Interview with Jon Cawthorne, Dean of the San Diego State University Library

I had the opportunity to talk to Jon Cawthorne, Dean of the San Diego State University Library. Jon has been at his current post for less than a year. Perhaps because of this, the overwhelming sense one gets while speaking with Jon is of opportunity, of wanting to get out there and make things happen. He understands that academic libraries are at a crossroads, and that they need to embrace change without losing the qualities that make them special. Of course, change isn’t free, which is particularly difficult considering the economic problems currently affecting California’s educational system.

The biggest challenge facing libraries today, according to Jon, is their own culture. He told me that he concentrates his efforts into trying to move colleagues away from the comfort zone of “the way things have always been done.” When thinking about how the information space is changing at present, it makes sense that the focus for libraries should be not on abandoning their traditional mission but on designing and propagating new ways to fulfill that mission. The name of the game is still access; what is changing is the ways in which that access can be granted and the types of information to which access is needed. The key to it all is space; how to change the library space to cater to today’s university student: tech-savvy, multi-tasking, customization-loving, and overwhelmingly collaborative. The challenge is moving from a space that caters to focused, individual study to one that encourages creativity and teamwork.

Jon’s take on the best way to navigate the MLIS program underscores his belief in collaboration. He told me that classes are important, but what will really help propel me towards a successful career as a librarian are the people I will meet, as these are the most valuable resources I can harness going forward. This is a small, tight-knit community that relies more and more on resource-sharing and cooperation, and I will not get far working alone, or relying only on the resources within my own workplace.

When I asked Jon to name a few crucial skills he feels are under-represented in today’s librarian population, he mentioned technology skills, a renewed focus on re-assessing our own profession, and leadership. But most important in his opinion is a need for champions, people who are passionate about the profession and actively recruit the next wave of librarians. “When you meet others who are thinking about a career in this profession,” he says, “speak about the possibilities you see.” I’ve always thought of libraries as these almost eternal institutions, always there, always needed; but I realized in speaking with him that, as technological improvement continues to change our lives, our libraries will wage a battle for continued relevance, and that only by adapting to the changing needs of our population will they be able to win that battle and remain in their position as guardians and providers of information.