Following 24 years of service to the University Libraries, Mary Van Ullen retired on March 31, 2021. Before leaving, Mary took some time to sit down and answer a few questions for the Library Update newsletter.
1. What path did you take to the University Libraries?
Early in my career, before the internet was widely available, I was working as a laboratory scientist in a contract lab that performed surface analysis on a huge variety of materials for outside clients. We looked at the surface chemistry of samples ranging from plastic food wrap, to computer chips, to cows’ teeth that had been treated with fluoride toothpaste. While working in the lab, we hired an independent information consultant to do literature searches to help answer some of the questions about the surface chemistry of the materials being analyzed. Having ready access to the literature made a huge improvement in the services we were able to provide our clients, and inspired me to start taking classes part-time towards an MLS degree. I had a few different jobs in corporate R&D libraries, which provided a great opportunity to learn a lot about various aspects of operating a library, but I began to think about moving to an academic library because corporate special libraries tend to be very small, and I found that a bit isolating. Much of my work in special libraries involved doing business research and competitive intelligence. I was very excited to join the University at Albany Libraries as the Business and Economics librarian.
2. What are the challenges and rewards of managing a two-million volume-plus collection?
The biggest challenge in managing an academic library is dealing with budgetary issues. Inflation for library materials, especially electronic journals and databases, has been much higher than the rate of inflation for a very long time. At the same time, there are many more formats, such as streaming video, electronic books, and datasets that are expensive to purchase and complicated to license. In addition, the University has added many programs of study that the Libraries need to support with limited resources.
The biggest reward has been supporting the teaching, learning and research needs of our students and faculty. Over the years, it has been a joy to talk with our diverse student body and understand how using our collections has helped them complete assignments, answer research questions, and explore new ideas. Ready access to a rich collection of resources makes a difference in people’s lives, and it’s been an honor to be part of that.
3. Why did you find it important to continue to publish and achieve the rank of full librarian?
As a member of the academic faculty, I’ve enjoyed satisfying my curiosity through research, and communicating with other scholars through publication is part of the process. Much of the library literature is practical in nature. Research and publication allow librarians to share best practices and grow the knowledge base of the profession. As an administrator, it was sometimes challenging to carve out time for research, but it’s important to make the effort. I’ve also learned so much from collaborating with a number of other librarians on various projects. Continuing on to the rank of full librarian was a natural next step in the process.
4. What advice would you give to aspiring subject specialists?
Obviously, it’s important to stay up-to-date with discipline-specific resources and developments. Equally important, though, is keeping up with trends in academic libraries, research, and publishing. It’s easy to get tunnel vision if you don’t look at the broader picture. Keep your skill set fresh by learning new technologies and skills.
5. How do you plan to enjoy your retirement?
I’m going to take some time to decompress and tackle a few projects around the house that I’ve been putting off for too long. When things get a little more back to normal, we’d like to do some travelling, but that’s not possible right now. In the meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy planning future trips, as that’s half the fun for me. I’ve also got some ideas about possible volunteer activities.