Leadership & Library Technology: Reflections, Insight, and Advice


Photo: Karen Estlund in construction zone for new Center for Immersive Learning, to open fall 2019, Pattee Library, University Park, PA.

Many thanks to Karen Estlund for sharing her story!

When I was a graduate student pursuing a Master’s degree in Folklore (10 years ago!), I needed a job and put in an application at the university library. I was delighted to receive an email from the library’s digital collections coordinator, inviting me to come in for an interview. Revealing my own naivety and utter lack of knowledge about digital library services at the time, I responded by asking if I should meet her at the “digital collections desk,” which, looking back, was a hilarious notion. I learned quickly that there was no such desk, and Karen Estlund hired me as a student assistant to work on a specific digital collections project, which opened the door to my work in libraries over the next several years and the career path that I am on today. As my supervisor at my first library job, Karen Estlund has been an invaluable mentor, inspiring role model, and supportive friend over the years. My greatest hope for all current and future library school students is that they can find a mentor as impactful and insightful as Karen. I would definitely not be where I am today without Karen’s guidance and advice. Over the past 10 years, we have organized projects, planned events, presented at conferences together, and kept in touch despite changing roles over time. Karen is now the Associate Dean for Technology and Digital Strategies at Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

Interview with Karen Estlund:

Question (Q): So we can get to know you a bit, what is your favorite song, book, and TV show?

Answer (A):

  • Song: of the moment (changes a lot), “I’m only happy when it rains,” Garbage
  • Book: Blue Sword by Robin McKinley
  • TV show: Avatar the Last Airbender

Q: What does your work as an Associate Dean entail?

A: Collaborating with others in the institution and university, particularly IT and Research; working with others to set vision and direction for technologies and spaces to meet current and emerging user needs, ensuring IT security for the libraries, and letter writing (tenure, grants, awards, letters of support, etc.). It’s also part of my job to help set the tone for the culture in the library and to support us all in being the best we can. That means spending a lot of time helping others think through their professional development, committing and exploring ways of increasing diversity and inclusion, and practicing transparency and openness. It also means recognizing my own need to grow and develop with a lot of self-reflection.

Q: What do you like most about your job?

A: That as an administrator I can help facilitate ideas; I love watching people light up with a new idea and being able to say, “yes, let’s try that.”

Q: What aspects of your work are the most challenging?

A: I love “the why” and thrive on change; I always want to learn more. These things are not true for everyone. One of the hardest personal challenges for me is to take a step back, pause, and meet others’ differing orientations and needs with patience. Another challenge that I think gets glossed over is the isolation that comes with management and administration positions. It’s lonely, and you should have a support structure external to your direct workplace if you want to pursue.

Q: How did you get to where you are today? What challenges did you face along the way, or still face?

A: I am privileged to be a white middle class cis woman who went to a private college and worked in the college library as a federal work study student. The librarians there were generous and trained me on AACR2 and original cataloging. Most of the challenges I have faced are sadly on the typical gender in technology side of things. There are still people who refuse to give women credit for advances in technology. I have had people attribute my success in the library technology field to other library technologists who happened to all be men and had cycled through an innovative technology project. The common factor, me, certainly couldn’t have been influential on this technology project or part of why it was successful despite those significant staff changes.

Q: What was your first job after graduating from library school, and how did you find it?

A: I was hired as the Technology Instruction Librarian at the University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library. My graduate assistantship at the University of Washington (UW), working with faculty to transition in-person courses to online, was key. I don’t remember how I found it; probably ALA joblist.

Q: Describe your dream job:

A: I am in my dream job; I always wanted to direct technology but in a context-rich mandated environment that explores how people access information. Recently, I have been doing additional Associate Dean roles working with collections, subject libraries, special collections, instruction, and welcome desks, which has been revelatory in how I think and work in the complexity of libraries as organizations.

Q: Is there anything that you have learned in the “real world” that you wish you had learned in library school?

A: I had an excellent management course from Nancy Gershenfeld. I would have liked more courses on management and the running of a library, assessment, making cases to politicians, administrators, etc. Justifying what we do and why was missing from the library school curriculum, because, I think, largely those in library/iSchools believe in it so much that it is overlooked. There is a bit of scoffing at business justifications and models in academia in some corners, as well, but we need to know about them to either use those strategies or argue against them.

I also loved the database class I took back in the day, but I was frustrated that we talked about the back-end and then the front-end but not how they were connected. The instructor encouraged me to learn on my own, so I picked up the O’Reilly Introduction to PHP. Understanding the connections has always been super important to me, and I was glad to learn how it worked. I wished that we had learned those connecting concepts, even if not programming per se, in library school.

Q: Do you have any advice for current and future library school students?

A: Click on everything! Explore! Learn how to compromise, assess the politics around you, and listen. Do not use anthropomorphism as a scapegoat for thinking critically or to dehumanize others. Communication is a multi-way avenue, so don’t wait around and say, “no one told me.” Ask questions!


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