The Library Cafe is a radio interview program broadcast Wednesdays at Noon during the academic year on WVKR (91.3FM) hosted by Vassar Art Librarian Thomas Hill. Featured each week are conversations with authors, artists, curators, and librarians about books, exhibitions, libraries, and the formation and circulation of knowledge. The program begins for the 2017-18 academic year on Wednesday, September 20 at noon with an interview with author, pilot, and Vassar alumna Sally Van Wagenen Keil (VC ’68) on her narrative history of the Womens Air Service Pilots corps, Those Wonderful Women in Their Flying Machines. Also featured on the roster for this semester are interviews with Vassar’s new President Elizabeth Bradley about her book The American Health Care Paradox: Why Spending More is Getting Us Less (Public Affairs, 2015), Vassar Professors Molly Nesbit and Tobias Armborst (Midnight: The Tempest Essays; The Arsenal of Exclusion & Inclusion), and an interview with the conceptual artist and art historian Michael Corris (Leaving Skull City: Selected Writings on Art).
Tracy Sutherland assumed the role of Head of User Services in the fall of 2016 and we finally sat down to learn more about her journey to Vassar. If you want to learn more about Tracy or have questions about the library please join her for Books and Bites on Tuesday, August 29 from 4:30 to 6:30pm – there will be snacks!
Would you please provide a brief overview of your job title and duties?
I consider myself the LODO librarian, so that means lights on, doors open. I am the person who makes sure the library is open on time, and closes on time, that there is someone always available so that the students, faculty and staff always have access to resources here. I am responsible for Interlibrary Loan, reserves, collection management (basically the books in the stacks) and circulation.
What inspired you to become a librarian? What is your favorite thing about being a librarian?
There were two reference librarians at Smith College who were really supportive and influential in making me think positively about having a library career, but what really made me finally decide to become a librarian was my sister Stephanie Dunson. I have many favorite things I love about being a librarian but one in particular is searching and hunting for things. Finding things that are really difficult to find for people. That’s one thing that I really love about it.
What did you like or not like about the other libraries or positions you have worked at?
I came into the libraries when computers were just beginning to start to really take over and card catalogs were being taken away, so having to be nimble within technology was really important and I loved doing that.
At one point I sat at the reference desk when the librarians needed someone to cover it during their weekly meetings. That was really when I realized, ok, I can do this, because at that desk I was so terrified about what question was going to come, what if I didn’t know where to look or where to go? But then I realized I do know how to do this.
What appealed to you about the VCL?
Having worked at Smith and Amherst College I wanted to come back to that feeling of community, closeness and intellectual thinking. I wanted to hear conversations that were meaningful and important and I knew I’d find it here and I have.
What do you hope to bring to the Vassar Libraries?
I hope to bring color to the campus, in a variety of ways, but I also bring my expertise and it’s always good to have new people with different experiences and views.
Is there anything that has surprised you about the VCL, the college or the region?
The food has really surprised me in a good way, in a really good way. What surprised me about this library is how big it is, and I think it is because of the length. I’ve never worked at a place where the circulation desk is this far from me. Usually the circulation desk is part of the User Services/Access Service office. Another thing that surprised me was the fact that I can’t work at the circulation desk, that was really surprising, kind of a let-down too because I like to talk and meet people that way, but it then makes me find other ways to reach the community.
What or where is your happy place (outside of the library)?
I really do look forward to coming to work every day, but my happiest place is with my pups, because they are hilarious and they keep me active, so I am really glad I have them. My other happy place – I love playing video games.
If you didn’t become a librarian what do you think you would have liked to have done professionally?
I wanted to be a fireman when I was seven. But I think I would have been teaching children’s dance. That was one of the things I wanted to do and that’s the one thing I still enjoy, teaching kids how to move themselves through space.
To get things started, can you give a brief overview of what you’ll be doing in your position with the Vassar Research Library?
My official title is Social Sciences Librarian. I’m part of the team of research librarians, so I’ll be doing many of the same tasks as my colleagues in the research department. I’ll be working with students answering reference questions and providing support in that way and I’ll be a liaison for most of social science departments and a couple of programs on campus. I’ll be working specifically with economics, sociology, political science, urban studies, and Africana studies.
What motivates you? What (or who) inspires you to do what you do?
In general, I’d have to say I motivate myself. But I care very deeply about actively contributing to the common good. What inspires me? Black people. We excel, create beauty, and inspire envy and wonder, often in spite our circumstances.
You’ve mentioned your work as a food historian. Can you elaborate on your experiences with that? What led you to that field?
I’ve written lots on African Diaspora and Middle Eastern food. I’ve traveled around the world to give presentations on African Diaspora foodways and I’m working to build a foodways library focused on Afro-foodways. I’ll actually be working on that this summer with a Ford Scholar. I began working first as a food writer while living in France, an experience that led to my first article on Algerian pastries being published in Gastronomica. I’ve been on a hiatus of sorts for the past few years but I’m slowly re-entering the field with a few new ideas I’m developing to pitch in various places.
What advice would you give to Vassar students?
I was a high school teacher in Chicago for a long time, which was often pretty tough. I’ll share the different things I tried to impress upon them in my classroom back then, things I think are pretty universal. Most of it has nothing to do with academics or school necessarily and everything about how to navigate the world as a decent human being, something we all need reminders of but especially now in our current climate. Understand that all actions –good or bad, positive or negative- have consequences. Just because you might not like the consequences doesn’t mean you didn’t have a choice in arriving at them. Be generous of spirit, and always do things with a pure heart.