MLIS students revitalize Audubon Center library

What could be better than working at a library in a park - especially a Seattle City Park that features a stand of old-growth forest, two active bald eagle nests, and a wide array of flora and fauna?

For two masters of library and information science (MLIS) students, the answer to that was the opportunity to organize and offer broader access to an underutilized special collection library housed at the Seward Park Environmental & Audubon Center (the Center). 

The Center, located in a renovated historic building, is the flagship environmental and nature conservation center for the National Audubon Society in Seattle. It is located five miles from the city center and is part of a 277-acre peninsula composed of a range of habitats that include forests, savannas, grasslands, and lakeshore.

Greg Bem (pictured seated) and Anna Nash (standing right), two second-year MLIS students, spent their winter term on an independent study at the Center under the guidance of their faculty advisor, Nancy Gershenfeld. Their goal was to select and implement an integrated library system (ILS) that would manage the circulation, cataloging, reporting, and inventory of the 2000 volumes housed in the Ann Lennartz Memorial Library.

“When it comes to the library at the Audubon Center, there are so many amazing resources sitting right on those shelves, waiting to be explored,” said Bem in an early post on the blog created for the project.

“Whether they’re critical studies of society and urban development, or hilariously fun books for kids, or age-old reports on the Audubon Center, the resources have a history and contribute to the spirit of the library.”

The library serves as a vital resource for the outdoor nature education programs offered at the Center. As a result, there are books on wide-range of topics including natural history, geography, educational materials, to technical scientific volumes, native gardening handbooks, field guides, and much more.

The project started when Bem contacted Ali McCarthy, the Center’s program coordinator/teacher naturalist, to find out about their library and whether they needed help with it.

The timing was perfect. McCarthy, along with Joey Manson, operations manager for the Center, had been struggling to make the library more useful to the public. Volunteers had already assigned Dewey decimal numbers to the books and pasted pockets to back covers to facilitate a check out-process, but that was the extent of the organization.

“We had used other library software in the past that didn’t work out very well,” Manson said in an interview. “When Anna and Greg came along, we were able to re-energize and get everything in place where it could be checked out, viewed and accessed.”

As part of the independent study, Bem and Nash visited five special collection libraries to look at ILS utilization, display and organization of the materials. Their choices were eclectic: KEXP library, Reed Collection Study Center in the Henry Art Gallery, Frye Art Museum, NW Museum of Legends and Lore, and the Mountaineers Library.

From their field-trips, they learned the importance of having a focus for the collection, the attraction of visual displays, and the difference between a book that has value in its content and a book that has is valuable as a cultural artifact.

Commercial lessons were also learned during the independent study. The students worked with a variety of ILS vendors and library professionals, evaluated multiple systems, and then gave McCarthy and Manson recommendations on seven different ILS systems. That turned out to be too much information for good decision-making. In the end, the system they rated their top choice was selected by the Center and then implemented online.

One of the hallmarks of any iSchool program is the integration of practical experience into the curriculum through Capstone projects, directed fieldwork and independent study to give students a well-rounded education.

Even by the iSchool’s rigorous standards, the Audubon project was seen as ambitious.

“Greg and Anna’s initial proposal for the Audubon Center Library was incredibly ambitious and I thought, well, they will hopefully identify the right technology and processes by the end of the quarter, but to my amazement and delight, a fully-functional catalog hosted on the web was available by the end of the 10-week quarter,” said iSchool Senior Lecturer Gershenfeld. “While they utilized me as a sounding board on occasion, they demonstrated a level of responsibility and ownership far beyond the boundaries of a school project.”

The Center added their official approval by recognizing the work of the students through an award of a "Certificate of Appreciation" in a ceremony honoring volunteers. 

For the students, the project yielded more than an education in special collection libraries.

“I never imagined how motivating being here would be. Being here and cataloging and being with the Audubon Center staff and really becoming interested in a library was very natural. I didn’t know I would become so attached to the library, the process and getting the word out about the library,” said Nash, who started volunteering at libraries at an early age because of her librarian mother.

Nash also spoke about the impact of the Moss Walk – one of the nature walks she participated in while volunteering at the Center.  “It was really wonderful to learn about something and then immediately be able to go and identify mosses, liverworts and lichen, surrounded by people who were just so positive and excited about identifying mosses, liverworts and lichen.”

Bem, who has a technology background, was excited to discover the Z39.50 access point tool allowing him to connect the Center library to other libraries around the world to explore their catalogs. He also admitted to finding additional meaning at the Center.

“Merging the library world with the greater non-profit world has been awesome,” said Bem. “We will be very happy going back throughout the spring to continue our efforts to solidify the catalog, enhance the shelves, and do our marketing pushes.”