When Jennifer Falvey became Heathwood’s Head Librarian this summer, she was the first new person in that role for more than 40 years. It might be daunting to follow in the footsteps of Nancy Reeder (no pressure when the person you’re succeeding held the job for more than half the school’s history!), but Mrs. Falvey says running the Heathwood library “really is the perfect job” for her—despite the fact that it took her almost 25 years after college to figure out that libraries were where she belonged.
Here Mrs. Falvey talks about how she found her way into library science after years as an English teacher, what she most values about working at Heathwood, and how she plans to keep a library with a storied past relevant in a 21st-century learning environment.
You began your working life as a college English instructor—how did you find your vocation as a librarian?
I should probably always have been a librarian, because I have always loved libraries and books. But it took me a while to figure that out. When I was about nine, my dad took me to the library and showed me how to search the catalog, and it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. Suddenly, I wanted to research everything: boa constrictors, and cattle ranching, and baking, and macrame (this was the 70s, after all!).
After college, I taught college English for years. But one thing that frustrated me was that I only saw students at one point in their education, and I wished I could work with students in more than just one class or grade level. Then a friend who was also a teacher enrolled in the library science program at USC and said I should do it too. It sounded great, but I thought I was too old to make that kind of transition. The idea stuck, though, and my kids had started at Heathwood by then, so I came out here and talked to Millie Hart, who was the Lower School Librarian at the time, and she said I should do it.
In 2009, I enrolled in the Masters in Library Science program at USC. I did some part-time work and an internship in the Heathwood library while I was in grad school, and by the time I graduated in 2012, Millie had retired, and I became the Early Childhood/Lower School Librarian that August.
From the moment I started the degree, I felt like, "Why didn't you do this a long time ago?" I love literature, teaching, and writing—and librarianship brings all of that together. You get to interact with authors and with students and talk to them about reading, writing, and research. Those are all the things I love, so it’s really the perfect job.
So you were Early Childhood/Lower School Librarian for five years, and then Nancy Reeder retired and you became Head Librarian—what was it like to step into a role she’d held for so long?
I always teased Nancy and said that before she left I needed her to do the Vulcan mind meld on me. She was the quintessential librarian. She has established a foundation of scholarship and a respect for breadth of knowledge that’s a great platform to take into 21st-century learning. She’s also an amazing repository of Heathwood history.
Building on that foundation, what are your goals for Heathwood’s library?
My primary goal is to enhance student learning and scholarship with 21st-century tools without losing sight of the foundation of strong research that’s always been here. We continue to add new databases like JSTOR, which is designed for academic researchers at the college level, and which is been very helpful for Upper Schoolers. I don’t see libraries becoming truly “paperless” any time soon, but the ability to add digital resources really does open up possibilities for student research and learning. And we’ve added e-books, mostly for recreational reading, which have been very popular, so that collection will probably continue to grow as well.
At the same time, we have 32,000 print books in our library, and that collection still gets plenty of use as well. In the last three months alone, we've added over 400 new titles and circulated over 1800 books. As new digital resources become available, it’s important to understand that libraries aren’t either/or propositions. They’re not either print or electronic, either about research or reading for fun. They’re all of the above. They’re where you learn to navigate all these increasingly complex oceans of information that are available to us now.
It might seem that the Internet, with its ability to put so much information at everyone’s fingertips, makes libraries less relevant than they used to be—but the opposite is actually true. We need libraries more than ever now, precisely because so much information is available to us. It’s overwhelming, and hard to sort through, without the kinds of research skills that libraries teach and the research tools that libraries provide.
Libraries—and the resources they offer—have, as you point out, changed a lot in recent years. How do Heathwood students of different age groups use our library?
In Early Childhood and Lower School, the emphasis is on reading: pre-reading, reading readiness, and building a love of reading, coupled with beginning research strategies.
With Middle School and Upper School students, we dig deeper into research while also still trying to maintain a love of reading. The challenge is helping students continue to find the time to read for pleasure when, as they get older, there are so many other things pulling on their schedules.
Finally, while it sounds like you’d be happy working in just about any library, what makes you glad you get to work in this one?
When my husband Tom and I toured Heathwood as prospective parents, I was blown away by the community and the curriculum here. Even though I had been an educator at the college level for a while, I remember thinking, I know my kids belong here, but I’d love to come work here too. Pretty much every teacher at every school loves and wants to support students, but Heathwood does so much more than most schools can to support that goal, and it’s a joy to be a part of that.
All libraries are special parts of the school community. At Heathwood, because we have such an emphasis on community, and on working together toward that goal, our library feels like even more of a nexus for the school community at large. We also have so many wonderful parents who recognize the value of the library to the school and are eager to volunteer here—and their work helps increase the value of the library for our students. When I come to work every day, I have a real sense of being part of a team effort to educate our children. Every school wants to do that, and thanks to the community we have here at Heathwood, we’re really able to.