Conversations with Leaders: Lydia Morrow Ruetten
Right in the center of campus, overlooking the Hall of Governors, the Governors State University Library is like the living room of the university—a welcoming place for faculty, staff, and students to learn and explore in the midst of art.
A high-profile destination, the University Library is home to thousands of books and electronic journals, as well as group study rooms, Sandy the Therapy Dog, the Skylight Gallery, and a host of events.
Dean Lydia Morrow Ruetten couldn’t be more thrilled.
“When I walk out of my office and I see the library full of activity, it inspires me. It makes me happy like you wouldn't believe,’’ said Ruetten, who during her near 30-year tenure has watched the traditional 20th century book repository transform into a resource for the 21st century.
Once a research resource for commuter students, today the University Library is 43,000 square feet of colorful space parceled into administrative and meeting areas where students are free to study alone or to collaborate in groups, in either smart rooms or comfy solitude.
In today’s digital age, critics call the library a waste of space and paper when research can be done in the virtual world. Ruetten, whose staff includes six faculty librarians equipped with double master degrees to serve as guides through the flood of information, vehemently disagrees.
“No matter what format the information is in, librarians are information professionals who are experts at navigating the massive amount of content that is currently being produced,’’ said Ruetten. “You talk about fake news. We’re the ones who help decipher what’s valid and reliable information.” Ruetten points to a British born author Neil Gaiman quote: “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers; a librarian can bring you back the right one.”
To ensure the best academic research sources and databases are available to faculty and students, the library spends nearly $1 million each year on critical resources such as ABI Inform, Academic Complete, EBSCO, ProQuest, and popular professional guides that provide students and faculty access to thousands of documents from anywhere.
2014 saw the debut of the Open Portal for University Scholarship (OPUS), an electronic repository for capstone theses and dissertations authored by GSU faculty and students. OPUS also serves as an invaluable source of institutional memory and photographs.
Still, with the 2014 transition to a full-service university, Ruetten says offering students the physical space to study is even more critical. “There’s so much research out there that says students who spend time in the library are more successful and more likely to remain in school.”
In addition to serving students’ needs, the library also serves the institution as a repository for historical GSU artifacts and mementos. As GSU prepares to celebrate its first 50 years, Ruetten encourages staff and faculty to see what’s laying around. "There are a number of items I know are in people’s offices or in their desk drawers that need to be in archives.”
As “Archivist in Chief,” Ruetten is privy to many historical artifacts and mementoes, and her office is chockfull. Every piece tells a story. “We found an old ashtray with the GSU logo on it because people used to smoke at their desks. Incredible.”
Since 1989, GSU has been home away from home for Ruetten. She was working on her master’s degree in library science and information technology at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee when a professor mentioned his wife—Louise Diodato—was leaving her position as the serials manager at the library at GSU.
“It was an ‘ah ha’ moment,” said Ruetten. Six weeks later the Wisconsin native was working at GSU and living nearby. She remembers the area that is now the GMT building “looked like a carnival was in town” with an art exhibit “House of Cars 2” at the time.
The exhibit may have inspired her and her husbands’ impressive collection of classic cars and minibikes. Recently, they used their inventory of nearly 30 prized antiques to raise money for Special Olympics, which benefitted when the library teamed with the University Events office and the Department of Public Safety to host the university’s first Car and Motorcycle Show.
Ruetten’s days of collecting go back to her first job as serials manager. She was responsible for tracking and organizing up to 200 newspapers, magazines, and journals each month. Over the years she took on more projects and responsibility and was named Dean of the Library in May 2013.
Today, Ruetten reports she has proudly served under every university president except the first and has devoted her entire professional career to the GSU community.
To advance the university’s mission, she has shifted focus and programs as the university has evolved to serve the New Majority—first-generation, students of color, returning adults, and veterans. To serve her expanded base, Ruetten has built partnerships across the university and the region to create a space where faculty, staff, and students are free to explore academics and the arts.
In 2006, she founded the Friends of the GSU Library, which provided furnishings throughout the library and in the Skylight Gallery, an outgrowth of a library partnership with the Visual Arts Gallery. Here, student art and other exhibits are showcased in a quiet enclave that opens to the sun. Poetry discussions and lectures are also held in that area designed to advance GSU’s core value of promoting learning in the midst of art.
Throughout the year, the library also plays host to GSU faculty experts who populate a robust schedule of workshops on topics ranging from Google Docs to financial wellness to restorative justice. In addition the library offers classes on specific resources to help guide students.
In the end, Ruetten says it's all about service. “I am proud to be part of a team that supports our students, our users, and the mission of the university.”