Rhode Island Library Report
You expect librarians to give you the story straight, and Gale Eaton doesn’t mince words when she recalls her four years as a student at the University of Rhode Island’s graduate school of library science.
“Library school, compared to actually working in libraries, was incredibly dull,” Eaton says.
It’s a statement you might overlook, except that, more than 30 years later, Eaton became the school’s director, a post she held for six years. For three years before that, she was the assistant director. And for nearly a quarter century, she was a member of the school’s faculty.
But, dedicated librarian that she is, Eaton doesn’t limit the story to just a sound bite, albeit a witty one. The complete story of her relationship with the school, Eaton recalled a few days before the Nov. 8, 2013 Gala celebrating the school’s 50th anniversary, is more complicated.
The fact is that Eaton has deep affection for the school, now known as the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies, part of URI’s Harrington School of Communication and Media.
And the full story tells us something about the character of librarians, as well as the school that has produced 3,000 of them. Just as importantly, it tells us, once again, not to fall into the trap of believing stereotypes, including those about librarians.
If the graduates of the school are anything like Eaton, they are witty, tough, ironic, resourceful, skeptical and loyal. They are professionals, who are deeply passionate about their work, and crazy about the children, the teenagers and the men and women whose lives are changed every time they walk into a library.
Even today, it’s hard to believe that Simmons made such a blunder, because, by any measure, Eaton was the kind of star student that any university would be delighted to rope in. She’d just graduated, in 1969, from Smith College, which is not just any run-of-the-mill college; and she had finished with no ordinary academic record: magna cum laude, as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.
Eaton at the time was working as a “pre-professional library assistant” at the Boston Public Library. And the word around the Boston library was that Simmons, at least that year, didn’t want a lot of part-time students, which is what Eaton would have been.
Eaton needed to work – her parents had three other kids to put through undergraduate college. And she also needed to go to library school, because her job at the Boston Public Library was conditioned on getting a master’s degree.
There was another reason she chose URI. And again, not to sugarcoat it, that’s because URI was cheap.
“I’ve been trying to remember what I paid for tuition, $45 a credit hour, or $45 for a 3-credit course,” Eaton told me in interviews by phone and e-mail. “Either way, it was cheap enough to manage on my $89 weekly take-home pay.”
URI’s bargain tuition was no accident. When the school was founded in 1963, it was meant to serve not just Rhode Island students, but those from other New England states whose own public universities lacked similar programs. Under a New England Board of Higher Education “compact,” URI offered lower, in-state rates to non-Rhode Islanders.
Maybe all those hours spent aboard busses for four years, starting in 1970, colored her perceptions of the overall graduate experience, so much so that when she finished the program, she “swore I’d never go near a library school again in my life.”
In describing Bergen, Eaton references the TV program, “Touched by an Angel.” I never saw the show, which ran on CBS from 1994 to 2003, according to Wikipedia. But Eaton, being the open-minded librarian that she is, draws on many sources of knowledge. Professor Bergen, she says, was like a cross between the TV program’s do-gooder angels and “somebody who played football for Notre Dame.”
Bergen planted “sort of an intellectual time bomb” in his classes, an explosive love of learning, decades later, that Eaton would try to pass along to her own students. Bergen’s assignments included writings by Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, who explored the link between power and knowledge, and also those of the “medium-is-the-message” philosopher, Marshall McLuhan, who developed theories of media and communication.
“We simply had a joyous time, throwing ideas around,” Eaton recalls. “You could think about anything you wanted to in Dr. Bergen’s class. And, of course, in the end, it all had something to do with libraries.”
“There have been, over the decades, every so often, articles by scholars about why students hate library school – I kid you not,” Eaton says. And she mentions one in particular, written in the 1980s by Samuel Rothstein, the founding director of the School of Library, Archival and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.
To be sure, Eaton points out, so that the reference is placed in context, the article did appear in an April First issue of the Library Journal. But it’s there, and you can locate it using your own or your library’s Internet-connected computer, through a simple Google search: Library Journal, v110 n6 p41-48 Apr 1, 1985, by Samuel Rothstein, an article entitled “Why People Really Hate Library Schools.”
Rothstein’s conclusion, in part, according to Eaton, was “that people who go into librarianship tend to be very detail-oriented and critical of themselves and others, and that they had a bias towards not liking things as much as students in some other professions.”
Eaton graduated in 1974 and was promoted at the Boston Public Library to the position of “Children’s Librarian One,” and she worked there three more years. Then she became supervisor for children’s services at the Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield, Mass., until 1984. With a recommendation from the angelic Dr. Bergen, she was accepted into a doctoral program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
So the URI legacy is this: she “adored” her work at the Boston library. The same goes to for her work in Pittsfield. “And without a solid MLS behind me, I couldn’t have done that.”
