The Librarian Is In: A Conversation with Joseph Salem, Duke’s New University Librarian

Photos by Janelle Hutchinson, Duke University Libraries

Joseph A. Salem, Jr., joined Duke University on August 15 as the new Rita DiGiallonardo Holloway University Librarian and Vice Provost for Library Affairs.

A nationally recognized university librarian and information literacy expert, Salem comes to Duke from Michigan State University, where he has served as Dean of Libraries since 2018. Following the recent announcement of his appointment, Salem sat down with us to discuss his background, coming to Duke, his initial priorities as University Librarian, and his thoughts on librarianship and leadership.

Welcome to Duke! Tell us a little about what drew you to this role. 

About five years ago, I was fortunate to spend a week at Duke as a member of the Association of Research Libraries Leadership Fellows Program. We visited three different universities in the U.S. and Canada as part of that program. I kind of fell in love with the campus and the libraries while I was here. It was the only university we visited where I kept thinking, “I would love to work here one day.” There are some universities where the libraries have to work hard to make a case for themselves. That’s not the situation at Duke. The libraries here are obviously held in high regard by the students, faculty, administration, and alumni. There’s a shared sense of their value as an asset and a point of pride for the institution. That obviously makes the University Librarian’s job easier. But it also tells you an awful lot about the overall values of the university community. So that was a big attraction. I’ve never worked at a private institution, and I didn’t take the transition lightly. If I were going to do it, I wanted it to be somewhere where the community felt as strongly about the value of libraries as I do.

Salem chats with library staff members at a welcome reception on his first day at Duke.

During the search process, you spoke with a number of library stakeholders and learned more about initiatives currently underway here, such as the Lilly Library renovation, our anti-racism roadmap, efforts to support Duke’s expanding science and technology programs, and so on. Can you talk about what you’ve learned so far and how that has shaped your sense of your first priorities as University Librarian?  

The Lilly Library renovation is obviously a significant priority for the next several years. Being part of such a large project that will benefit students and the entire campus is exciting for all of us. Another priority is to start asking ourselves what comes after Lilly. Over the last seventeen years under Deborah Jakubs’ leadership, the Duke Libraries have been focused on significant renovations and facilities projects, all highly successful. That’s not to say we won’t care about or still have those kinds of needs in the future. But there will necessarily be a kind of shift in our funding priorities, especially as Duke enters its next capital campaign. We need to engage new and diverse groups of library supporters and get as many people involved as possible in stewarding our future.

Another thing I would point out is the strategic growth of unique collections in the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Those collections are growing into significant points of pride for the university. What should our direction be going forward, in terms of what we acquire? And what is our digitization program for those collections? We already have a strong reputation for excellence and innovation in digitizing rare and unique collections, and for prioritizing open access and open content. Such incredible collections, combined with incredible technical expertise, are an exciting combination. Seeing where they take us next is a high priority for us.

“We need to engage new and diverse groups of library supporters and get as many people involved as possible in stewarding our future.”

What are some of the big opportunities you see ahead for the Duke University Libraries? 

I’m a big proponent of partnership. And at Duke, the Libraries are known as good partners. Looking at President Price’s strategic priorities, there are a lot of opportunities for us to get even more involved in efforts aimed at building campus community. For instance, I was impressed with the recent library exhibit on Duke’s Latinx community. That’s a great example of bringing our collections and expertise forward to let Duke students and community partners tell their own story, so that they find themselves represented in our collections and spaces. It’s a way to advance a broad university initiative, but in a way that highlights what’s unique about us and our role as the Libraries. There are other partnerships and opportunities I’m excited about as well, such as getting more involved in the arts initiative being led by the Provost’s Office, supporting efforts to build better learning and living communities, and developing an even stronger working relationship with Duke University Press.

Salem and Dracine Hodges, Associate University Librarian for Technical Services, who served as Interim University Librarian over the summer.

At Michigan State, you led several efforts to build a more diverse and inclusive library environment. What worked well, and what lessons have you taken from those efforts? 

One lesson I’ve learned is that it takes efforts on both a large and a small scale. On the large end, for example, is a project we had at Michigan State to make our main library building more accessible. There was one accessible entrance on the south side of the building. But that’s not the entrance most students use. The flow of traffic is through the north entrance, near the bus stop. If you have mobility issues, you have to go all the way around to the back of the library to get in. And it’s Michigan, so there’s snow on the ground for a good part of the year. We had been trying for years to get the university to build a ramp to our north entrance, but we kept getting nowhere. What that plaza in front of the library needed was a more general overhaul. So we built a coalition that included the Libraries and the MSU facilities office, as well as the botanical gardens and the museum, which also border on that plaza. We got some funding to do a feasibility study to turn that area into an outdoor learning space, including a ramp to the library. And in the next capital campaign, that will be a fundraising priority for four different campus units, which makes it very accomplishable. What worked well in that case was figuring out who your partners are and building a coalition to get things done.

On the smaller end of the spectrum, even seemingly little things like being attuned to other people’s perspectives can make a difference. For example, at Michigan State, we had the Cesar Chavez collection, and we wanted to create a study space around it for Latinx students. But when you looked at the space, there was a painting of Chavez on the wall, and right next to it were all these photos of past library directors—all of whom, for the most part, looked like me. It just felt so different from what we wanted for that space. So we removed those photos. It’s not that we were ashamed of our past. It’s just that those photos could be presented elsewhere or differently. As a result, the space felt more welcoming to our Latinx students, and it cost nothing.

