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7 Questions with Syracuse University iSchool Professor Barbara Kwasnik

7 Questions with an LIS Professor: Barbara Kwasnik

Editor’s Note: This is the eighth in a series of posts profiling the iSchool’s Library and Information Science (LIS) faculty. Check out previous 7 Question posts with R. David Lankes, Renee F. Hill, Jill Hurst-Wahl, Jian Qin, Marilyn Arnone, Barbara Stripling, and Ruth Small

“I think it is important for women to allow themselves a life of the mind.”

When I heard Barbara Kwasnik say this, I knew it would stay with me for a long time. This is not something she said flippantly, nor was it meant to be a profound moment. Rather, it is just ingrained in how she lives her life. She is passionate about her research and about the field and is constantly looking for new connections between ideas and how to rethink ideas. She can be counted on to bring a fresh perspective to any issue. Barbara specializes in classification theory, which on paper can seem dry to some of us, but she contextualizes it in unexpected ways making it interesting and relatable – just ask about her assignment based on The Simpsons (or watch the video below).

Right now, Barbara is developing a new class in tandem with Syracuse Libraries to explore research in the context of libraries – IST 700: Research in Libraries. It is a multi-tiered class that engages doctoral and masters students as well as librarians in a research project. It won’t be just an invented project but actual research for impact, both for the SU libraries and for the profession. While I’m pleased to graduate, I admit that I’m jealous of those of you who get to take it.


(Questions answered: What is your headline? What is your claim to fame, or in what area do you have bragging rights?)

KM: Which Social Media do you prefer (If no social media, why not?)

BK: So I’m, I would say, a low volume social media user – which doesn’t mean I haven’t signed up for every single one. But what I found is that I like to use them full throttle, and then it just takes up to much time, so I’ve let them lapse. The only one I stick with is Facebook, and I don’t do it for work – I do it only for keeping in touch with the next generation of my family, and there’s a few friends on there, too. It is amazing that with 15 friends, you can still spend quite a few hours on there!

KM: What is the one website you couldn’t live without?

BK: At the moment, my favorite is fivethirtyeight. It is a statistics site and right now they are covering the elections. But they also do sports and I’m a baseball fan so I like to read the baseball stats. I don’t care that much about the stats about baseball, but I like reading about stats as used in baseball. Kind of geeky, but I like it. They cover other interesting topic areas as well.

KM: What is your favorite local hangout?

BK: Every day I take my dog to the local baseball field and meet up with people there. When I don’t go there, I take him to Jamesville Park, which is hundreds of acres of off leash walking with your dog – plus it has a creek and a swimming hole. The only other thing there, which is kind of funny, is a Frisbee golf course. Whoever designed a park for dogs and Frisbee golf must have had a sense of humor! But it doesn’t seem to matter – it is big enough! It is great all year around!

KM: What was your aha moment, when you knew you wanted to dedicate your professional life to the information field?

BK: I had a friend who was a librarian and she described her job to me. She was a librarian at Bard which seemed so nice. Of course, I went to library school, and she quit! I don’t know what it was that drove me there – I’m a person doesn’t make decisions in a systematic way – I’m a diver! Whatever angel pushed me in, it was the right one. I liked everything about library school. I could not decide what I wanted to be – everything from paper conservation (until I found out you had to have courses in organic chemistry and, well …) to public librarianship. But I wound up being a cataloger, which suited me just fine! It appeals to both the intellectual and practical parts of me.

KM: What do you think makes the iSchool LIS program different from all the others?

BK: So I’ve been here a long time and I would say our Library Science program hasn’t changed very much. I mean, we’ve added courses and we’ve ebbed and flowed through different phases. There was a time when everyone wanted to be a business librarian, then special libraries, then academic libraries – and now it seems to be a bit of public libraries.

That’s not what makes it special – not anything like that. What makes it special is we are little bit like, to quote Sarah Palin, mavericks. I wasn’t here before we had an Information Management program, but even before, we always thought of ourselves as guiding the profession as opposed to following the profession. So one example, in the beginning when I first got here, was our deep immersion in information retrieval. Most of our doctoral students were LIS students – many of them did degrees in information retrieval and then went on to found companies and work at universities. Now I notice we are moving towards data science or something similar. So we are always pushing it a little.

