Tuesday we wrote about our department’s connections with Bethel’s library. Today we’ll stay on that theme as we continue From AC 2nd to… (our series of interviews with Bethel History alumni who have gone into various careers), as our guest, Kevin McGrew (’88), is the director of the College of St. Scholastica Library in Duluth, Minnesota.

Kevin McGrewYou were back on campus recently. Do you have a sense of how Bethel in general (and maybe the History Department in particular) has changed or remained the same since your time here?

What has changed? Bethel is much bigger today than it was when I was a student. As a department many of the faculty who were there are now retired or about to retire. The way students go about research has also changed dramatically during the last 25 years. If I’m looking for primary sources in 1987 I have to go to them. Today, I might very well be able to access what I need from my office or dorm room. So many primary resources are being digitized and made available on the Web to researchers now. It’s very exciting to see. The Minnesota Reflections project is a good example. Oh, and the dining hall is much spiffier.

What has remained the same?  In many ways, the faculty who will begin the 2012-13 academic year will be much like the faculty in the late 1980s: at the beginning of or in the prime of their careers. And Diana Davis is still roaming “AC 2nd”.

How did you decide to major in History?

I’ve always been very interested in the history of all kinds of things: from our nation’s history, to church history, to my own family’s history. I was not a History major to start with, however. As a freshman at Bethel in 1984 I chose to major in Linguistics. I really enjoyed the classes I had with Drs. Larson and Smalley and was convinced I was called to translate the Bible into some remote tribal language. It wasn’t long before it became clear to me that 1) Drs. Larson and Smalley were going to retire before I graduated and 2) translating the Bible into a remote tribal language would involve living among a remote tribe; maybe the calling wasn’t as strong as I thought. My passion for history was strong so I flipped my major with my History minor after my first year and was able to still finish in four years.

What has stuck with you most about your studies in that field at Bethel?

Until I came to Bethel I had never really spent much time in any historical society or archives. This was something I really came to appreciate during my time there. Being so close to the history I was studying, having that kind of connection to the people who made history made it that much more exciting for me.

One of my favorite memories of the History faculty at Bethel is of Dr. Neil Lettinga standing on top of a desk, in full academic garb, wearing clogs, lecturing.  That image has definitely stuck with me.

At what point did you become interested in working in a library?

As an undergraduate I really didn’t think about what kind of career I might enter. I enjoyed nearly all my classes simply because I wanted to learn. Sometime during Spring semester of my senior year I realized I probably ought to come up with a plan. My plan was simple: find a job and work out the career details later. As I began to sort through what I wanted to do I reflected on what I liked most about my four years at Bethel. It became clear to me that what I liked most was research. The process of discovering information to support a thesis or gain a foundation of background information for a paper was very satisfying for me.  I also enjoyed helping my roommates and other friends with their research papers. So, other than becoming a professional graduate student (which doesn’t pay very well), working in a library seemed like the obvious choice.

Can you tell us a bit about your career and how it led you to your current position?

As with any field, librarianship has its own set of requirements, one of which is a master’s degree level of education. I moved back to Duluth and enrolled in the College of St. Scholastica’s Educational Media and Technology (for K-12 school librarians) graduate program. At the same time I was beginning the program, a paraprofessional position in the St. Scholastica Library opened up. I enjoyed both the coursework in the program and working in an academic library.  It wasn’t long before I realized this was the kind of library I wanted to spend my career in. It also wasn’t long before I realized an M.Ed. wasn’t the proper credential to work in an academic library; I needed a master’s degree in Library Science from a graduate school accredited by the American Library Association (librarians are a picky bunch…). I also learned that one of the librarians at St. Scholastica was planning to retire within the next couple of years so I applied to the School of Library and Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. While there I was able to land two part-time jobs with the Wisconsin Historical Society: one in the microform room and one working with a museum curator accessioning and cataloging items, both perfectly suited for a History major. Having completed my M.A. from Wisconsin, I headed back to Duluth and applied for the full-time reference librarian position that became available at St. Scholastica. In my first year I learned I would now proceed through the promotion and tenure process and I would need to add a subject master’s degree in order to be granted “tenure” at St. Scholastica. So, I picked up where I left off with my M.Ed. studies and finished that degree before my 6th year in the position. I became director in 2005 after having been involved with reference, periodicals, electronic resources, and the College Archives.

Do you see connections between majoring in History and serving as director of a college library?

Yes, there are clear connections. As a History major I learned how to think analytically and critically, organize, interpret, and assess information, and make evidence-based decisions, all of which are important for a librarian. I also learned how to clearly communicate issues to other groups, a necessary skill when working with our senior administrators. I think the study of history helped foster my own culture of intellectual curiosity. One of the perks of working in a cross-disciplinary department like the library is I get the chance to interact with subject specialists from so many different fields. Whenever I spend time with a colleague from another department, be it at lunch, in a meeting, or over coffee, I come away with something new I want to investigate or explore.

As a librarian (and perhaps also as a former History major), I imagine that you read a wide array of books. What’s the best book you’ve read this year? What book are you most looking forward to reading this summer?

I would say the best book I’ve read this year is Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young boy who is part of troupe of traveling performers who dreams of attending the University and mastering the magical arts. In many ways his dogged pursuit to gain entrance into the University reminds me of the many first generation students we have at St. Scholastica.

I haven’t had much time to put together a summer reading list yet, but there is one title that will definitely be on it: God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, by Thomas Kidd.

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