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Q&A with Associate College Librarian Pam Harris

Pam Harris

Harris commissioned film noir-style business cards for library staff this year. 

McCabe Library can be a daunting place for new students. A cache of collections and catalogs, from tactile to tech. But students need not navigate it alone, as library staff like Pam Harris, associate college librarian for outreach, instruction, and research, can guide students through their new home away from class.

Harris joined Swarthmore almost 20 years ago as a weekend reference librarian and has worked her way up methodically. “I think I’ve had a different title every two years since,” she says, laughing. Harris now leads the research and instruction team in guiding students throughout the process of selecting and informing research topics, among many other roles. Whether it’s presenting to a class, dropping everything to help a student at the 11th hour of their deadline, spending the afternoon at the research and information desk, liaising with the modern languages, or running a peer-tutoring program, no two days are the quite same for her.

Recently, Harris took time to discuss the ways in which the library has changed over her time there, the rich offerings of today’s McCabe, what she likes most about her job, and more.

What are the biggest differences between McCabe then and now?

The first thing that comes to mind from when I started is that iconic red carpet, a very deep red that was original to the building. Beyond that, we didn’t really have internet capability then. We did have the LexisNexis database, but only two political science classes had the password to use it. The whole place just felt really different. Today, it's a really interactive, dynamic, people-friendly place.

Do you think the College community knows all that McCabe offers?

I think it’s hard for people to know what a wealth of resources we have here. I don’t even know all of it, really. We’ve got these amazing special collections and archives. Incredible access to full-text journals and primary materials online. We offer all kinds of technical expertise for faculty to explore their research in exciting new ways, from simple projects such as timelines in which they can populate dates and events to the digital archive on the civil rights movement at Swarthmore that Nabil Kashyap [librarian for digital initiatives and scholarship] helped create. Another example is Alexandra Gueydan-Turek [associate professor of French] reserving space for a student-curated exhibition exploring political issues in North Africa through graphic novels. Instead of just writing a regular research paper, they installed and curated an exhibition. A tangible, practical experience that students relish.

What do you like most about your job?

It’s really rewarding working with our students. They’re amazing, and they do such interesting research. When they come to the library, they have such intriguing questions. They really care about their topics and their research and they get really excited when you can show them new things. It’s just wonderful to work with them, all of my colleagues in the library, and the faculty. It strikes me as pretty amazing to be in such as intellectually engaging place with people who care about what they do and are so respectful of one another.

What’s something you’ve done here that might surprise people?

For the last 10 years or so, I’ve had business cards made for the staff every couple years. One year, I had us do Pokemon cards. The next year, we went with Tarot cards, which had just gone out of copyright. This year, I really wanted to be Stevie Nicks, but it was just too complicated to create album covers. So I got this idea for a film noir theme. Initially, my colleagues weren’t too thrilled about that — ‘Film noir? Really?’ But it ended up being so much fun.

What do you do in your spare time?

I audit the Ballet 2 and Ballet 3 classes here whenever I can. I’ve been doing ballet all of my life, and I especially enjoy it at Swarthmore. These studios are beautiful, the teachers are amazing, and there’s live piano accompaniment by Hans Bohman [of the Dance Program]. I see ballet almost like a religion, a spiritual experience, a divine dialogue, because it’s so beautiful and so hard to do. When you’re young, you’re just kind of taking from ballet, as you get better and better. But now that I’m older, I like to think I’m starting to give some back.

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