The business of libraries: an interview with Mimi Calter

August 27, 2019
David A Jordan

Mimi Calter is Deputy University Librarian at Stanford Libraries, where she directs strategic planning, manages capital and departmental projects, advocates for library programs both locally and globally, coordinates outreach to faculty and advisory groups, and keeps policies compliant with current copyright and patron privacy laws. In this interview, Mimi discusses a strategic approach to these issues and how her career at Stanford has presented opportunities to grow and to learn.

How do you approach and implement strategic planning?

Stanford Libraries, like Stanford itself, is very entrepreneurial, and we sometimes struggle to focus on single specific goals.  I wanted to start at the top by ensuring that the Stanford Libraries senior staff have a shared vision of the library’s purpose and are agreed on our high-level programmatic goals.  I coordinated a series of meetings over the last year, in which the Directors have developed three programmatic goals:

  • Access: Accelerate knowledge dissemination by making curated collections, people, and space accessible and discoverable
  • Community: Build connections and foster a supportive, stimulating, and inclusive environment within the Libraries and with our research and teaching communities
  • Stewardship: Preserve and steward cultural and scholarly heritage in a digital age in support of research, teaching, learning, and cultural enrichment

These three goals provide a framework that we can all use in assessing any of the myriad projects that might fall in any one of those areas.  We can then make appropriate decisions about where and how to allocate resources. 

Capital projects can greatly impact ongoing operations.  How do you manage the renovation or relocation of library spaces?

I am a big believer in form following function!  Any time we have an opportunity for a redesign or a renovation, we need to start by assessing our programmatic objectives.  This can be difficult, particularly as we often need to envision the desired future state of our program, not just replicate our existing operations. 

Once we have a vision and have specified our need, typically by drafting a program statement, we can build out a design that addresses our core concerns.  Of course, we always want to be sure that the project is in line with our programmatic goals, and inevitably our projects will be limited by space constraints, or budget, or staff time.  But the vision must come first. 

The development of the David Rumsey Map Center was a great example of this.  That project had a detailed program statement that was developed in an iterative process of drafting with many staff and David himself.  The program statement then provided a touchstone for the design and for managing through the inevitable budget and construction issues.

How does Stanford Libraries protect the privacy of those who use its spaces and resources?

Patron privacy is a concern for most libraries, and Stanford Libraries is no different.  We have long been cautious with our patron data and borrowing records, ensuring that we do not retain borrower records that might be subject to subpoena or legal review any longer than is strictly necessary, for example. 

We recently turned our attention to contractual arrangements with third-party databases, focusing on how they manage data about our patrons.  Our staff had raised concerns about a handful of contracts that were going to require users to submit personally identifiable information in order to make use of their services.  We pushed back through negotiation and by producing our own statement on patron privacy, which we were happy to have joined by our colleagues in the library profession. 

As technology changes, and in the era of Big Data, we expect to find increasing demand for more detailed access to user data.  I see this as an area of increasing attention and concern for us.  I’m pleased that we have now had opportunity to comment on the Resource Access for the 21st Century (RA-21) efforts of the National Information Standards Organization, and we will continue to form partnerships to develop standards for library patron data.

What alliances with other professional organizations have you forged? 

Because of my work in corporate libraries, I’ve always been involved with the Special Libraries Association (SLA).  I appreciate the fact that SLA has strong local chapters, which means it can bring people together in a venue outside of a national or international conference.  I’ve been involved with three different local chapters (Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco Bay Region), and in all three have found both professional resources and good friends.  Some years ago, I served as President of the San Francisco Bay Region chapter, which I enjoyed, and which helped me connect with colleagues. 

Since coming to Stanford I’ve become more active with IFLA – the International Federation of Library Associations – and have also found that organization to be a valuable resource.  In some ways it is the opposite of SLA, with no local-level presence at all, but it has given me the ability to build an international network of colleagues.  Through IFLA I’ve developed relationships with librarians in Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Italy, and beyond.  I also appreciate and value the library-advocacy work that IFLA does to ensure that information access is built into the UN’s newest set of development goals and to lobby the WIPO on copyright issues.  

How did your career begin?

I graduated from college with an English major and a Chemistry minor, and spent several years working in scientific publishing.  Eventually I decided to get my MLIS, and while I was in library school, I held two internships: one in a corporate library at AstraZeneca and one in an academic setting at Penn’s Engineering Library.  Enjoying both, I was very much on the fence as to which type of library would offer a more engaging career. 

I initially took the corporate path with PricewaterhouseCoopers and Goldman Sachs.  In both of those positions, I was primarily doing industry research, but was also engaged in knowledge management and coordination of internal information resources.  Some of the most interesting work I did there was providing resource orientation and teaching research methodology to the new hires that joined us each year.  I was also integrated into project teams, following their progress and supporting them with relevant research. I learned a lot in those years and have definitely applied the lessons from my corporate days to my work here at Stanford. 

I made the move to academia because it had always been an interest (hence the internship at Penn), and I was ready to develop new skills.  Much as I enjoyed my corporate library work, it didn’t change much over the years.  Stanford, on the other hand, has offered me great opportunities to take on new roles and new responsibilities. 

Early on, I got to expand my knowledge of copyright law and take on a campus-wide role for copyright support.  I also took on management of a grant-funded project that I did not initiate!  That was a real challenge, but I learned quite a bit about working with grants, about Stanford’s operations, and about US copyright law.  I’m very grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had here to grow and to learn.  

Speaking of lifelong learning, has your 2017 MBA degree been valuable in your work?

I guess my early years in the corporate world had an impact, and I’ve always felt it was important to manage a library as a (not-for-profit!) business.  I was at Goldman Sachs long enough to know how to read a balance sheet, but I felt I needed to improve my financial skills in order to truly understand budgets and participate in developing financial strategies for Stanford Libraries. 

My MBA coursework gave me a better understanding of the principles of accounting that apply to much of the work that we do in our Oracle system. I learned about tools for financial analysis that I now use regularly.  I have also found that the “soft” skills that I developed through the MBA have proven valuable, giving me a much more focused approach to negotiation and a framework for collaborative strategic planning.

Away from the workplace, what is your favorite pastime?

My husband and I love birding.  We often go on weekend excursions to Point Reyes or to Bodega Bay to see what’s moving around, and we’ve taken some much longer birding trips, to places like the Dry Tortugas, the Galapagos, and Belize.  But the great thing about birding is you can do it almost anywhere.  Occasionally I duck out of my office to have a look at the peregrines that roost on the Hoover Tower when I hear them calling!Mimi Calter