Q&A with H. Carton Rogers

The vice provost and director of libraries talks about some changes he’s seen throughout his 40-plus years at Penn, how he ended up making libraries his career, and what he’ll miss when he retires at the end of June.

H. Carton Rogers
Photo by Peter Tobia

Almost 43 years ago, H. Carton Rogers was hired as the director of public and technical services in what was then known as Penn’s Medical Library. His first task on the job? To literally move the Biology Library down Hamilton Walk from the Leidy Building to integrate it with the medical collection and create the Biomedical Library.

About three years later, Rogers jumped at the opportunity to work with the great librarian Bernard Ford at Van Pelt-Dietrich Library.

“Bernard had gotten money from the government to pull pre-19th century material out of the open stacks and put it in special collections,” Rogers explains. “He needed help and I was ready for a change and I wanted to broaden my perspective. This was a great opportunity to get to know the libraries—at least Van Pelt-Dietrich’s collections—really intimately, because I was working with what was then the shelf list to try to identify these early materials that were still, in those days, out in the open.”

Over the years, Rogers worked in numerous other roles in Penn’s library system—as the senior business administrator and head of technology services, which included the ordering and cataloging of print materials, and in interim roles that included director of collection development and management and director of special collections. The only area he was never in charge of was systems, which he jokes “was probably a good thing.”

For the past 13 years, Rogers has served as vice provost and director of libraries, where he has overseen 18 individual libraries and commons. In his time at the helm, technological advances have continued to transform not only how the libraries operate, but the very buildings themselves. In fact, under Rogers’ leadership, the libraries have opened the Weigle Information Commons and Education Commons. These spaces include group study and teaching spaces and the Vitale Digital Media Lab, and hold trainings on everything from writing skills to technology consultations, and equipment rentals for faculty, staff, and students.

The Libraries have also opened the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts—which houses medieval texts to modern art books—and most recently, the Moelis Family Grand Reading Room, a soundproof quiet study area flooded with natural light and featuring the stunning mural “Fields of Transformation” by Dutch artist Claudy Jongstra.

At the end of June, Rogers will step down from his role and into retirement. Looking back at his career, Rogers has effusive praise for his mentors, fellow librarians (including Ford, as well as former administrators Joan Gotwals and Dick DeGennaro), Penn deans and senior administrators, and the Libraries’ own Board of Overseers, who he says have helped to shape his vision for the Libraries.

“I’ve had a consistency of funding that many of my peers are very jealous of because that consistency has allowed me to plan efficiently and effectively and again, I think has been a huge help in any success that the Libraries have had over the last 13 years,” Rogers says. “I work with some of the most dedicated people—alums and other people who just love Penn and the Penn Libraries, and they’ve supported me and they’ve helped me with envisioning the future, both in terms of rethinking our spaces, but also how we use technology—the whole gamut of activities.”

The Current sat down with Rogers to talk about some changes he’s seen over the years, how he ended up making libraries his career, and what he’ll miss when he retires.

Q:

You have really seen the library system from so many angles. How has that helped your perspective?

A:

This sort of broad experience that I was able to get at Penn was useful in building my own worldview and my own vision for the Penn Libraries, but it also kept me really fresh. People say, ‘Why’d you stay at Penn for 42 years?’ I’ve had all these different opportunities and they’ve all been rewarding in one way or another, so that’s been a critical piece of why I stayed. The other, if you’re going to work, if you’re going to make research libraries your career, there aren’t all that many research libraries around that are better than Penn’s. As I look back, I’m pleased that I’ve spent my career at Penn and helped the Penn Libraries mature and grow into the really extraordinary organization it is today. I do take some totally undeserved pride in that but I really am very proud of where the Libraries have come in the last 42 years.

Q:

How has technology changed the field and changed the way that you think about the Penn Libraries?

A:

Coming in to the Penn Library in 1975, the overriding concern was that there was a lack of information, difficulty in discovering information sources, challenges to delivering those resources in a timely and cost-effective way. Technology has helped us solve a lot of those problems. OCLC [Online Computer Library Center, an umbrella organization for libraries across the world] was created partly so that we knew each other’s collections, so we could get virtual access. They took advantage of the emerging computer technology, created these networks, and we could finally see what was available at UCLA, to pick a school. Before that, it was extremely difficult. You had to go to printed sources or you went to—and we hosted this organization for a long time—the Union Library Catalog of Pennsylvania. Essentially, if you were interested in some scholarly work in support of your dissertation and you came into the Penn Libraries, you’d go to a card catalog, you’d look, and if Penn doesn’t have it, you’d go to the interlibrary loan office and ask, ‘Can you get me this book?’ The interlibrary loan people would call up the Union Library Catalog of Pennsylvania and say, ‘Does anybody in the region have this book?’ They would get up from their desk and go to a card file and there would be a card for this book with location stamps all over it—Villanova, St. Joe’s, whatever it might be, and that would be the beginning of your interlibrary loan request. Think about today: You want this book, what do you do? If we don’t have it in our collection, you don’t even come and talk to a Penn librarian, you go to BorrowDirect, you search catalogs of all the Ivy Plus institutions, and if somebody has it and it’s requestable, you put your own request in and the thing is delivered to you usually within two or three days. Imagine the power of that and how different that is. I remember the incredibly large, complex card catalog that we maintained and how difficult it was to maintain, because if we were behind in filing cards, you didn’t know if we had anything, we didn’t know if we had anything. If we wanted to change a heading, we’d have to go out and pull the cards, erase the heading and type in a new heading, go back and refile the card. We’ve gone from not a lot of information resources easily available and not easily findable to now when we’re living in an information world. We’re licensing millions and millions of dollars worth of material for the exclusive use of the Penn community and it’s available at your fingertips—you don’t have to come to the library if you don’t want to, which you certainly did in 1975. Now you can sit in your office and push a button and we’re usually able to deliver it to you. That’s made it hugely more useful for our patrons. The challenge comes in trying to help people  actually choose among this multitude of information resources, what’s valuable, what’s important, what’s trustworthy. It’s almost too much information.

