Martin Garnar became Amherst’s head librarian in summer 2020, but many students, faculty and staff who worked and studied remotely last year are only now getting to know him in person. In November 2021, he completed a Ph.D. in educational leadership, research and policy at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, where he was dean of the Kraemer Family Library. Before that, he was the first librarian to become a full professor at Regis University in Denver.
In this edited and condensed interview, conducted in September 2021, Garnar talks about his life and work—and about the big questions facing Frost Library and librarians nationwide.
You arrived at Amherst at a really unusual time, when there was a lot of upheaval. What was that like?
I [did] the on-campus interview in February 2020, and then the pandemic happened. So my next interview was via Zoom. Aug. 1, 2020, was the beginning of my time [on campus], and we were just getting ready to reopen the library. We, like the rest of the College, had to be really flexible about what to expect. The library was one of the places where students could be safe, out of the weather, besides their rooms. I found myself working on Saturdays to help keep the building open, and getting to know my staff via Zoom. The first year was almost a stealth year where I got to see how things worked. Now that everyone’s come back to campus, this is kind of my debut.
What are you excited about for this academic year?
We’ve been able to welcome people back into the library in a way that we couldn’t in the previous academic year. I work at the reference desk now, which is apparently unusual for the director to do. To find out what the students need and see what they’re working on—that’s an opportunity for me personally. What remains to be seen is what other activities we can bring back into the building. When can we have programs again? When can the Frost Café have enough staff to open again? How do we really connect with the students and give them the experience that they came to Amherst for? How do we fit into the very busy lives of students and faculty?
You’ve published a lot on privacy, intellectual freedom and ethics. You chaired the American Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and edited its Intellectual Freedom Manual. Then you received a 2021 award for “significant contributions defending intellectual freedom.” What does intellectual freedom mean in librarianship?
Intellectual freedom, for libraries, is trying to make sure that people [can] decide what they want to read, and not have other people make that choice for them or their children. Oftentimes it’s, “I don’t want my kid to see this, so no kid should see this.” You can talk to your kids about what they should and shouldn’t consume, but don’t make those decisions for other people’s kids. Privacy is another part of that, because if people [have] fear of being monitored or surveilled, then they may not research things that are more controversial. That can have a chilling effect.
How is librarianship changing in regard to intellectual freedom and free speech?
For a long time the message has been, “We want more speech. We want people to have access to all kinds of expression.” There are serious conversations going on professionally: Well, what does that mean about hate speech? What’s the line between threats and harassment and taking action? What do we do about the serious and real concerns of people who don’t feel safe if they see somebody promoting ideas or beliefs that they don’t agree with, or that attack them as people?
In the past, it was common for First Amendment advocates to just say, “We’re going to be neutral,” and now there’s a big push in the profession to say, “We believe in social justice. We believe in equity of access. We believe in righting historical wrongs.” How can we take a stand for inclusion and equity and diversity and still stand for free speech? My thinking about that is to look at how they support each other. The top two things [being challenged and censored] right now are critical race theory and LGBTQ content. That’s what we’re trying to defend access to. Historically marginalized people, or materials related to them, have been the target of people who don’t want that information in libraries. This year the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics was revised to talk specifically about racial and social justice and the responsibility of library workers to uphold it.
You have a research interest in the retention of academic librarians of color. Can you tell me more about that, and what the opportunities are there?
My dissertation uses results of research that I did over the summer, talking with academic librarians of color to learn about their experiences and center their voices. What do they see as the challenges facing the profession, and what are some ways that we could move forward? Historically, librarianship has been a largely white profession, and despite decades of efforts to diversify, our demographics have not really changed. There has been a lot of energy spent on recruitment, not as much time spent on retention and looking at the culture of librarianship. What is it about this field that is not welcoming to people of color, and how can we make changes? For all the people that we’re working hard to bring into the profession, what can we do to work with them so that it’s a place that they want to stay?
You have written, “A good librarian is supposed to be interested in everything.” What are some of your interests and hobbies?
One thing that I cannot wait to be able to do again is to sing with a choir. Most recently I was in the Out Loud Colorado Springs Men’s Chorus for five years, and so I’m interested and eager to connect with one here. I like to bake, and I’ve been having to adjust my recipes back to low-altitude baking, because I had two decades plus of high-altitude baking in Colorado. I like to garden, and I like to hike. My husband and I have a miniature dachshund named Finnegan.
I read a lot. I’m a librarian; it’s kind of an occupational hazard. It’s a lot of articles, a lot of other types of research, but I have to read every night before I go to bed.
I couldn’t help but notice, when I was Googling you, that you appeared on Jeopardy! in 2008.
My husband, Mark, would always tell me, “You should go on one of these game shows.” He heard on the radio that they were doing the online test, and he signed me up for it without telling me. The show was really popular with the students on my campus, and so they were very excited to see me on there, and extremely excited that I got a question about The Simpsons correct.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell the Amherst community?
I’m looking for ways that I can build relationships, so that the library can really be integrated into campus life. When a project comes up, I want people to think, “Oh, the library should be involved in this.” I want that to be an automatic reflex: that they see the value that we bring to all parts of the academic experience.