our growing collection of e-books.

The operative word in this question is "immediate." If the need isn't immediate, it is often difficult to reach the audience and to bring them up to the speed we would like them to be.

How have you and your library colleagues recently tried to improve faculty-library collaboration?
We hired more subject librarians during this decade. Our instruction program has been instrumental to collaboration. Denison participated in a Mellon grant for information literacy earlier in this decade. Several pilot projects pairing librarians with faculty were undertaken during the grant period. At least one of our librarians holds regular consultation hours in classroom buildings. Certainly, our library director is stressing the need for library staff to be more visible on campus and to work in collaboration with faculty more in the future.

What have you been reading this summer?
I have been reading Bob Novak's The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington. This is a good fix for the political junkies among us. I also read A Year Without "Made in China." One Family's True Life Adventure in the Global Economy by Sara Bongiorni. In preparation for Hal Holbrook's performance of Mark Twain Tonight here in our neck of the woods in November, I have been reading some Twain in small doses here and there. I have one book entitled Mark Twain's Satires & Burlesques and another entitled Complete Humorous Sketches & Tales of Mark Twain. These volumes fit the bill nicely. I have a front row seat for the performance by Mr. Holbrook, who is one of Denison's most oft mentioned alums. I have also been reading some volumes on the history of Wales after joining a local Welsh heritage group this summer.

Seen any good movies lately?
The operative word here is "good". I don't always have the best taste in movies. I went to see Sicko. Not bad. Earlier this summer I went to see Kevin Cosner's Mr. Brooks, partly motivated to see how a main character named Earl would be portrayed. I just saw Hairspray. Christopher Walken amuses me. I am looking forward to Martin Scorsese's documentary on The Rolling Stones.

What advice would you share with a new librarian entering the field?
Grab onto something and hold on tight. It may be a roller coaster ride, but it will be exciting. Learn the library's past, understand it, and respect it. Use that as a basis for creating a contemporary library that both transforms and is true to the past.

Published in
November 2007
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