What Can the Library Do for You? Polly Thistlethwaite, Chief Librarian, Can Answer That Question (and Any Other)

September 9, 2019

She reveals some surprising facts about the library and why it's far from a discreet storehouse of books and information.




Polly Thistlethwaite, professor and chief librarian at The Graduate Center, leads a team of critical thinkers and librarian educators. Since joining The Graduate Center in 2011, she has increased the school’s participation in library networks to bring meaningful access to the world’s academic and cultural heritage to CUNY scholars and students. She is a dedicated advocate for public scholarship and open access publishing, and is the co-author of Being a Scholar in the Digital Era — a publication that you can access, for free, of course, through the library and elsewhere. At the start of the new academic year, Thistlethwaite spoke to The Graduate Center about how she and her team are turning libraries into “living networks” of freely circulating information.
The Graduate Center: What sort of work do The Graduate Center librarians do, such as political or educational activism, that might seem surprising?
Thistlethwaite: All of us are invested in making The Graduate Center library of service to public higher education. We conceive of the library as a network. We have one of the most well-developed resource-sharing sensibilities in CUNY and in the city. We do a lot of referrals to other collections and a lot of borrowing from other collections to serve CUNY scholars.
We’re trying to crack open the legacy model of libraries. We do not imagine libraries as individual, discreet storehouses, piles of books that affiliated borrowers can treasure and sit on. Our challenge to this legacy model of academic libraries is to insist that books circulate and be borrowed and used, not just by locally privileged constituencies, but shared widely. It’s a democratic ideal that can be achieved only if you imagine the world’s libraries as a living network of evidence, knowledge, science, and art that is more powerful when it is shared, not when it is hoarded.
GC: Our library is also very involved in efforts to make information free. Why is open access so important?
Thistlethwaite: We’re invested in using public funding wisely and responsibly, and we want to make information, especially scholarship produced with public funding, free and open to everybody, not only to people who have a library card to this or that library. People who live around the world, in different economies, or those in our own economy who aren’t students —  they all want to read our work. We view it as a moral responsibility to make CUNY scholarship open to global publics.
CUNY libraries runs a repository called Academic Works. All Graduate Center students and faculty are invited to contribute to it. Most journal publishers will allow authors to publish their work openly, usually after an embargo period of six to 24 months from the time it appears in an academic journal. It takes faculty and administrative labor to make it open, to interact with the publishers of journal articles to find their policies and to ask for exceptions when necessary, to publish work openly. There’s no good ethical or legal reason why CUNY scholarship can’t be free to everybody. But it takes an institutional and an individual commitment to make that happen.
Our most popular Academic Works collection is The Graduate Center dissertation archive. This year about half of our graduates decided to make their dissertations available from the moment they deposited the work as a condition of their degree. Other dissertations will become available openly after an embargo period expires — a period that the authors themselves can set and renew, as they determine.
GC: In so many ways, the library seems to represent or encapsulate the mission of The Graduate Center.
Thistlethwaite: Yes, the library is the university’s touchstone, the symbolic hub of what The Graduate Center is about. Every faculty member and every student interacts with the library to get resources to do their research, and more and more we work with students and faculty on their output and publishing. We’re creating new, different possibilities, impactful ones, for the distribution and preservation of CUNY scholarship.
We’re always focused on putting CUNY student and faculty work in the public sphere — to increase the profile of The Graduate Center, to increase the public service and public good that we’re charged with as an institution, and to raise the profile of our students and faculty. We think it’s a career boost for students to be active, well known public scholars.
GC: What is the most interesting arcane object in the library? 
Thistlethwaite: I’m fascinated with reading and teaching technologies, and we have a small collection of plays that were produced on microcards, probably in the 1960s. We have a little machine that allows projection of the microcard — this microscopic print — onto a surface, and then you can read it. Or, photograph it.
But the projection light blew out, and we can’t find replacements. We are searching for where we can get replacement bulbs for these things, because we want to preserve the original reading technology as best we can.


For an accessible version of the infographic, please view the Library Fact Sheet pdf


Top photo credit: Alex Irklievski