Which makes it so that getting accredited is a little bit of a nail biter, because people come to evaluate and see they can see how wonderful things are here, but it doesn’t quite fit the mold. Nobody wants to say straight out to the accreditors, “Well excuse me, we’d like to decide what would be good for librarianship.” It isn’t that we want to ignore practicing librarians. But what is the point of preparing students for their first job if we want to prepare students for leadership positions? So many of our graduates go on, and sometimes really quickly, to become directors and leaders. So I think what makes us special is kind of an attitude. If we think of an idea, we feel almost obliged to follow it up. I like that. I like that very much.

KM: What is the craziest (most positive) development you see actually happening in the LIS world?

BK: It isn’t actually the craziest, but in the time that I’ve been a librarian the thing that has changed the most, for the positive, is that the field of librarianship is no longer seen as just support. Just an example that I’ve seen from being on the university curriculum committee: it used to be that you would send your syllabus to the library and the librarian would say, “Yeah we’ve got the books.” Now it is a completely different process. You send your syllabus to the library and they get to work on supporting that course. Tasha is a great example of this! It is much more suggesting things, bringing things to people’s attention, advocating, and including faculty. That’s very hard to do – any academic librarian will tell you how hard that is. And then also instruction – the whole linking of librarianship of all kinds, from children’s all the way up, to lifelong learning. There used to be a debate, believe it or not, of whether that was really the purview of libraries. School libraries, obviously, but even there it used to be seen as a support feature of teachers. And now that is one of the most flourishing areas, and I think that is really amazing.

That’s what I like – the integrations of librarians into teams. I think another of the places where that happened is in corporate libraries. Where librarians are part of the team, so as the project develops, the librarian is assigned to that project in an ongoing way. I always liked that idea. It also means that librarians can create projects and be creative with their programs and so forth.

KM: What was your favorite part or moment of graduate school? (proudest, most fun, etc…)

BK: When I was in library school, my favorite part was that I just liked everything. It was just such a happy time for me. Part of it is that, because of the way the profession is organized, many people come to library school already having some experience. Many times, I’ve found with many students, it is after kids go to school or you get a divorce or you’ve already done something for a while. So librarianship is like a haven almost. I’m noticing now that we have many more students coming into library school directly from undergrad and I’m wondering if that is going to make a difference. It is neither good nor bad, but there is a little bit of something different going on there. Maybe it is better because there is a lot to learn now with technology and everything.

There isn’t a time in my life that I’ve been ashamed of this profession. That’s saying something, right? It fits my political and social activist perspective. It suits me to be in this profession that is both caring and interesting. It’s not embarrassing to have a life of the mind. So the real aha moment, though, came in my PhD studies where I discovered research and theory. I didn’t know how theory functioned – I thought, well there is this theory which I’ve only thought of as explanation, but I never thought of it as a guide, as a way of funneling ideas or representing ideas so that they could keep that knowledge train moving. You can’t learn it quickly and you can’t just expect to be able to think that way or just acquire it. It is one of those things like piano, it takes a while, you have to practice to feel comfortable with ideas and it only gets better as it gets older.

I used to worry when I was reviewing an article that I’d have nothing to say, but you realize – there is always something to say and it feels comfortable. Where else is there a profession where you can get stronger as you get older, right?

KM: What gets your endorsement this week?

BK: I’m designing a class on field research in libraries, meaning it is going to be an actual project in the library on some problem that has yet to be identified but it is going to be a problem that requires a holistic approach to looking at it – not a survey or an experiment. But instead something where you observe, talk to people, and do some background research – possibly a case study. So the class is going to be designed in such a way that the library science students will be learning about research stuff, but also real life problems in libraries and how you go about looking at them or investigating them systematically in real life. The librarians will be obviously doing the same thing, but they already know about the real life part. So they’ll be learning a suite of tools that they can use – how to use various interviewing techniques, various observation methods, various sorting, etc. And then the doctoral students will learn how to manage a research project – from soup to nuts. In other words, everybody will be doing the same thing but each group will have a different sort of emphasis and responsibilities.

At the end, we’ll have done the study and written the report, but you’ll also have learnt some research techniques – even if we don’t use them in the study. In other words, it will be a course, but also a real live project. I think it’ll be interesting. Librarians have been itching to do this but they have not been able to because they have been so stretched for time, and this current library director is very eager to get going. I’m hoping it’ll become something that can go into the future. So you get new students, different librarians – kind of like a think tank, research thing in the library.

Katrina Maust

Hi! I'm Katrina, a Masters candidate in the Library and Information Science program. As a classic jack of all trades, I have a background in fine art, public libraries, marketing and event production. Also I'm an info news geek.

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