HOTSEAT- Check it out: Wittenborg gives library new vibe
Karin Wittenborg turns just about every stereotype you've ever had about librarians– and libraries– on its head.
No food? She okayed the Starbucks in UVA's Alderman, and patrons are free to browse with a cuppa joe and a muffin. "When people check out books, we know they eat and drink," she says. "Before, students used to sneak in food, and the spillage was higher."
No talking? According to Wittenborg, librarians stopped shushing patrons years ago. "We're loud, we're raucous, we're rowdy," she declares.
But what about no partying in the library? Check out Wittenborg's pride and joy, the the $26-million, state-of-the-art Harrison Institute/Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections, for which she raised money– and insisted that banquet facilities be included.
"I think we have the best catering staff in the university," says foodie/wine lover Wittenborg. She points to a room popular for law school parties. "I put in red carpet so you can't tell if red wine is spilled."
Visitors who haven't been in a library in a while are reeling by the time Wittenborg blitz-tours the 21st-century bastion of knowledge, complete with its own copy of the Declaration of Independence.
"Libraries are so much more than warehouses of books," she says. "It's about the intellectual exchanges that go on. It's important to make a conscious effort to bring faculty together."
Wittenborg is all for promoting the social aspects of libraries. Students study together, and she has set about creating spaces that are comfortable for them do so, such as the cafe in Alderman, or the gas logs in the Brown Science and Engineering Library.
And her favorite space? The Lillian Gary Taylor Room on the top floor of the Harrison Institute above Special Collections, which offers a light-bedazzled view of the Academical Village. "President McKinley sat here," she says, whipping around a chair that real folk are also allowed to sit in, and where they can pretend that an F. Scott Fitzgerald first edition in the bookcase is in their own library.
The head of 13 UVA libraries admits she sort of "stumbled" into the vocation after college. "The happiest person I knew was a person who quit his job as a journalist and became a reference librarian," she recalls. Plus, grad school was "shorter than business school, and they paid my way."
A common misperception about librarians, says Wittenborg, is that they're quiet or conservative. "Librarians are way out ahead of scholars with technology and digital text," she says. "We really get technology." And they get the need to redefine their domains.
But wait– as Wittenborg tours the McGregor Room in Alderman, where she pulled the metal shutters from the windows and redecorated to provide an "elegant, quiet space" that students said they wanted, she shushes a talkative visitor.
So, some things never change.
Outside the room, posted with signs requesting quiet, Wittenborg notes, "McGregor would have made a great martini bar."
Why here? This is as close to heaven as it gets for a librarian.
What's worst about living here? The distance from a major airport.
Favorite hangout? The gym
Most overrated virtue? Patience
People would be surprised to know: That my stints bartending and waitressing would be the best possible preparation for this job.
What would you change about yourself? I'd be taller and blonder.
Proudest accomplishment? 1) Recruiting James Hilton, UVA's new vice president for information technology and chief information officer, from U-Michigan; 2) Getting the Mary and David Harrison Institute and the Alberta and Shirley Small Special Collections Library built.
People find most annoying about you: I want it done yesterday.
Whom do you admire? Teachers– at every level. It's such important work and so undervalued and under compensated. They can turn lives around.
Favorite book? Whatever I'm reading now
Subject that causes you to rant? The American health system
Biggest 21st-century thrill? Everything that technology can enable
Biggest 21st-century creep out? Identity theft
What do you drive? 1998 Audi A4
In your car CD player right now: Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Pink Martini, Diane Schuur
Next journey? Iceland
Most trouble you've ever gotten in? I can't say until the statute of limitations runs out.
Regret: That I don't speak more languages.
Favorite comfort food: Pasta
Always in your refrigerator: Wine and cheese
Must-see TV: No such thing
Favorite cartoon: On the Internet: Nobody Knows You're a Dog.
Describe a perfect day. Hiking all day in Italy, with fabulous food and wine for lunch and dinner
Walter Mitty fantasy: Landing a billion-dollar gift for the university
Who'd play you in the movie? Candice Bergen
Most embarrassing moment? When I lived in Massachusetts, the police appeared at my door saying a neighbor had complained about a Peeping Tom. It was my dog who'd been staring at her.
Best advice you ever got? "Have more fun tomorrow!"
Favorite bumper sticker? "Drive it like you stole it."
Karin Wittenborg>PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO