Digging Into Her New Role as Executive Chief Librarian

August 18, 2022

By Bonnie Eissner

Archaeology and deep CUNY roots color Maura Smale’s approach to leading the Graduate Center Library.

Maura Smale, Chief Librarian, Photo credit: Alex Irklievski
Maura Smale started as executive chief librarian at the Graduate Center in July. (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

Maura Smale, the new Graduate Center executive chief librarian, took the scenic route to her current career. She set out as an archaeologist, earning a doctorate in anthropology while excavating animal bones to understand people’s diet and the climate in eras and places ranging from medieval Ireland to colonial America. Then, in the early 2000s, she veered into digital publishing before deciding to be a librarian. 

“I started to really miss academia,” she says. “Thinking about the way that I could come back to academia and all of the things that I really liked about technology and about publishing and about research and writing, academic librarianship seemed like it would be a really good fit, and it has been.”

Her first library job was as a reference and instruction librarian at Brooklyn College in 2007. She has been at CUNY ever since. Most recently, she was the chief librarian at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology (City Tech), and she has been a professor in the Graduate Center’s digital humanities and interactive technology and pedagogy programs. 

Three weeks into her new role at the Graduate Center, she spoke about how her broad background and interests and her long CUNY tenure inform her approach to leading the Graduate Center library

For one, she is pondering the physical and even virtual spaces of the library. “As an archaeologist, I’m really thinking about space and the way that spaces are used,” she says. “That’s also been really important in my librarianship.” She wants to understand how students and faculty use the library, both in-person and remotely, and how to improve their experiences. 

“It was lovely to have a student on the search committee,” she says. “It’s always great to hear students say that this is the place that they need to do their work, this is the place where they can focus. But thinking beyond that, and for the students who maybe hadn’t said this is the best place for them to do their work, what are some changes we might make that could make this a better place for that?”

Smale is also eager to facilitate access to research. One aspect of this is encouraging faculty and students to publish their scholarship in open-access repositories, such as CUNY Academic Works, which makes research by CUNY scholars available to the public. Other CUNY projects, such as the Manifold publishing platform, created by the Graduate Center and the University of Minnesota Press, allow CUNY scholars publish their own research and to share public-domain texts and textbooks for teaching. 

At City Tech, Smale led a drive to make faculty and student research available in open-access formats, and, she says, “I see my colleagues here at the Mina Rees Library have been doing fantastic work along those lines for so long. I’m really delighted to join the work that’s already in progress.” She adds, “We have an opportunity at the Graduate Center to foreground knowledge for the public good.” 

Threatening this thrust toward accessible research is the ballooning cost of journal subscriptions, particularly in the sciences. CUNY and other academic libraries are struggling to keep pace with the surging prices of journals that publish scholarship their faculty and students produce and use. 

“We need to think about how the funding works moving forward,” Smale says, “and whether or not it makes sense to think about what kinds of funding allocations we want to reconsider that may have traditionally gone to bigger publishers, which just keep raising their prices every year.” 

She is optimistic, though, that the CUNY system, which encompasses 31 libraries, has the muscle to bargain with publishers. “Because we’re a big system with a lot of users, we have a lot of power,” she says. 

Another challenge at CUNY and within libraries generally is increasing the diversity of librarians. “Librarianship as a whole is 87% white,” Smale says. “It is a known concern in the field.”

At City Tech, Smale collaborated with colleagues to make recruitment and hiring practices more inclusive by reframing job descriptions and advertising more broadly. 

She focused too on making the library culture more inclusive. “I hired a lot of tenure-track library faculty at City Tech,” she says, “and we talked a lot as a department about mentoring and making sure that everyone has the support they need as they’re traveling along the tenure track.”

For a couple of years, Smale has chaired the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force of the CUNY Council of Chief Librarians. A current priority of the task force, she says, is preparing CUNY librarians and staff members from underrepresented backgrounds for advancement.

“Sometimes, folks who are in some of our support staff and clerical staff positions are also interested in librarianship, and we have the Grad School of Library Information Science at Queens College that CUNY employees can go to with tuition remission,” Smale says. Helping CUNY employees become librarians boosts diversity at and beyond the CUNY libraries, Smale points out. 

Smale, while still learning about the Graduate Center, is returning to familiar ground. Early in her career she worked for a Disney website, family.com, whose offices were in the same building as the Graduate Center. 

Now that she is back at the same address, she appreciates the 19th-century-department-store splendor of the library, which has retained many of the ornate architectural details of the building’s original owner, the retailer B. Altman and Company. “Going back to my disciplinary history, I really appreciate when old buildings are reused,” she says. “I really love being able to come in and see that this building had a history before we were here and that we are continuing as a great New York institution in this building.”  

She adds, about CUNY, “I do feel like this university is amazing in the work we do, so I’m really honored to be here at the GC.”

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