Marsha Clark: The Philosophical Librarian

October 14, 2009 | News

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On a summer morning in the loft-like aerie of Newman Library’s collection management room, Marsha Clark, CUNY’s Head of Technical Services, gives me a quick tour before her colleagues arrive for work. Newly cataloged books in German, French, Russian and Portuguese, huddle together on a nearby shelf, bundled with twine. On her desk, a Zen garden of precariously stacked books and DVDs awaits classification. “My job is never done,” she says, wistfully. Each year, Ms. Clark and her crew”one full-time and four part-time staff”catalog about 6,500 print, electronic and new media titles.

Clark must thrive under pressure. If processing thousands of books”on subjects from computer science to mortuary science”weren’t enough to contend with, she also shares responsibility with the Office of Library Services for maintaining the online catalog of the 8.1 million items in the university’s holdings. This is no easy task, when the catalog is part of a network of systems nestled within other systems like a set of Russian dolls, accessible on CUNY+, the public gateway linking the databases of 20 CUNY campuses.

But if the challenges of navigating the technological skein rattle this petite and soft-spoken Philadelphia native, it doesn’t show today. Perhaps her knack for staying focused on the big picture helps her maintain her equanimity, winning her a stellar reputation for managing workflow. In the course of her 27-year career, technology changed libraries from precincts of dark, closed stacks to open-access collections and networks of digital information. “I saw the card catalog disappear and transform into an electronic version. I’ve gone from typing to photocopying catalog cards to using no cards at all,” says Ms. Clark. “But in the end, the reason we’re all here is not just about software, servers, and connectivity. It’s to get information to the users.”

Ms. Clark started her career at the Biddle Library of the University of Pennsylvania, her alma mater, at first working as book-shelver, book-labeler, and part-time security officer. After her divorce, she went back to school and earned a master’s degree in library science from Drexel University in 1982 and a master’s in management from NYU. The University of Pennsylvania then promoted her to reference librarian. She jokes that she talked her way into the job on the strength of her experience as a guard. “I got the reference position because I knew how to handle crowds,” Ms. Clark says.

In 1985, drawn to New York’s cultural life, Clark accepted a job as reference librarian at NYU, later becoming head of acquisitions where she handled a $3.5 million acquisitions budget. She later moved to the New York Academy of Medicine as head of acquisitions. In 1997, she came to CUNY as Head of Technical Services. Since then, she has been involved in many projects with the Office of Library Services at CUNY, such as training librarians to work in CUNY+ and working with new OLS staff.

Now, Ms. Clark is working on ways to adapt the catalog for new media formats, like electronic books, which pose a thorny set of problems for librarians. Provided by booksellers, the records of digital books can be of uneven quality, failing to distinguish between the publication and digitization dates of books, among other critical details. “The challenges of e-book records concern us as a cataloguing community,” Clark says, “whereas for purchasers the overriding issue is access, regardless of quality.”

Ms. Clark leaves the issue for another time. Instead, she shifts her attention to another passionate interest: the Metropolitan Opera. “I’m waiting for the next big tenor,” she says, smiling. “Someone who’ll give me the chills.”

“Irene Gashurov