Q:

How have you managed to get people to still physically come to Van Pelt-Dietrich and the other libraries in an age, as you said, where there’s so much information readily and remotely available?

A:

We worried about it. I think we’ve been really successful in reimagining our spaces. We’re creating many more interactive spaces, so group study rooms, teaching spaces within the libraries. We have pivoted the whole organization to be more outward-facing, more proactive in our engagements and less sitting back and waiting for people to come into the library. Places like the Weigle Information Commons and the Education Commons are spaces designed to provide different user experiences. Now with the Moelis Family Grand Reading Room, we’ve created a very large quiet reading space to meet the needs of users who are interested in solitary, contemplative study—and there are still many who are. Other people like to work in a more interactive space, so the rooms in Weigle are packed and people are talking to each other and talking about the work they’re doing. Our engagement with faculty, helping them to think about the use of new technologies in the classroom, has been very fruitful. We’ve gone from libraries as spaces where we provided carols, a couple study rooms, and we had these large collections sitting there. Now you look at the way the libraries have been transformed, you see a much different range of spaces, so again, all these maker spaces, interactive spaces. The library is a place now where things actually get done, where things get created.

Q:

How has the staff changed with the times?

A:

Penn is really blessed with a great library staff. It really is a terrific group of people and they’re extremely dedicated from top to bottom. We have around 400 full-time employees. We employ an army of student workers, and that is just great. The staff share one trait and that is that they want to provide the best possible service to the Penn community, and it doesn’t really matter what role they play within the library. We don’t have the biggest budget in the Ivy League among libraries, but I think we probably do more with what we have than any of those libraries. This all goes back to the staff, just really smart, really creative, really dedicated people. One of the things that’s very exciting about the information environment we’re in today—you could go through decades in the libraries and nothing much would change. Now you can barely go from week to week with things the same in places. That’s both exciting, but it’s an extraordinary challenge. It’s a challenge for the staff to stay up with these emerging technologies for users coming in. Every new crop of freshmen has different experiences with technology and they expect that we’re going to support these experiences. It brings a vibrancy to the library that I think has been really exciting. Our ability to attract new and creative staff who have been very impactful in their own right has been really great. I think that says a lot about Penn and the Penn Libraries that we have been able to attract and maintain these terrific staff members.

Q:

You mentioned Weigle and the Education Commons, and the Moelis Family Grand Reading Room. The Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts also came to fruition in your time as director. Can you talk about that?

A:

H. Carton Rogers
Photo by Peter Tobia

When I became director of the libraries, I inherited a million-dollar gift from the Class of 1978 for the creation of the Class of 1978 Orrery Pavilion. But there weren’t really any other plans surrounding the creation of this—you could have exhibits, but it was also a place for meetings up on the sixth floor. And we had slowly but surely over the years been transforming Van Pelt-Dietrich space by space as we were able to raise money. One of the things I wanted to achieve during my time as director was to do something with the old Rare Book and Manuscript Library. I kept hearing from alums that they never had gone up to the sixth floor when they were undergraduates. They didn’t think they were welcome, and my colleagues up there, the people working in special collections, were very engaged with users, and were trying to find any and all reasons to get people in to use our primary sources. Penn has great special collections but didn’t have great spaces to support the use of those collections. So, we embarked on a long process to reimagine the space on the sixth floor. We decided to include a portion of the fifth floor with the new conservation lab and the two wonderful collection spaces that house our rarest and most precious materials in excellent condition. Think about in 1978, I’m pulling rare books out of the open stacks and then here, 40 years later, we’ve created a very safe and secure housing for them, and built a conservation lab that supports the use of them. When you use older materials—and we want them used, that’s the whole point, we’re not a book museum—sometimes little bits of damage happen. That’s why the creation of this paper conservation lab was so important to our strategic interest. The number of events that we’ve had in the Class of 1978 Pavilion and the range of activities that you see up there are just extraordinary. We’ve created a real community space for Penn. One night there might be a Board of Trustees dinner, the next night there might be a lecture on medieval medicine. It’s just an extraordinarily vibrant set of spaces.

