"We're Going to Bring the Library to You:" Barbara Rockenbach on Community Building During a Pandemic
"WE’RE GOING TO BRING
THE LIBRARY TO YOU"
Barbara Rockenbach on Community Building
During a Pandemic
Interview by Henry Jacob SY '21 Transcribed by Michelle Medawar JE ’24SEPT. 8, 2020
You first came to New Haven as a Kress Fellow in
1998. But you did not return to the same library this
July. How did it feel to come back to Yale at a social
distance and after years away? Yale and New Haven
have a powerful pull on me. I was 22 years old when I
moved to New Haven. I'm from the Midwest. New Ha-
ven was my first East Coast experience. The culture I
found here – in the incredible intellectual home that is
Yale – transformed me as a librarian and as a person.
It still resonates with me after 20+ years and during a
pandemic. The city feels like a vibrant intellectual place,
even though it's just a percentage of what it could be
when all students and faculty are on campus.
I want to relate your comments about the vibrancy of
New Haven to the Arts and Ideas Festival. I know that
you have served as a board member for some years. As
a viewer, which performances have left an imprint on
your mind? There are so many. But I'll tell you the expe-
rience I'll never forget. It was the festival in 2012 when
Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road ensemble played the New
Haven Green. It was pouring rain on a Saturday night in
his afternoon I have the honor to speak with Barbara
Rockenbach, Stephen F. Gates ’68 University Librarian,
about reconnecting with Yale as well as the importance
of creating novel connections to New Haven.
1YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW
mid-June. I brought a friend and we sat on the Green. We
felt like we were part of an intimate community because
everyone sat under umbrellas together. The music soun-
ded incredible paired with the intense weather.
Maintaining intimacy with the community is of
course far more difficult this summer. How have you
connected with your colleagues without seeing them
in person until now? When I got here, I wanted to build
trust. Since July 1, I’ve been holding what I call “staff
meet and greets.” Once a day, I spend 45 minutes talk-
ing with three to five staff members. First, staff members
introduce themselves. They tell me about their job and
then something they love about it. Then I give them
the opportunity to ask me questions and offer advice.
I don’t make any assumptions about the library or the
university just because I've been here before. The library
is a changed place, particularly after Susan Gibbons’s lea-
dership. I find it really illuminating to have staff give me
advice. That has provided me the opportunity to build
some of that intimacy that you mentioned. We need to
create relationships even though we're not together.
You mentioned the word relationship a few times.
The pandemic has forced us to find new ways to
connect not only with people, but with our surroun-
dings. Unable to travel, how have you established a
novel understanding of your living environment? I
have a running list of lessons learned during the pan-
demic, and one of them is to appreciate the quotidian. I
feel particularly lucky because I'm back in a place about
which I care a lot. I've savored the ability to walk down
these streets. I also have an eight and a 10-year-old that
grew up in New York City and are experiencing New
Haven for the first time. I get to see it through their
eyes, too. They marvel at the silence compared to New
York City. New York has a lot of incredible things for
kids and for adults, but I love having that quiet, to hear
the wind through the trees.
You mentioned the quietness of New Haven in relation
your hometown and the East Coast. What do you miss
from the Midwest? We thought about that a lot this
summer because we usually spend two to three weeks in
Wisconsin. My parents live on a lake and I like to kayak
and camp. I jokingly asked myself for years how I could
raise Midwestern kids in New York City. The answer was
simple: have them spend a good portion of the year in
the Midwest. They need to be with their grandparents
and feel the independence of being outdoors. Many New
York City kids don't have this experience, so I wanted my
children to have that. I am glad that my children still got
some of this outside time in New Haven this summer.
My son was able to bike a mile away to the Lawn Club
for his camp. This wouldn't have happened in New York,
especially not during the pandemic.