The depth of the debt and affection that Eaton and other graduates feel for their URI program became very apparent in January, 1986.
That’s when the school, which has had various crises throughout its history, lost its accreditation with the American Library Association (ALA). Some on faculty felt the university was providing insufficient resources. According to Providence Journal articles at the time, the ALA found 25 problems with the program, including a shrinking faculty, a lack of a permanent director and poor control of satellite programs
“I think that the university was kind of surprised by the depth and the extent of the support for the school by graduates and other members of the library community,” Eaton says. In a major step, the university in 1986 recruited as its director, Elizabeth Futas, who was widely respected by those in the library world, including officials at ALA, where Futas was a member of the executive committee.
“She was something,” Eaton says of Futas, who presided over a rebuilding of the program, hiring of more professors and other reforms. Futas “believed in librarianship as ‘the last noble profession,’ and her vision for the school had everything to do with intellectual freedom and a strong service ethic.”
As an instructor, then as an assistant professor, then as an associate professor, Eaton taught three courses a semester, “channeling” Professor Bergen, courses that ranged from “foundations of library and information services,” to ethics and intellectual freedom, and to “reading interests” of children and young adults.
In 1995, when Director Futas was only 50 years old, she collapsed and subsequently died, ironically during an American Library Association conference in Philadelphia. The university hired two more directors, including one selected after a national search, W. Michael Havener. Eaton in 2003 was named assistant director, and in 2006, when Havener stepped down, she was appointed as the school’s top administrator.
A year later, in 2007, the ALA’s committee on accreditation put the school on “conditional accreditation,” for several reasons, including inadequate financial support and lack of broad-based planning and curriculum review. But in 2010, after an ALA’s review team had visited the campus, normal accreditation was granted, for seven years.
According to a history of the school compiled by one of its professors, Cheryl A. McCarthy, Eaton’s administration oversaw “a continuous curriculum reform to reflect the changes in electronic information services and the demand for more online or blended courses.” Eaton also was leading the program during the creation of the Harrington School, which put six departments, including the graduate library school, under the same umbrella.
One indication of how the school feels about Eaton’s leadership is that at the 50th anniversary celebration, she was among six persons honored. Her “excellence award” called her a “pioneer in online education for youth services,” saying she developed the university’s first “digital services to youth course,” and that she had created the first online course for students who asked for more flexible scheduling.
Of the efforts for online learning, Eaton says that she, McCarthy and other professors at the graduate school “moved slowly and experimented. She said that “Cheryl McCarthy told me: ‘It’s all very well for you to teach by e-mail – you like to write.’ And I told her: ‘It’s all very well for you to teach on TV- you’re photogenic.’ Gradually, I think we worked out a balance of online and hybrid courses.”
“So my feeling is that we have done yeoman’s duty in the field, and that we’ve managed to give students the skills that they need to be getting on with. We’ve managed to light fires with some of them, and not with others, which I think is normal.”
“But I see students coming back and seeking out my colleagues, with great affection and gratitude, and think: ‘Yeah, we’ve made a contribution.’ ”
Since leaving as director in 2012, Eaton has been named chair of the Rhode Island Coalition of Library Advocates, and she recently sent her publisher a manuscript of her biography about of Alice M. Jordan, who was the children’s librarian at the Boston Public Library from 1902 to 1940.
Jordan had been gone 30 years from the Boston Public Library by the time Eaton arrived in 1970. In fact, Jordan had died 10 years earlier, so Eaton never got to meet her. But as a fledgling librarian, Eaton could still feel Alice Jordan’s influence.
"Any time that I did something that impressed the older ladies who were teaching me the ropes,” Eaton says, “they would say: ‘Oh, Miss Jordan would like that.’” In other words, Eaton says, three decades after Jordan had left, the other librarians “were still channeling Alice Jordan.”
It’s the reason Eaton decided to write a biography about Jordan, and she documented a compelling story of a woman who was the embodiment of what it means to be a librarian.
It was “an ethos about service to children,” Eaton says, “that there was nothing more important that you could do - that it was absolutely essential to give children the best possible stuff; that children deserved not only good books, but also quality attention that you lavished on them – your sympathy, your empathy, the best intelligence and creativity that you could possibly give them.”
It’s something that does not grow old or out of date.
“If Alice Jordan were around now, she’d be fighting to get the best and most appealing materials onto children’s Nooks and Kindles and iPads,” Eaton told me.
“She’d be delving into research on brain development and looking for connections: How does this translate into the development of spirit, compassion, and community? How can we best support the child’s developing mind? She’d be organizing spaces to entice children and teens. She’d be doing just what she always did, with new tools.”
“And being Alice Jordan, she’d be doing it very, very quietly. You probably wouldn’t notice.”
Story edited by Carol J. Young