A Farewell Q&A with Elaine L. Westbrooks

June 7, 2022

On May 31, Vice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian Elaine L. Westbrooks will leave Carolina to become the Carl A. Kroch University Librarian at Cornell University. As Westbrooks’ tenure at Chapel Hill ends, we asked her to reflect on her time at the University Libraries and to share some thoughts for her successor.

Illustration by Claire Lorraine Audilet ‘22 / The Daily Tar Heel. Used with permission.

You came to Carolina in 2017. How has the University Libraries evolved over the last five years?

The distance that we have traveled is simply amazing. First, we are a more innovative and audacious organization, committed to standing out rather than laying low. Second, we are a bolder organization in the ways that we fulfill our mission, serve the campus community and demonstrate our value and impact for North Carolina and beyond.

Third, we are more resilient. We have been through so much in these past two years, and this has made us stronger and more agile in times of uncertainty. Finally, we are a more inclusive organization, committed to dismantling systems that perpetuate inequity. We think much more about removing barriers for users and overcoming past practices that distanced us from underrepresented communities. We believe that everyone belongs in the library and that our services, spaces and policies should make that possible. I am extremely proud of this evolution and the hard work done day in and day out by talented staff who have no shortage of brilliant ideas.

How has your time here helped you grow as a leader?

I think of my ability to lead through two distinct time periods: pre-pandemic and now. At the beginning I was very much focused on alignment, policy making and removing barriers to success—all means to changing culture. Once the pandemic hit, I began to focus more on values. What is important to us as a community? How do we take care of ourselves and each other in these perilous times? My focus shifted to cultivating an organization dedicated to equity, well-being, compassion, flexibility, empathy and community.

I know that I am a stronger leader now than when I arrived, and I owe this improvement largely to the people who report to me and to the tremendously talented and dedicated staff of the University Libraries. I have grown as an advocate to ensure that the Library is at the table and gets what it needs. I have learned how to be a better storyteller to demonstrate the power of libraries. I have improved my ability to communicate why libraries are critical to democracy and an essential piece of social infrastructure to help students and communities thrive. The largest growth area for me has been in learning how to be a leader dedicated to advancing equity, inclusion and accessibility—to make our organization stronger and truly accessible to all.

What accomplishments are you most proud of during your tenure?

I’m proud of the work that we did to create the Sustainable Scholarship Initiative (sustainablescholarship.unc.edu). I don’t know if our campus truly understood how bold we were in canceling our big contract with the major publisher Elsevier. It makes me proud of the researchers who have made sacrifices and the Library staff who managed a great deal of change yet continued helping people get what they need. Our subject liaisons and technical services staff did the heavy lifting that made this all work.

The Reckoning Initiative (library.unc.edu/reckoning) has also been transformational. We have agreed that being a more inclusive and equitable organization starts with us. Many organizations love to talk about inclusion. We want to DO something. We have increased the diversity of our organization by more than 35% since 2017. We virtually eliminated fines because they harm those who can least afford them. We have begun refining our appointment and promotion procedures and have analyzed compensation with an equity lens. We have prioritized making digital collections accessible to all. We are a leader in community-driven archives. We are learning together about racial equity and how inequity negatively impacts everyone. All these actions are a result of a dedicated staff committed to doing great work on this campus and in the profession. I’m proud of the fact that we are known for this work and that our peers look to us for guidance and expertise.

Finally, I’m tremendously proud of the way our staff launched into action at the beginning of the pandemic to help each other and to sustain well-being across the organization. The focus on well-being was not really in place before the pandemic, but I’ve come to believe that it is essential for a healthy organization, not just during a crisis, but all the time.

What do you most want people to know about the University Libraries?

People should know that the University Libraries touches and engages every part of the University. Not only do we help students learn, but we also help them become skilled creators of knowledge. The Library makes possible the research, teaching and clinical work of scholars at Carolina through the collections we build and the expertise of librarians and archivists. The fact that we preserve human knowledge for future generations is a unique responsibility. The collections we acquire today will drive research long into the future.

I also want people to know that, despite the pandemic, despite hits to the budget, the University Libraries is strong and just getting better. With the leadership team and staff that are in place, the phenomenal support of faculty and administrators and the Friends of the Library Board of Directors, things are in excellent hands.

What advice would you have for Carolina’s next University Librarian?

Other than embracing the amazing Library staff, the campus community, donors and alumni, I would say that it’s important to build and nurture strong partnerships and coalitions. Student groups, faculty, staff and administrators all need to know how the Library can add value to whatever they are doing. The University Libraries can help any and every unit achieve its goals and objectives, so make those connections and opportunities. You are in a very special place that believes deeply in public service and the greater good. The University Libraries is essential to every part of that mission.

Story by Judy Panitch.

Story from Windows magazine, spring/summer 2022.