Your mentioning of camping reminds me of a first-
year orientation trip I did called FOOT. We spent
a week hiking without electronics. I loved the ex-
perience. But one night the skies opened up and it
started pouring, similar to the time you watched Yo
Yo Ma and the Silk Road ensemble at the Green. Do
you have memories of a great trip that bad weather
interrupted? For years, I would kayak on Lake Superior
in an area called the Apostle Islands. These amazing litt-
le islands are two to three miles apart, so you can always
see where you're going. It's a lake, but it's quite far north
and things can blow in very, very quickly. I remember
one trip in particular. Everything was calm in the mor-
ning after packing up the campsite and kayaking to an
island then feeling that storm coming in and the water
getting choppy. It was the kind of thing where kayaks
in front of you would disappear into the troughs of the
waves. Luckily, we got to land, but I've never moved so
quickly in my life.
Unfortunately, Connecticut is not a state of lakes.
But there is still plenty to do here. What do you ap-
preciate most about New Haven as a place? I love the
“We need to
even though we're
Barbara Rockenbach is a
Stephen F. Gates '68 Unviersity Librarian.
Photo courtesy of the Yale University
ON THE NEXT PAGE
2 BARBARA ROCKENBACH
community here. My husband was an undergrad here.
Both of us came back to this area with a sense of belon-
ging. Some of his classmates are around because they're
working for Yale or live in New Haven. I've reconnected
with a lot of people as well. I love to swim and I swam
with the Yale masters team last time I was here. I've re-
connected with that group and they swim in the Sound,
so it’s just the ability to kind of re integrate, even though
we’ve been gone some time now, into a community that
is incredibly welcoming. I went to Nica’s yesterday mor-
ning before we went on a hike to pick up sandwiches
and I ran into someone that I hadn't seen in years. they
had that moment of “what are you doing back here?”
It's just this kind of community where people tend to
stay because it's a great place to live. There's so much
culture here, the university, of course, but also the Art
and Ideas Festival, which we've already discussed. There
are really compelling reasons to be here. People say
New York is the greatest city. I lived there collectively
for almost 15 years, and there are things I miss about it,
but it doesn't have the same community. You can never
have the same sense of community in New York as you
do in New Haven. You just can't. It's too big, too diffuse.
I love walking down the street and running into people
that I know and you just get that sense of belonging that
I think is unique to New Haven.
On the topic of transitions, how have you navigated
the shift to in-person interactions at the library over
the past week? My first two months were completely
online and last week we came in — it was exhilarating.
It felt amazing to have faculty and students back in our
spaces. I also met some of the staff for the first time,
which was wonderful. But I'll also say this: I found it
exhausting. After months of creating connections on-
line, we suddenly had to develop a new way of reading
people. We had to relearn interpersonal relationships.
We also have to adapt to new methods of teaching and
learning. How do you facilitate these academic bonds
among professors and students in New Haven and
across the world? We need to ensure an equitable ex-
perience for everyone. That is why we have tried to get
collections online. That by no means deprecates print,
because I think many have come to appreciate the ma-
teriality of objects. At the same time, we need to ensure
that our services reach people no matter where they are.
This is why we created a mail to address program where
you can get materials whether you’re at home in Cali-
fornia or in Saybrook. We’re going to bring the library
to you. To the beginning of your question, I agree about
the power of spaces for human relationships. I'll tell you
what doesn't work well on Zoom: brainstorming, crea-
tivity, feeding off of someone's energy or their ideas.
For example, I just went to lunch with one of our major
library supporters – someone who's on our university
library council and she's this incredible woman who is
a patron of the arts and in fact made a very generous
donation recently for an exhibit space in the Sterling
Library. We spent two hours together and our idea ge-
neration was unmatched. I could have spent three days
on Zoom and we never would have gotten to the same
place because her energy fed my own and ideas flowed.
That's really hard to replicate online.
I like your phrase “the materiality of objects.” What
do you enjoy most about obtaining special collec-
tions and incorporating them into libraries? I had the
honor of being the interim director of the Rare Book
Manuscript Library at Columbia. I learned that the best
part about bringing in new special collections is the
people that come with them.
The papers of Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance
Theatre of Harlem, serve as one example. When he
came to speak, incredible dancers from Harlem came
to honor the work he did for their lives. That's an incre-
dible thing about special collections, they really form
“After months of
online, we suddenly
had to develop a new
way of reading people.
We had to relearn
4 BARBARA ROCKENBACH