UC Berkeley has chosen a new University Librarian, Suzanne L. Wones, who is associate university librarian for discovery and access at Harvard Library. Wones, with 20 years’ experience as a leader in academic libraries, will start her new post July 1, following University Librarian Jeffrey MacKie-Mason’s retirement.
In a recent interview with Berkeley News, Wones said a love of libraries, which she developed in childhood, is part of her family tree, which includes her maternal grandmother, who was a town librarian, and her paternal grandmother, whose passion for libraries was honored after her death with a scholarship for library students.
The best part of being a librarian, said Wones, "is being part of the solution" for those searching for the right resources to gain knowledge and advance their research. At Berkeley, she’ll be chief executive officer of a system of 20 campus libraries, working with faculty, staff and students to keep the UC Berkeley Library strong, pivotal and relevant for today’s users.
Berkeley’s commitment to open access — the free, immediate, online availability of research published in journals and books — attracted Wones to the position, as well as the many other ways the campus strives to remedy global inequities.
"At this point in my life," Wones wrote to the hiring committee, "I would not work for an institution that did not expressly call out this work as a strategic priority." She pledged to bring that mindset to Berkeley "and strive to create a culture at the library where we acknowledge that we are constantly learning, growing and working together to create local and global change."
The following are excerpts from that Berkeley News interview.
Berkeley News: What drew you to the position of university librarian at UC Berkeley, and to the campus?
Suzanne L. Wones: I’m deeply honored to be invited to lead the UC Berkeley Library. It is an amazing collection and a renowned system. I’m eager to build on the work of University Librarian Jeffrey MacKie-Mason and the library to promote the principles of open access and to digitize the remarkable collection held by the library. At Harvard University, I’ve been a tireless advocate for digitization and making the rare and unique items in our collections free and open for scholars worldwide. I oversaw the creation of the Harvard Digital Collections platform to make the more than 6 million digital objects, currently available to all, more discoverable and usable by researchers.
I also am deeply committed to the work of confronting systemic racism and biases in our society, and it will be invigorating to work for an institution that calls out that work so prominently for campus leaders.
I’ve heard many great things about the UC Berkeley community and am looking forward to being part of it. I especially am eager to get to know and lead the UC Berkeley Library, which is filled with special people and spaces and collections. I’ve heard the library staff described as some of the most engaged and dedicated employees imaginable, and I’m eager to work with them to find out about their biggest challenges and greatest opportunities. Every day, the library’s users on campus and around the world benefit from their unique and important work.
On the day I visited Berkeley, the sky was a brilliant blue, and I could not believe how beautiful the campus was. While I can’t wait to explore all parts of campus and every corner of the libraries, I am most excited about meeting my new colleagues and engaging in the intellectual work of the university.
Where did your interest in libraries begin?
I have always loved libraries. I grew up mostly in Blacksburg, Virginia; my family moved there when I was in third grade, and we frequently went to the library. I remember once, when I was in middle school, my father, who was a professor of geology, took me to the Virginia Tech library specifically to show me their amazing new online catalog. He loved libraries, as did my mother.
It wasn’t until I started library school that my mother told me that my maternal grandmother had run the public library in Ayer, Massachusetts. She had become the town librarian after leaving the field of nursing to raise a family. My other grandmother also was a nurse. When her husband, my grandfather, retired, they settled in Normal, Illinois. After my grandmother passed away, he set up a scholarship for library students in her name due to her strong love of libraries. It was fun for me to see support for libraries on both sides of my family tree.
Your passion for racial and social justice also has deep roots. Tell us about that, how it’s led you into action for change and how libraries can help address inequities.
Throughout my academic and professional career, addressing the inequities in American society has been one of my most deeply held values. Studying history as an undergraduate at University of Massachusetts in college opened my eyes to the damage done to marginalized groups in the U.S. since its earliest days. When I earned my master’s degree in American history at University of New Hampshire, I focused explicitly on issues of diversity and wrote my thesis on the intersectionality between race, gender and American identity in African American women’s organizations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As a resident assistant in a graduate student dorm, and later as a library employee at the University of Michigan’s Shapiro Undergraduate Library and at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government Library and Harvard Law School Library, I learned how important it is to foster inclusive communities where everyone can feel safe and supported and do their best work.
In my role today at Harvard Library, I’ve been fortunate enough to drive projects designed to further our university goals of equity, diversity, inclusion, belonging and antiracism (EDIBA), including through digitizing materials from our special collections that highlight the experience of underrepresented populations and launching a partnership with Historically Black Colleges and Universities to increase their digitization of archives and special collections.
I also co-led with Dr. Jerome Offord a renovation of a generic reading room in Harvard’s Widener Library into a reading room with a browsing collection focused on EDIBA issues and perspectives, as well as a project to strengthen the infrastructure for digitization and digital preservation of collections pertaining to African American history stewarded by historically Black U.S. colleges and universities.
Libraries are stewards of and incubators of knowledge. As we support the creation of new scholarship, we can help address inequities by making sure that the wisdom of a wide variety of cultures, communities and individuals is published, purchased and preserved. In our spaces, we can celebrate the panoply of discoveries made by a vast variety of individuals. We can also make sure that everyone feels welcome in the library and is comfortable availing themselves of all our services.
What role do you see for generative artificial intelligence at UC Berkeley Library?
Digitization is simply the first step in making collections more accessible. The exciting developments in generative AI being released to the public in the past few months have demonstrated how much potential digital collections have as mass sources of information and data. At Berkeley, I will engage with my university and library colleagues to ensure the library is an active member of opportunities and collaborations to enact ethical uses of AI using library content and in the instruction of students and faculty on the deployment of AI tools.
The Center for Connected Learning at Moffitt Library could be an ideal place to center this work. The center is an exciting opportunity to redefine the student library experience, and my background driving digital initiatives positions me well to bring this vision to life. I’m eager to engage faculty, students, library staff, alumni and donors around this transformative project.
Whether helping a student find a resource they didn’t know existed or helping a department rethink how it is achieving its pedagogical goals, the best part of this field is the chance to help scholars advance their research and create new knowledge.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time, and what’s on your list to explore as a California newcomer?
I like hiking and spending time in and on the water — swimming, kayaking and canoeing — so I’m looking forward to discovering the trails and coast of Northern California. I’ve also long wanted to dine at Chez Panisse. I’m moving here with my husband, Scott, and our 19-year-old son, Henry, who is a freshman at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and our two cats, Simba and Macy.
My indoor hobbies include visiting museums, so I look forward to the Bay Area’s cultural institutions, and reading, naturally. I’ve recently finished Ruth Simmons’ autobiography, Up Home, and Lydia Millet’s latest novel, Dinosaurs. Both are beautifully written, and Dinosaurs features many descriptions of the desert heat, which is a nice escape from the winter cold.