To draw more faculty to library, Gelman on lookout for historic collections

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Gelman Library will tweak its furniture set-up on the third floor after completing its two-year $16 million renovation last fall.

Within months, the nation’s largest collection of materials on former British prime minister Winston Churchill will move into the first floor of Gelman Library.

And as the University aims to raise its research clout, library staff are looking to nab more collections like the National Churchill Library and Center – which came with a gift of $8 million for GW to hire professors and curators to preserve the materials.

Gathering top collections is challenging though, especially for a library whose collections budget has been frozen for the past decade.

Newly hired University Librarian Geneva Henry has tasked several library staff members to focus on special collections alone, spending time seeking well-known collections. She started a search for Gelman’s first associate librarian charged exclusively with overseeing special collections.

Henry, who was hired last summer, said bringing in special collections would help elevate Gelman into a modern library, but that the challenge is finding valuable and well-known collections that will add to GW’s research prominence without tacking on extra costs or taking up too much space.

“I am looking for somebody who can be more aggressive and is good at interacting with people who can convince them that they really want to give us their special collections,” she said.

Provost Steven Lerman said GW wants to be selective when deciding on collections, but big gifts can be tempting when donors offer to cover the costs of the collections and can endow professorships surrounding their collections.

“We need to pick those things in which there is value to the collection as a resource, not simply because we have anything that’s sort of interesting, but as a resource that can’t be easily replicated otherwise,” Lerman said.

To do this, librarians will work to attract donors with collections that would be applicable to researchers across departments, Lerman said. Collections could cover topics like international security, which would appeal to many researchers, he added.

GW’s largest donation, the Albert H. Small Washingtonia Collection, will be attached to the textile museum, opening later this year. GW has looked to increase donations overall in the last year, as it sits on the brink of a massive fundraising campaign set to begin.

Jennifer King, interim director of special collections, said expanding the resources in the library will attract more faculty into the library for research and interaction with students.

“We try to have scholarly discussions about a topic, and if you have collected material about a subject it’s easier to coordinate with faculty so they can talk about their research experience,” she said.

King said the amount of funding attached to a specific collection is one part of GW’s decision about which to bring to campus, adding that most donor funds are used to help digitize materials.

Henry, an expert in digitization, has said she plans to digitize more of GW’s collections to make more space for students, but the process is slow and costly.

Last semester, she helped convince top administrators to boost Gelman’s budget for new collections – which is now about $4 million annually.

Digitization has become common at university libraries, which are often crunched for space, but acquiring special collections that are harder to put online can make the library and university a destination for researchers.

The special collections at Pennsylvania State University are mostly based on alumni donations and faculty support, its director Tim Pyatt said.

He said faculty have helped drive the collections, and many are motivated to donate because they can then use the materials in their classes.

“The biggest selling point of giving is that they’re really supporting the education process,” he said.

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