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Penn Libraries News

Bridging the Penn Libraries across communities: How Rebecca Stuhr leads academic engagement efforts

Rebecca Stuhr was recently appointed Associate University Librarian for Academic Engagement and Director of Arts & Culture Libraries.

Rebecca Stuhr

Rebecca Stuhr was recently appointed Associate University Librarian for Academic Engagement and Director of Arts & Culture Libraries. Academic engagement is a cornerstone of the Penn Libraries’ work in supporting the University of Pennsylvania’s research, teaching, and learning mission, and leading this charge requires building the many relationships and partnerships necessary to forge strong links across every School and Center. Stuhr's passion for aiding students, along with her extensive efforts over the years to create connections with colleagues across and beyond Penn, makes her a natural fit for the role. 

Over the course of her time with the Penn Libraries, Stuhr’s responsibilities have grown steadily and significantly. In her current role, Rebecca directs a team of 21 staff, plus a complement of interns and students, across three departmental libraries dedicated to arts and culture: the Fisher Fine Arts Library, the Penn Museum Library, and the Otto E. Albrecht Music Libraries. She leads the Libraries’ extensive academic, student, and community engagement efforts; oversees author services and publishing support; represents the Penn Libraries on the Ivy Plus Libraries’ Scholarly Communications Group; and partners with the Libraries’ Educational Technology and Learning Management Department, which provides support for educational technology and learning management services for the Libraries and manages courseware for the entire Penn campus.  

Brigitte Weinsteiger, Gershwind & Bennett Family Associate Vice Provost for Collections & Scholarly Communications, says, “Rebecca's passion for building partnerships and increasing diversity across campus, and supporting, especially, student success is evident in every interaction with her. I'm delighted that she has accepted this role to further deepen our support of the University's research and pedagogical mission, as well as our engagement with the wider Philadelphia community.” 

Stuhr’s library career began at the University of Kansas, but her focus on student programming and services grew from sabbatical work she undertook in Philadelphia. “I was looking at public libraries and how they engaged with their communities and what academic libraries could learn from what public libraries were doing,” she said. “I did a study of the Free Library of Philadelphia over two semesters … and then I did a shorter but intense study of the Queens Public Library in New York, too.” 

Stuhr conducted this research in 2008, while employed at Grinnell College in Iowa as Collection Development and Preservation Librarian. When her sabbatical ended, she was excited to bring new knowledge and ideas back to better serve students there. “I was really focused on getting students involved,” she said. “I think academic libraries can help students feel that they belong somewhere, that they're not just on the edges — that they have a place to go, they can feel comfortable and have some ownership of it.” 

Stuhr first came across this idea in an influential article by Roberto Ibarra about the use of context diversity — or, according to Ibarra, “reframing … academic cultures to meet the needs of all populations and especially underrepresented groups” — to turn libraries into places where everyone feels they belong. Ibarra expanded on this idea as it applies across all of higher education in a subsequent book. Stuhr said she thinks successful library programing is “that combination of highlighting what a library can do to support students, but also to help them claim that space as their own.” 

This reframing was at the forefront of her mind when she returned to Philadelphia in 2011 as Humanities Coordinator for the Penn Libraries, and she quickly found avenues to emphasize inclusion and belonging. In 2012 she joined GOLD, the Group on Library Diversity, and has served as chair at different points during her membership. GOLD worked to make the Penn Libraries a place of belonging through events such as Diversi-Teas, a series of presentations and discussions with campus resource centers from across Penn, including cultural centers, to build and strengthen partnerships with those centers and to prompt change at the Libraries to better support students. 

Another initiative Stuhr and her colleagues used to engage students was the Library Resource Liaisons program, which trained first-year students to act as library ambassadors for their peers. In the past, the Libraries has partnered with the Greenfield Intercultural Center and New College House to recruit students for the job and to plan programming. 

“The Library Resource Liaisons are meant to be a bridge to the library for their fellow students. They provide the first level of research assistance and make the library a familiar and friendly place,” she says. With students beginning to return to campus for the fall 2022 semester, Stuhr is excited to try out new and innovative ways of connecting with them. She hopes to be able to restart the program in the coming year in collaboration with the Libraries new student engagement librarian.  

“We’re looking to have a number of ways to get students in the [Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center] building and interacting with library staff, services, and collections, so we're planning a kickoff event in mid-September for a semester-long scavenger hunt,” she says. The scavenger hunt is being spearheaded by newly-hired Student Engagement Librarian Alexandrea Glenn and the Learning Engagement team, led by Steve Scaduto. Students will have a passport that gets stamped for each scavenger hunt task completed, and we hope that it will take participants to library spaces across campus.”  

The scavenger hunt is a great example of the ways Stuhr partners with colleagues across each of the University’s libraries and across all the Schools, Centers, and organizations that make up the Penn community. She says she had a great example in this kind of work from now-retired Community Outreach Librarian Ancil George, an employee for 49 years who went above and beyond for Penn students and for the libraries at Philadelphia’s elementary schools. George was one of the developers of the Library Resource Liaisons program, among many other initiatives. “Ancil George is the ultimate model – he had such strong connections with people,” Stuhr says. "Working with Ancil on the Library Resource Liaisons, we reached out to the cultural centers, and I got to know the people at Greenfield intercultural Center through that program as well.” 

Stuhr also has strong partnerships with people in Penn First Plus, and the Graduate Student Center, among other Penn groups and institutions. 

 “Having partners who also communicate with their immediate communities just adds another layer of trust,” she explains. 

These partnerships, along with her interactions with Penn students, are what keep Stuhr energized each day. She says, “My favorite part of the job is that I get to work with such a wide cross-section of people and departments, and that enriches the possibilities and appreciation for what everybody's doing and accomplishing. And I love my classical studies subject librarian role ... I love working with the classical studies department. That's been a real highlight of my job here. Also I love working with students. I can be really tired, and then I'll have an appointment with a student and I get all my energy back. There's just something more about making the actual difference. That’s it, in a nutshell.”