Amherst Magazine

Managing the Wide-Open Morass

By Emily Gold Boutilier

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Libraries are facing a move from carefully selected collections to "this unbounded, wide-open morass of the good, the bad and the ugly," says new College Librarian Bryn Geffert.

When Bryn Geffert began his career as a librarian in the early 1990s, student research occurred mostly within the walls of the college library. There was no other place to find the academic information contained in its books and journals. “What we’re seeing now,” says Geffert, who arrived at Amherst in January to head the college’s Robert Frost Library, “is a move from finite, manageable and carefully selected collections to this unbounded, wide-open morass of the good, the bad and the ugly.”

While the Internet’s “wide-open morass” is exciting to scholars and librarians alike, “in some ways it makes student research more difficult,” Geffert says. “So teaching becomes even more important.” As a result, librarians in the future will spend less time acquiring and cataloging material, he says, and more time teaching students to filter out the reliable sources from the unreliable, the useful information from the useless.
 
One of his first tasks at Amherst is to hire two reference librarians. He’s looking for good scholars and teachers eager to visit classrooms and work with professors. The Amherst mission statement declares that the college is committed to “expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research.” As such, Geffert says, “Amherst is only going to succeed if students know how to conduct research.”

Geffert came to Amherst from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he spent two years as library director and associate professor of history. He was previously reference librarian for eight years and college librarian for seven years at St. Olaf College, where he was also an associate professor of Russian-area studies.

Geffert holds a B.A. in history from St. Olaf. He decided to go on to library school for “perhaps the most callow but sincere reason,” he says: “because I liked books.” He earned a master’s in library science from the University of Illinois and a master’s and doctorate in Russian and modern European history from the University of Minnesota.

A large part of his job as college librarian is to closely follow and respond to the changing landscape of academic publishing. For example, he says, commercial publishers have increasingly been swallowing up nonprofit academic presses and charging sky-high prices for books; in response, a small number of universities have placed their academic presses under their libraries and made their publications available for free on the Web. Should Amherst create a press under this model? “It is a move well worth considering,” Geffert says. “The current model of academic publishing is broken.” Another of his goals is to digitize material in the library’s Archives and Special Collections, ensuring universal access to these holdings.

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04