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University Librarian Leads an Era of Change for Dudley Knox Library

University Librarian Leads an Era of Change for Dudley Knox Library

To step into the Dudley Knox Library (DKL) at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) today is to enter a busy, vibrant world. Throughout the library, students are diligently absorbed in their work; groups meet to hash out class projects; writing coaches guide students as they craft their theses; friends and faculty grab a cup of joe at Starbucks.

Retiring this May, Eleanor Uhlinger has every reason to be proud of this. Since becoming NPS’ University Librarian in 2006, she and her staff have vigorously steered DKL well into the 21st century, and transformed the facility into the heart and soul of the NPS community.

“When I first walked in for my interview, all I saw were books and journals crowding the entry, and not a whole lot of students,” Uhlinger recollected. “Over the past 12 years, we’ve spent a lot of time peeling back the books and moving very aggressively into online resources and creating lots of study spaces for students.

“We have completely retooled the library from a warehouse of books into an interactive place for teaching and learning,” she added, proudly. And under her aegis, DKL has evolved into an engaging, collaborative environment that actively enhances NPS students’ learning.

“The way students work now is not just going into the library, reading a book, or putting your head down and working,” Uhlinger said. “They work in teams, they problem-solve, they interact with a diverse group outside of their classrooms, and we’ve made a lot of spaces for them to do that.”

Uhlinger is insistent that she accomplished none of this alone: the ‘we’ she refers to is her team of library staff, all working closely with faculty and students, combining their range of skills, experiences and a pervasive interest in advancing graduate education.

“There’s not a lot of ‘I’ in her verbiage; it’s really more ‘we’,” said Greta Marlatt, DKL outreach and academic support manager.  “Her care for the staff, her willingness to let people try to reach beyond their comfort zone and her encouragement to do so … She always emphasized that we’re team players and we need to get things done as a team, and I’ll miss that.”

It’s a common theme amongst DKL staff. Since day one, Uhlinger set the standard for open communication, transparency and a strong corps d’esprit, driven by an underlying desire to serve the NPS community. One of her first actions upon assuming her new duties in 2006 was to ask the staff to set up new offices with their desks facing the door, recalled Sam Hornbeck, DKL resources assistant.

“She’s very open, you can walk in any time,” he said. “Even if she’s piled up with work, she’ll say ‘yep, door’s open, come on in, let’s talk’ and she’ll listen. If you have a good idea, she’ll say ‘do it.’ If you have any problems or need assistance, let me know’.”

Dramatic physical changes to the library soon followed. New paint and carpeting, and new mobile, collapsible book stacks that opened up large tracts of space for students to study and gather.

“We found the space for students and opened the place up to have more of an information commons approach,” Marlatt recalled. “She was able to get the funding to purchase electronics and get rid of the print things nobody wanted anyway. She was aware that we needed to pay attention to the distance students and the fact that people learn differently: students need 24/7 access and not to physically have to come into the building.”

Student services such as the Graduate Writing Center and the Thesis Processing Office were administratively brought under the library, and DKL increasingly became a focal point of the NPS student experience.

In 2011, Stacy DeMatteo was brought on as systems manager, and was tasked with exploring new ways to provide this accessibility, improve services for users, and digitally bring DKL into the 21st Century. With Uhlinger’s backing and encouragement, DeMatteo and her team set out to experiment with various open-source platforms to identify what worked best for the library, and what didn’t work so well.

“Eleanor’s a very forward-thinking kind of leader and really provided us with the tools and time to sort of play with those things,” DeMatteo said. “Most of what we’ve done is self-learned, so she gives us the time to learn whatever we need to learn in order to implement.”

One such success was the implementation of a new cloud-based suite of library search tools which bring together several different library applications: catalog systems, journals search, e-mail and others.

“The students and faculty love it,” DeMatteo said. “Prior to Ex Libris, we had a catalog of books and some journals, which meant people had to go to different databases to find what they’re looking for. This combines everything, so it’s one search; we like to say it’s one search to rule them all.”

University Librarian Eleanor Uhlinger, right, is presented with a certificate by NPS Provost Dr. Steve Lerman

University Librarian Eleanor Uhlinger, right, is presented with a certificate by NPS Provost Dr. Steve Lerman noting her prestigious designation as University Librarian Emerita during a retirement celebration in her honor, May 11. Also presented with the Navy’s Superior Civilian Service Award during the gathering, Uhlinger retires from the university following a dozen years at the helm of Dudley Knox Library on May 17, 2018.

Another resounding success for NPS has been the establishment of its digital content archive. The Calhoun Institutional Archive is a free, publicly available digital repository of every student thesis, dissertation, faculty publication, technical report and NPS research data set. Since going live in 2012, Calhoun has burgeoned into upwards of 60,000 searchable documents, dating in some cases back to 1923.

“It’s become a huge success; the statistics for use are just off the map,” said Irene Berry, DKL digital services librarian. “It’s one of our most head-and-shoulders popular features online when we do our monthly reports of the things we offer; it’s amazing to me.”

Berry is responsible for Calhoun, but she credits Uhlinger as its driving force.

