Interview with Gillian McCombs

Central University Librarian Gillian M. McCombs joined SMU in June of I998. Following is an interview by Curt Holleman, deputy director of the Central University Libraries, which highlights McCombs' background as well as her goals and vision for the future.

What attracted you to your position at SMU?
I wanted to be the director of libraries at an institution that valued the traditional and special collections of a liberal arts curriculum, yet at the same time maintained a commitment to technological advancement. Many institutions that I had looked at as possible choices were either very much behind the technology eight ball, or were so far ahead that they were actively questioning why they needed to buy any books at all. It seemed to me that SMU might be the institution with the blend of technology and tradition that I was looking for.


Central University Librarian Gillian M. McCombs

Tell us a little about your background:
Why did you become a librarian?

I always think of myself as being born - not with a silver spoon in my mouth, but a silver book. I knew I was going to be a librarian from my earliest days. My grandfather was the chief librarian at the Dewsbury Public Library in Yorkshire, England, where I grew up. I spent my earliest years walking to the library every Saturday morning with my father. I did not play house when I was a little girl, but library instead. My only modification to this long-range goal was that around the age of 16, I decided that I would be a university librarian. I went straight from getting my Bachelor of Arts in French and European Literature at the University of Warwick, to library school in Leeds and then on to my professional career.

What were the most significant events in your career before coming to SMU?
The first would have to be receiving the grant from the New York State Council on the Arts to put on an exhibition and series of programs using the materials from the Historical Children's Collection at the University of Albany, State University of New York. This was the first grant I had applied for, and getting it funded was a wonderful emotional and professional boost. The collection itself is now fully endowed in its own special collections room.
My second significant incident has to be earning my Master's in public administration at the University at Albany. I learned so much in the areas of human relations, management, statistics, economics, American politics, labor/management relations, and just plain old humility. In fact, I credit that degree with giving me many of the skills that I use today in SMU's Central University Libraries.
What is your sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the Central University Libraries?
I believe that one of the Central University Libraries' greatest assets has to be the staff, who, for not very much money, work long and hard to serve their users. This is one of the first things that faculty tell me, before going on at great length to tell me how much more money we need to spend on library materials. Which brings me to the main weakness in the Central University Libraries - our level of acquisitions funding. The SMU Libraries as a whole represent the third largest library system in the state behind the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M. There are some wonderful and unique collections here. But our current collection has lost ground steadily since the middle I98Os. The high rate of inflation in serial subscriptions, particularly in the sciences, heavily impacts our ability to support the teaching and research goals of our faculty and students. Overcoming this handicap and regaining our lost momentum while still breaking new ground - particularly in the area of electronic information and services - will be a real challenge.
Do you see significant changes in higher education in the next 10 to 15 years? Do you think that there will be less emphasis on the college campus and more on distance education?
All of the above, which is why it will be difficult to acquire the resources to do it all. Teaching and learning have become more collaborative. There are many cognitive learning styles, and the library needs to provide for all of these. Learning and teaching need to be free of artificial space constraints.

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