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New Library Executive Director Cheryl McGrath is a ‘Disruptor’ Librarian

By David Ertischek ’01
Cheryl McGrath head shot
Cheryl McGrath

Cheryl McGrath’s first day as Emerson College’s Executive Director of Library and Learning was July 1. With more than a month under her belt, McGrath, MFA ’01 sat down with Emerson Today to talk about her short-term goals, what type of librarian she considers herself to be, and what it feels like to be back at Emerson.

Q: How’s your first month on the job?

McGrath: Glorious. Everyone is happy to be here at Emerson. I love being a part of that, and people are happy to help me learn everything I need to know and get me moved into my office and are really going the extra mile. Human Resources and IT and Finance were launching Workday the day I started, and Facilities is launching the Little Building and the [new] dining hall, so everybody should have been super stressed out, yet people have a really great attitude about change, moving forward, and bringing on new colleagues. 

Q: What do you do in your position?

McGrath: In my first couple of weeks here, Korina Figueroa from [Instructional Technology Group] and I were walking down the street and Tim Riley, the chair of Faculty Assembly, was walking behind us. Tim knows enough about libraries to ask, ‘What kind of librarian are you?’ — because there are rare book librarians, teaching librarians, metadata librarians — and it really gave me pause, because I’m not a stereotypical librarian. I’m an access services librarian, and the thing I’ve been most passionate about is equality of access to resources.

After thinking about Tim’s question for a couple of days, I realized the kind of librarian I am, based upon my work history – I am a disruptor. I come into a place and I figure out all the ways people are working together, or not having the opportunities they want to be able to work together, and where there are access points that aren’t equitable, and try to improve the experience for patrons, faculty, students, and staff.

Q: How big is the staff?

McGrath: I have 21 colleagues in the library. That includes [Director of Academic Assessment] Ed Morgan, who oversees learning assessment for the faculty. And learning assessment is one of the programs I am excited about for this job, because I think there are so many opportunities for librarians who are in classrooms with students working on developing information skills to ensure that students are developing critical thinking skills when it comes to information, and there are opportunities for learning assessment from an information skills perspective and the outcomes perspective in the classroom.

I like that at Emerson we are emphasizing the relationship the librarians and learning assessment have with faculty and students. By putting it together, it’s acknowledging our service to the faculty and expertise in information skills and learning assessment in order to help the students be as successful as possible and to give faculty the latest tools from these fields.

Q: What are your short-term goals for the job?

McGrath: My short-term goals are to exhaust everyone with my 10,000 questions… I’d say really to understand how everything works at Emerson. And figure out how we are serving all three campuses — Boston, [Emerson Los Angeles], and Kasteel [Well]. I was talking to Mikhail Gershovich, academic director for the ELA campus, about how libraries are something people know exist, and yet we need to remind them in the age of Google what specialized services we can provide. I was talking about being more explicit with faculty in ELA to meet some of their needs with them and the services that some of them assume are on the Boston campus.

Q: Like what?

McGrath: Course reserves and online learning modules. If you’re a faculty member who wants to have readings outside of a particular series of books or textbooks, they’d put them on reserve. How do we make sure students aren’t hitting a paywall when googling content that we have free access to through library subscriptions? If you need to schedule a research consultation with a librarian, how can we create online learning modules to get you started and make sure students are using their precious resource of time optimally? It’s the equity of access I’m passionate about. We know students have jobs they’re going to, extracurriculars, some are commuting — we can try to prioritize equitable access to collections and consultations.

Q: What are your long-term goals for the job?

McGrath: I’m focused on developing one of Bob Fleming’s legacies, the Comedy Archives. When I worked for him 23 years ago, he mentioned once that he always donates to the [Faculty and Staff Giving], and at 26 years old, I thought, ‘Why would you do that?’ He explained, ‘It shows the institution I believe in the work we’re doing.’ That made sense to me, so since then, I have donated at different jobs to study abroad opportunities. Here, I decided I want to help fund the American Comedy Oral History Interviews. So in my first few weeks, I set up a recurring gift from my paycheck that will go to the Comedy Archives in Bob’s honor. The interviews with comedians in the Comedy Archives are amazing in their depth and breadth; a recent interview was with Stephen Wright and will be available online this fall. 

Q: How does this library differ from other libraries where you’ve worked?

McGrath: Our collections are supporting a liberal arts education that will inform our alumni’s creative and critical work, in addition to specific areas of study. I helped move us into this building 20 years in 1999, making sure all the screenplays and musical scores made the move, and the College has been diligent about adding study spaces on several floors of the Walker Building, which I greatly appreciate.

Cheryl McGrath with Bob Fleming after she was named the first-ever Emerson College emeritus of the library staff.
Cheryl McGrath with Bob Fleming after she was named the first-ever Emerson College emeritus of the library staff

Q: You began your career at Emerson. When was that, and what did you do while you worked at Emerson the first time? 

McGrath: I began my academic career at Emerson in 1996, having worked at a public library before. I started out as a graduate student assistant, then an evening circulation manager, to daytime circulation manager, and then promoted to exempt daytime circulation manager. And when I left, Mickey Zemon, the library director before Bob, who hired Bob, declared me the first-ever Emerson College emeritus of the library staff [and they gave me a plaque], and I kept it all these years. 

Q: Does the library staff need to prepare the library for the beginning of the school year? If so, what needs to be done?

McGrath: The library has a unique program for faculty called the Course Design Spa held at the start of each semester. We co-sponsor the event with ITG and the [Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning]. The idea is that faculty can spend a day in one place with a variety of academic support services and enjoy different “treatments” from these consultants. Faculty can get a jump-start on rejuvenating their courses before the start of classes. In addition to librarians, instructional designers and technologists, and faculty mentors, we also have folks from [Student Accessibility Services], the [Writing & Academic Resource Center], Media Services and Lab Operations, etc. This year we’re very excited to include the new Director for Faculty Development and Diversity, Tuesda Roberts. Oh, and did I mention we also have free chair massages for participating faculty? This summer’s spa is coming up soon, on August 20. 

Q: What is your favorite book of all time?

McGrath: I’m a terrible favorite book person nowadays. My favorite book 20 years ago when I was here was The Bone People by Keri Hulme. Fifteen years ago, my favorite book was Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth. I just finished Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and have been recommending it. I have a summer reading passion for Irish and English murder mysteries, and during the academic year, alternate novels and books on education. Now, 20 years later, with life experience, I no longer have a single favorite book. I have books that speak to me in different seasons. 

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