“It’s a project that she’s been very close to and really believes in,” Berry said. “I think that was a remarkable, visionary idea to have public access to the work we’re doing at NPS: we raise the profile of what we do in providing our content to the world for free.

“I don’t think anybody else in the Department of Defense had done that, but that was Eleanor’s idea: we’re going to get it out, we’re going to hand it back to the community that paid for it.”

Perhaps the most immediately visible impact Uhlinger has had on the day-to-day life of NPS students and faculty has been bringing the campus Starbucks into the library.

During Uhlinger’s first week on the job, she was walking around the library and stopped to chat with a faculty member, who mentioned how great it’d be great if there was a place to get a cup of coffee – at the time, there were no vending machines in the facility.

Immediately thereafter, she was approached by a student asking where the suggestion box was located; the student suggested being able to get a cup of coffee while in the library.

“So I got talking to some people in [Morale, Welfare and Recreation], thinking maybe we could get one of those little coffee machines or a little mess, and look what happened!” she beamed.

Uhlinger was able to procure some end-of-year funding that allowed DKL to collapse the library’s collections down into compact, mobile shelving units which basically halved the previous space requirements.

This freed up considerable areas which could now be used for interactive student study space, including 2,500 square feet for Starbucks.

That initial student suggestion note is now framed right inside the library entrance from Starbucks.

“It’s a place where students, faculty and staff can interact in a completely different environment,” Uhlinger explained. “They can have a cup of coffee and chat; they can bump into one another, then walk into the library; they can study quietly or collaboratively.

“The students get to decide what they need at the time,” she continued. “We worked really hard to make those spaces so they have all those opportunities. There was no place like that on campus, and the library seemed the right place.”

What makes the story of NPS’ Starbucks stand out, beyond a potentially well-caffeinated campus, is how well it epitomizes Uhlinger’s leadership. It is the positive exemplar of being responsive to community needs, synergistically blending services and space in new ways, and literally moving mountains (of books) to make this happen.

Uhlinger’s leadership has moved the library’s presence and relevance forward at NPS, according to DKL reference librarian Kathy Norton.

“I feel like the library is, because of her initiative, the heart of this academic institution,” she said.
“She’s not afraid to take on projects that she thinks will benefit the campus, the institution or the library,” Norton continued. “Sometimes library cultures tend to be more status quo. In contrast, when you have a director like Eleanor who isn’t just satisfied with the way things are, who’s always looking for new ways to improve, it really stands out.”

Uhlinger’s success has been magnified by her ability to work within the NPS administration and culture, unique in the academic world with its blend of military, federal and civilian entities and requirements.

“The whole time Eleanor has been here, she’s been able to sit at the table with the deans, chairs and on numerous committees,” said Ann Jacobson, DKL research and instruction librarian. “From day one, she went about understanding it and learning how to navigate it. She’s been incredibly effective at that and just has so much credibility on campus.”

“She’s definitely emphasized outreach and connecting with the various departments,” added Glen Koué, fellow DKL research and instruction librarian. “There’s more of a connection with the rest of the school and letting people know that we’re here to support them.”

In recognition of DKL’s seismic transformation, Uhlinger received the prestigious 2009 Federal Librarian of the Year award. From over 2,000 federal libraries worldwide, she was selected for her innovative leadership and professionalism in providing information services to the NPS community.

“Uhlinger’s emphasis on assessment, metrics, budget oversight and improved efficiency, combined with er commitment to the collection, preservation and access to [NPS’] research, publications and history, made [DKL] more proactive in serving the current and emerging needs of the faculty, students, staff and alumni,” the award reads.

Now it’s nine years later, and Uhlinger has not relented.

Amongst other things, for example, she has built a design space in the library basement, where students and faculty can come to creatively experiment with new ideas.

“We decided to make a design space because when we peeled back the furniture and put things on compact, mobile shelving, we suddenly had this great space,” Uhlinger recalled. “So a bunch of us went down one weekend and painted the walls with white board paint, bought some Legos and went down to the warehouse and got some used tables and just started using it.

“We’ve been pretty creative,” she laughed. “It really gets people thinking differently. W\e’ve got pulleys; we’ve got Playdoh; sometimes you can mock up a really quick prototype of something that you’re thinking about, and that’s the point: you’ve got an environment to help them design on the fly and think creatively.”

Thinking in new and exciting ways is par for the course with Uhlinger, and there are no signs of that abating with her retirement.

She has a weekend gig working at local wineries, and she and her husband bought an old house in Monterey which they’ll renovate and garden.

“I want to get out and do a lot of hiking and explore this beautiful area,” she said. “Every time I go outside, I realize people vacation here and I’m actually living here, so I’m really looking forward to doing that.”

Uhlinger will officially step down May 17, and her duties will be continued by associate university librarian Edward Corrado, who will serve as acting university librarian.

Her departure will open up worlds of opportunities for her successor, she said, especially in enhanced learning and teaching, and data manipulation, visualization and analytics.

“I would just urge my successor to continue to make DKL an integrated part of the campus team,” Uhlinger said. “We’re not a school, we’re not a department, but we’re here for everybody and we reach out to everybody and participate as much as possible in their activities.”

“I’d like to see my successor continue that.”