Meet Tara, who is helping students and researchers at Columbia access special collections safely in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Tara Craig, Head of Public Services at the Rare Book Manuscript Library. Photo by Eileen Barroso.

Q: What is your job in the Libraries normally, and how has it changed since the pandemic began? 

I’m the Head of Public Services at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library (RBML). I am responsible for planning and implementing the reference, reproduction, and reading room access services which connect users to our collections. Because special collections are unique, there’s always a balance between access and preservation/security. Before the pandemic, users could walk into our library space, browse our exhibition galleries, attend class sessions with curators, have informal consultations with librarians and archivists, and access many collections in our supervised reading room without planning too far in advance. 

Since the pandemic, we moved our reading room to a different space in Butler Library with fewer seats to meet health density requirements and launched an appointment booking system. We also ramped up our email reference and reproduction services to try to meet research needs remotely in lieu of in-person visits, helping to keep the Columbia community safer. These changes were achieved through months of planning and implemented in collaboration with the Public Services team and many other staff in RBML, Facilities, and Conservation.

A seat reservation system allows the Libraries to meet health density requirements while still offering special collections research appointments. Photo by Eileen Barroso.

Q: What kinds of things should researchers keep in mind when they want to use special collections these days? 

Plan ahead! Requesting materials and booking a reading room appointment requires a minimum of 5 business days advance notice. Keep in mind that many of our archival collections are also housed in off-campus storage and library staff are working reduced onsite schedules. Reach out to us (!  We can help you identify special collections materials for your projects, and coordinate consultations, remote access or in-person appointments.

Q: What’s one recent change about your work that you hope becomes permanent? 

The flexibility to work remotely part of each week. I have a long commute to campus so it has been invaluable to be able to use my time more productively and create a better work-life balance.

Researchers check in for their appointment in the reading room and the requested materials are ready upon arrival. Photo by Eileen Barroso.

Q: Favorite thing you’ve read or done during lockdown/quarantine? 

Birding! I’ve been birding for about two years, and have been involved with the E3Birders, founded by students & faculty in the Dept. of Ecology, Evolution, & Environmental Biology (and open to anyone interested); and with the Feminist Bird Club, a birdwatching club which promotes inclusivity and fundraises to protect the rights of BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ folks, and women. While the pandemic uprooted normal activities for people, the cycles of the fascinating urban natural world around us have continued uninterrupted. Getting away from Zoom and outside to observe birds, interacting with other birders (from a safe distance, of course) and learning new things every time has been incredibly rewarding. You never know when you might see a resident red-tailed hawk or a migrating tropical songbird right on campus!

I’ve also recently read some excellent books, including Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, Upstream by Mary Oliver, On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder and Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght.

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