New Cambridge librarian looks to take scholarship to the world

Jessica Gardner, only the second woman in the role, aims to strike a balance between the needs of undergraduates and the global research community

December 22, 2016
Jessica Gardner, University of Cambridge

Following in the pioneering footsteps of Anne Jarvis, Jessica Gardner is the second woman to have been appointed university librarian at the University of Cambridge.

Dr Gardner, who takes up her new post in April 2017, has worked in special collections at the University of Leeds, where she completed a PhD on modern literary manuscripts in the Brotherton Library; at the University of Exeter, as head of special collections and then head of library and culture services; and, since 2013, as director of library services and university librarian at the University of Bristol.

She told Times Higher Education that she believed her new role offered “such a good way of bringing my knowledge together from three Russell Group universities”.

Central to her most recent post at Bristol, she said, had been “responding to the changing needs of students in terms of the spaces and resources they need for study.

“Although we continue to support [the] quiet and intensive and low-distraction study that students always need from a library, we’ve really accelerated on building new spaces which are about collaborative and more social learning.

“The most recent project that I led on was the development of a new front-of-house for the whole university, including a cafe, reception area and a lovely large student flexible study space which has been adored by our students from day one.”

During her tenure at Bristol, Dr Gardner and her team have also “introduced much longer opening hours, including a 24/7 offer in some of our libraries”. She said she remained delighted that “while digital has grown, it hasn’t in any way cut back on the continuing use of our physical libraries as the home and heart of much student learning. The numbers have continued to grow.”

At Cambridge, Dr Gardner said, she knows “there are undergraduates who love the Giles Gilbert Scott-designed university library and the excitement of the tea room as a place of community and in the social life of undergraduates, particularly in the arts, humanities and social sciences”.

With that, however, comes a commitment to contribute to scholarship across the globe: “The question is where we want to go next – what does the world want to hear about [what] we’ve got in our collection? The university library ought to be at the heart of that, in an active partnership with our researchers, using those collections to make new discoveries and to feed new thought.”

Among the ongoing programmes she will inherit at Cambridge, Dr Gardner pointed to “building a new store in [nearby] Ely to help us preserve our wonderful collection into the very long term” and “a big project to replace the underlying systems of the university library to ensure they really are fit for the 21st century, providing access and discovery for scholars using the collection”.

She also hoped to build on “the trend towards open access to research publications and, where it is ethical and appropriate, open access to research data findings” and to develop “the community of libraries within Cambridge, some in colleges and at departmental and faculty level. My role is to help knit them all together into a combined network even when we are not responsible for running them all.”  

Despite its many conflicting demands, Dr Gardner is thrilled to be taking on her new role: “Cambridge has world leading collections – I don’t see that as a challenge, I see that as compellingly wonderful.”

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