Q:

How did you get interested in library science in the first place?

A:

I went to a small liberal arts college in Ohio in the late 1960s and it was a time of quite a bit of upheaval. I was politically active and was actually student body president my senior year, which turned out to be quite stressful because it was 1970 and we know what happened in Ohio in 1970 [the Kent State shootings]. The library was a sanctuary for me. I enjoyed my little college library. Was it Oscar Wilde who said something like, ‘Everything worth learning, you learn outside of the classroom’? Unfortunately, I sort of took that approach and I just loved being in the library, wandering around, picking out books that looked interesting, reading newspapers and magazines across the political spectrum. Conceptually, libraries are really great things. This is an amazing institution. At the same time, a lot of the early days of automation were impacting libraries and OCLC was starting in Columbus, Ohio, and I was trying to decide what I was going to do. I was a history major and in those days, there were very few academic jobs available. I had a friend who graduated a year before me who went off to do graduate work and he said, ‘You obviously love the library and you’re very comfortable in that environment and there’s all kinds of great stuff happening with automation, which has also interested you. Why don’t you try to merge those two into a career?’ Ultimately, that’s what I ended up doing. After a couple of years doing some other things, I went to graduate school [at Drexel] and then I was really lucky and got hired and was able to stay in Philadelphia. Honestly, I really have not looked back. I’ve enjoyed being part of this environment. I still think libraries are extraordinarily important community spaces. I think that’s why communities are investing in their public libraries these days. I think it’s important for Penn to have these spaces, and I don’t think automation has negated the library’s importance. In fact, in some ways, I think it’s accentuated our importance.

Q:

What are you looking forward to finishing up in your final months here?

A:

I told the provost I was going to go out with a bang. Seriously, we are working on a very large project to redo the Biomedical Library, so coming full circle. I was really hoping to have that done. Wouldn’t that have been nice—where you start your career, you finish your career? But I hope to leave with plans in place and the fundraising done for at least the first days of the very large building project in the Biomedical Library. We’re trying to create something we’re calling the Biotech Commons. Again, creating a set of spaces that meet a range of needs on that side of campus. I’m very excited about that and again, I sort of wish I had a few more years left to do that. We’re going to do a programmatic review of Van Pelt-Dietrich, and probably all Penn Library spaces. I want to be careful that this isn’t to prescribe a path forward for my successor, but to get things in place so that he or she can move fairly quickly to identify some possible capital projects. This will be helpful to my colleagues in advancement, but it also will build some programs around our building renewals. I would like to take a more fundamental look at this facility as we go forward because the world has changed dramatically since 1962. It’s changed dramatically since the late 1980s, when some of the current building renovations were completed. You could go from space to space and say, ‘Couldn’t we be doing something different with this space? Why do you need this? It made sense in 1988, but it doesn’t make so much sense now.’ I think there are wonderful opportunities to create new services using our spaces. And as the use of our print collection declines, it does at least open up the possibility of freeing more of our stack space in this building for other kinds of uses. 

Q:

You have accomplished so much and have much left to do. Why retire now?

A:

My wife’s been retired for about three years and I would very much like to spend time with her. We want to do all the traveling that we’ve postponed over the course of our own careers. She had a wonderful career as a nurse practitioner at the VA. I’d like to spend time with my grandson. I also think that after 43 years and 13-plus years as the director, maybe it’s time for somebody else’s vision to come into play. Maybe a different set of eyes looking over the organization would be a healthy thing. Organizations need change. 

Q:

What will you miss about being here?

A:

Oh, well, clearly I’ll miss the people and believe me when I tell you, I will miss the staff, I will miss the students—Penn students are the best—I will miss the faculty. I’ll miss the administrators. What a great campus. When I think back to what Penn was like in 1975 and compare it to what it is today, what an extraordinary change. It’s been amazing to watch the growth happen at Penn, the reputational growth, the impact that the University has, and the fact that the Libraries have been able to keep up with that and support that growth over the last  40-plus years has been extraordinarily gratifying. I think the Libraries are in a really good place right now. Another reason I’m comfortable leaving is I have a terrific team of senior managers underneath me and they’re ready for this transition, I think, and things will carry on.

Q:

What would you like to see more people use or take advantage of in the Libraries that they may not know about?

A:

I was talking about how important it was for me in my college library just to wander around and read things that I wasn’t necessarily required to read for a class, and how much I learned from just absorbing what my small college library had in it. I’m always sorry that life seems too hectic for many of the Penn students to take advantage of this great library. To be able to go up and handle a Shakespeare quarto, an early edition of ‘Gulliver’s Travels,’ to actually feel it, to smell it—these are transformative experiences. I wish that every student, faculty [member], and employee, for that matter, who spends time at Penn, would take advantage of that opportunity because I really do think it’s extraordinarily meaningful in many different ways.

Originally published on .