An interview with Librarian, Researcher, Reviewer, Author, Board Member, & Award Winner Brian Coutts

Brian Coutts LPSS1A few months back, we announced that Brian Coutts, Head of the Department of Library Services at Western Kentucky University, is the 2014 winner of the Marta Lange SAGE/CQ Press Award. Brian’s unique, passionate, and active career is truly inspirational. Find out how he does it all by reading the interview below.

1.    First of all, we would love to know why you originally decided to become a librarian. It looks like your foray into academia began in the history discipline. How did you make the change to librarianship?

I completed my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Latin American History at the University of Calgary and then went to Louisiana State University for my PhD where I was also a part-time instructor. During my time at LSU, I was approached by the Troy Middleton Research Library to serve as a sabbatical replacement and become a research archivist for 6 months to a year. Needing money badly, I took this opportunity, which was my first experience working in a library. The 6 months I spent there turned out to be a wonderful experience. With the money I earned and saved as an archivist, I was able to move to Spain to begin researching for my dissertation in the Archivo General in Seville. Based on this research, I returned to Baton Rouge to complete my dissertation. I received the degree in the Fall of 1981.

It was difficult for me to secure a long-term teaching position in history after receiving my degree, so one of my friends suggested I applied to LSU’s School of Library and Information Science. In the Spring of 1983, I received an MLS and that winter, I made my first trip to an American Library Association Conference which resulted in my working in the reference department at the University of Kentucky. I had a delightful experience there with an inspirational director, but less than two years later, I moved to Rice University in Texas to work as a History Bibliographer.

A few years later, an opportunity presented itself for my family and I move to a quieter location back in Kentucky where I became the Coordinator of Collection Development at Western Kentucky University

2.    Are there any exciting things happening at Western Kentucky University libraries that you can share with us?

There are always exciting things happening in WKU Libraries. In January of 2013 we opened our new “Commons @ Cravens” which makes available one-stop access for students seeking reference, technical or writing assistance in a restaurant style computer lab. This fall we partnered with the Student Government Association to add “Courtesy Charging Stations” for cell phones in the main and branch libraries which, along with an ATM and café, drives business to the library. 

We are also all about “engaging the community”—both the campus community and the city.  I helped with the founding of the Southern Kentucky Bookfest, which in this past April held its 16th annual book festival with 140 authors. It was headlined by Charlaine Harris, author of the Sookie Stackhouse series and inspiration for the HBO drama “True Blood” along with Chris Raschka, a two-time Caldecott Medal winner. In partnership with our local public library and Barnes & Noble, we also host an annual free Kentucky Writers Conference which this year drew more than 225 would-be authors. This year, we presented the Kentucky Literary Award to Holly Goddard Jones for her novel, “The Next Time You See Me” as well as a Young Reader’s Book award to Silas House and Neela Vaswani for the book “Same Sun Here.”

3.    This award honors a librarian who has made distinguished contributions to bibliography and information service in law or political science. How do you support law or political studies on your campus?

I have the opportunity to do this in several ways. This year, WKU Libraries celebrated our 80th year as a Federal Depository Library and our 1st year as a Center for Excellence for the Office of the Vice President of the United States as part of the Collaborative Federal depository Program for the Association of Southeastern Research Libraries. Our special collections unit created the “JFK Memory Project” to commemorate the life of John Kennedy by collecting remembrances of his visit to Bowling Green, Kentucky on October 8, 1960 as a presidential candidate.  One person recalled that WKU was scheduled to play a football game on November 23, 1963 the day after the assassination. After long discussion it was decided to play the game without any cheering or clapping as a sign of respect for our fallen president.

We also remembered Joan Mondale following her death in February. She had visited WKU on September 17, 1984 in support of her husband’s campaign for the presidency. To jazz up our annual “Banned Books Week” celebrations, our staff used the theme “Jump on the Banned Wagon” with little red wagons full of banned books in strategic places in our main and branch libraries.  On April 23, we participated in “World Book Night” by donating copies of “100 Best Loved Poems” to our local juvenile detention center and sent a creative writing graduate student to host a workshop at the detention center.

4.    In addition to your work at WKU, ACRL, and LPSS, you are also an active researcher, chair of C&RL News, serve on a number of editorial boards, write for Library Journal, among other impressive duties. What advice would you give to fellow academics who struggle to make time for it all?

Find something you’re passionate about and be persistent. Taking the advice of my LSU library science faculty, I wrote my first book review while still a SLIS student. I began as a reviewer of “Coming of Age Novels” but was persuaded by the Library Journal Book Review editor that there were plenty of people who could do that and asked me to try reviewing reference books which became a career-changing move for me. I was appointed to the Reference Books Bulletin Editorial Board and began reviewing books for Choice and ARBA. In 1987, with the editors of Library Journal, we created the annual “Best Reference Sources” feature which I continue to write 27 years later.  From the expertise I gained from reviewing other people’s reference books, I was able to coauthor several of my own on History Sources and Belize.

My involvement with LPSS began in 1985 when I was appointed history and social sciences bibliographer for the Fondren Library at Rice University, an interest I have continued.

Academic Librarians need to be active researchers and devote a portion of each day to advance that research. Academic Librarians need to be involved in the profession and need to devote a portion of each week fulfilling that service.

5.    In your experience, how have you seen the role of the librarian and the library change at universities over the years? How has this impacted the work you do?

I like to tell my faculty and staff that the library is no longer bound by physical space but is everywhere where we interact with our patrons and our community at large.  We now have a Blog, Facebook page, do podcasts, host video tours on YouTube, have a Twitter Feed, maintain 17 boards on Pinterest where we highlight everything from new artifacts in the library.  We’ve just redesigned our website after student focus groups told us it was annoyingly complex.  We became one of the first libraries in the country to make our catalog available as a mobile app for the iPhone. Our digital repository “TopScholar,” which we launched in May of 2007, reached its one-millionth full-text article download this past October. More patrons use our subject “LibGuides” than ask reference questions. One of our newest challenges is creating an organization which makes a difference in recruiting and retaining students and whose quality can be measured.

However, I think our department’s longstanding motto “Ask Us!”  with its inherent dedication to personalized services with a human touch remains relevant.  What has changed is our method of responding which today may come in an online chat, with a DM or as an embedded librarian in Blackboard.

6.    What is your favorite aspect of your job as a librarian?

I derive the greatest satisfaction with the one-on-one interactions I have with students in my office as I show them how effective search techniques with quality resources can enhance their research projects whether through a five minute speech or a documentary film.

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