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INTERVIEW
"WE’RE GOING TO BRING
THE LIBRARY TO YOU"
Barbara Rockenbach on Community Building
During a Pandemic
Interview b...
mid-June. I brought a friend and we sat on the Green. We
felt like we were part of an intimate community because
everyone ...
community here. My husband was an undergrad here.
Both of us came back to this area with a sense of belon-
ging. Some of h...
"We're Going to Bring the Library to You:" Barbara Rockenbach on Community Building During a Pandemic
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"We're Going to Bring the Library to You:" Barbara Rockenbach on Community Building During a Pandemic

This interview with Barbara Rockenbach, Stephen F. Gates '68 University Librarian, comprises a conversation series with librarians on research during COVID-19 led by The Yale Historical Review.

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"We're Going to Bring the Library to You:" Barbara Rockenbach on Community Building During a Pandemic

  1. 1. INTERVIEW "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. T 1YALE HISTORICAL REVIEW FALL 2020
  2. 2. 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 toNewYork.Butyoualsonotedthedifferencebetween 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 create relationships even though we're not together.” Barbara Rockenbach is a Stephen F. Gates '68 Unviersity Librarian. Photo courtesy of the Yale University Library Website ON THE NEXT PAGE 2 BARBARA ROCKENBACH
  3. 3. 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 communities. “After months of creating connections online, we suddenly had to develop a new way of reading people. We had to relearn interpersonal relationships.” 4 BARBARA ROCKENBACH

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