Salem in his office with (left to right) Jocelyn Castro, Library Administration Staff Assistant; Emily Daly, Interim Associate University Librarian for Research and Public Services; and Naomi Nelson, Associate University Librarian and Director of the Rubenstein Library.

Building strong relationships with student and faculty partners has been a big focus of your own career in libraries. What’s your approach to building partnerships across campus, and why is it so important? 

It’s important because partnerships are what the university was designed for. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about Duke. It feels like a partnering environment. In a partnership, you have to be willing to make decisions together. Stakeholders advise each other. But when you invite people in as a true partner, you have to let them play a part in deciding on direction. That’s not comfortable for everyone. Some people don’t want to give up control of their idea or initiative.

The partnering approach lets us maximize what resources we have. But it also helps us maximize expertise. We have faculty experts all around us who understand the legal, disciplinary, and economic landscape we work in, just by nature of the work they do. It’s a lot easier to leverage their expertise than to hire someone or go out and find a consultant.

Another by-product of bringing people in as your partner is that you end up with a wider network of people who understand what you’re doing as a library. Likewise, when you partner on their initiatives, they see the unique value of the library and the expertise we bring to bear. So there’s nothing but wins across the board when you can work that way.

“I’m a very future-oriented person,” says Salem, “and I find that libraries are a wonderful way of building something for the future.”

What about the people who work here? How do you build a workplace culture that encourages collaboration and makes people feel valued?

A number of years ago, a colleague of mine used a baseball analogy to ask this same question. He essentially asked if I was a player-friendly manager, and I think that is a good way to sum to describe my approach. I can’t imagine there being any other approach to this job than being down on the field with everyone else, working as a team. The role I’m in is one of creating general direction and resourcing us in such a way that we’re able to do our work and advance our careers in the best way possible. I hope that as we all work together, our library colleagues find me to be collaborative and focused on their success and well-being as people. I find the best way to get work done is for it to be work you find valuable and fulfilling, and I want that for everyone who works here.

You also have to establish a level of trust and be transparent about making decisions. With big organizations like ours, it’s a systems approach. You can make a well-intentioned decision about something happening over here, and it has an unexpected ripple effect way over there. So then you go back to those decisions and address any unintended consequences. We have to create a level of trust where we can do that.

“I’m a big proponent of partnership. And at Duke, the Libraries are known as good partners.”

Can you back up and tell us what led you to pursue a career in libraries in the first place? How would you describe the challenges and rewards of doing what we do? 

I’ve always loved libraries. I grew up in a suburb of Cleveland called Maple Heights, and we had a large and beautiful public library. When I was young, my mother got a job in that library. So we spent a lot of time there, and libraries were an interest of mine early on.

But my original plan was not to go into librarianship. When I was in grad school at Kent State, I had a job in the library. But I was planning to pursue a Ph.D. in cultural theory, and I had started working toward that by earning a master’s in English. Then I became involved in a couple of national grant projects related to information literacy, and I was really enjoying the work. I realized that even though I still wanted to earn a Ph.D., I didn’t want to leave the library profession. So I changed my focus to evaluation and measurement, which tied in with the information literacy work I was passionate about.

I’m a very future-oriented person, and I find that libraries are a wonderful way of building something for the future. Obviously we play an important role in preserving the past. But the question is always to what end? In academic libraries, we do it for the benefit of future generations. We’re contributing to education, which by definition is focused on the future.

The challenges of our work are many of the same challenges that other industries and professions are dealing with. Workforce issues, stability issues, supply chain issues. Our values are also being challenged an awful lot, not so much in academic libraries but in public ones. Any challenge to our profession is a challenge to all of us. When you see books being banned, calls for defunding public libraries, legislatures getting involved in what’s appropriate for libraries to collect and what’s not, those are anathema to us as a profession and we all have cause to resist and push back. Even if we’re not personally involved, even if our library is well supported by our community, we have reason to support those who are under attack.

“Partnerships are what the university was designed for. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about Duke. It feels like a partnering environment.”

Great libraries are one of the defining features of great universities. But we would be merely good without the generosity of many individuals who believe in our mission and want to support us. What are your thoughts on the importance of philanthropy to our work?

There are so many good things out there people can support with their philanthropic dollars. When they choose to support us, that’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly. Alumni and donors who give to the Duke Libraries usually do so either because they had a great experience at this university, or because they find that the work we’re doing aligns with their own personal values. That support is essential, and not just from a budgetary standpoint. Our alumni and donors have so much more to offer than just their financial support. There’s a high level of professional expertise among people who give to us—expertise in the digital domain, intellectual property law, publishing, and related areas that are important to a modern research library. There’s a lot of mutual benefit to figuring out how to leverage that expertise and what we can learn from them. All of that is to say, there are a lot of different ways to engage with and support the Libraries.

Obviously this library system has benefited tremendously from the generosity of many people who support our work. The upcoming renovation and expansion of Lilly Library is just the latest example of that. A project like that doesn’t happen without the sustained support of our alumni and friends, and it’s absolutely vital to our continued success. It has gotten us where we are now, and it has built the libraries that made me want to come here.

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