Leading Jaguars: Dr. Jan Figa
After six months in the position of University Library Dean at GovState, Figa brings a sweeping vision to unite high-tech amenities with low-tech congeniality and collaboration. “Yes, the library is a place of ‘stuff,’ a place of getting books and other materials, but it is also a place of doing,” Figa explained. “I think of the library as a studio—a place of belonging and creation, a showcase of work and a place of celebration.”
Figa arrived at GovState in June 2023 from Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida where he was Library Director. Though he was born in Denmark, Figa said coming to Illinois represented a return to his academic roots. He earned advanced degrees from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and he formerly held library positions at Illinois College and Rockford University.
“I love the sense of belonging here at GovState, and my boss is supportive and open to my ideas," Figa said of Dr. Beverly Schneller, Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs.
In an interview with the GSU Phoenix Newspaper, Schneller said, GovState is fortunate to have Figa on the team. “One of his great strengths is in design thinking. He is physically redesigning the library space to make it more of a learning commons and learning community. He’s also setting up opportunities for collaborative research and other projects.”
With an initial academic focus on mathematics and engineering, Figa wanted to research and teach. But he found that library science allowed more creativity. He recalled a chore his dad assigned him at the age of eight. “My father would bring home newspapers and magazines and I would clip the articles and sort them in piles,” he said. “Everything about China went into a pile but then I discovered that word, China, had two meanings—the country and the dishes. For me, that started the world of organizing."
Organizing and reimagining spaces still drive Figa.
Among his many talents is digital architecture. For students in the newly established Honors College, Figa anticipates creating space for the addition of 55-inch computer monitors installed vertically that he’s calling “trees.”
“The trees can display dynamic content such as student or faculty poster sessions,” Figa explained. “A paper poster is in a fixed format. If the poster is digital, you can add more visually appealing information, change your approach – make content come alive!”
He's also working to clear physical materials from the library. An immediate benefit was space for students to demonstrate their skills in programming code for autonomous vehicles. This is the kind of academic showcase he envisions.
“How about using the library for this instead of hiding away in a classroom?” Figa asks rhetorically. “It becomes a center of attraction and showcases the library as a contemporary and happening place, that’s my approach."
He's used this approach to help lead the way for the first stage of an early childhood library that will be used as a training setting for incumbent workforce students in the Early Childhood Education Program. Junior Jaguars, who attend the Family Development Center, will also use the space. The plans include appropriately sized new furniture and smart tables that can be used as a classroom setting for practical hands-on training for adult and pre-K students. When Junior Jaguars aren't using the space, it will be open to the community.
Partial project funding came from the College of Education and Human Development through the Early Childhood Access Consortium for Equity grant created to support Illinois’ Early Childhood Access Consortium for Equity Act.
Figa beams with pride when talking about the collaboration. “These opportunities come from listening, taking advantage of situations and forming partnerships,” he said.
Looking to the future, Figa anticipates upgrading library technologies and hiring staff with talent in the tech field; establishing a campus Library Outreach Committee; and re-establishing the Friends of the Library, which would be directed toward alumni participation.
“(Friends of the Library) would be a tenacious reminder that we matter, and you’re a friend,” Figa explained. “It’s a connection to alumni. And why not have galas and celebrate people? Showcase changes in the library?”
Figa also turns a spotlight on his team, which he calls incredible. “They make everything possible, and they teach me to be a better person and leader.”
As for his decision to switch to academic library leadership, Figa has no regrets. “I get to meet a lot of cool people, who come from different places and different areas of thought,” he said. “It’s exciting to work with people who care about students and making a difference, people who want to make the world a better place.”