Michelle Light has begun her role as associate university librarian for special collections and director of the Beinecke Library after working in archives around the country for 20 years.
Sarah Cook 12:07 am, Dec 06, 2021
Michelle Light has returned to Yale to take on a combination of roles as associate university librarian for special collections and director of the Beinecke Library.
Light made her return to Yale on Oct. 1 after previously working as a project archivist in Manuscripts and Archives 20 years ago. She most recently worked as the director of special collections at the Library of Congress. In her new roles at the University, Light aims to unify the approach of the special collections in order to ensure a seamless user experience. This is the first time that the roles of leading the Beinecke and the entire special collections have been combined.
“I come to this position with a deep commitment to supporting our users and to supporting Yale’s education and research mission and especially to stewarding these world-renowned … treasures for not only the Yale community but for the world now and into the future,” Light said. “So it is an awe-inspiring position and it’s really an incredible honor to work here.”
Light said that she has loved getting to work with her Yale colleagues in her new role and has found the staff to be both passionate and knowledgeable about the work they do. She added that “it has been fun and an incredible pleasure to hear about their love for their jobs and their love for the library and their love for items in the collection.”
After graduating from the University of Michigan with a M.S. in information (archives and record management) and a M.A. in late Roman and medieval European history, Light worked at Yale as a project archivist from 1999 to 2001. During her initial tenure at the University, she worked on a project for Yale’s 300th anniversary identifying and organizing archives from across the University.
Following her time at Yale, Light went to Northeastern University and worked in special collections and archives where she documented Black, Hispanic and LGBTQ+ populations in Boston, particularly through records of social justice organizations. She then went on to the University of Washington as head of technical services for their special collections, where she oversaw acquisitions, cataloguing, archival processing and digitization.
From Washington, Light went to University of California, Irvine to work as the head of special collections and archives and digital scholarship, where she oversaw the Southeast Asian and critical theory archives. She then worked at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas as director of special collections, where she helped lead outreach to under-documented communities, establish rural history projects and digitize archives. Growing up in Nevada, Light said that it was especially rewarding to be able to work on archives in her home state.
“It was a real honor to work to document the history of a region that was so familiar to me,” she said.
Light’s final role before returning to Yale was director of special collections at the Library of Congress, where she worked for just over two years. At the Library of Congress, Light oversaw six units of special collections with 260 staff members total.
Light told the News that she appreciates how unlike at the Library of Congress, her new role allows her to work closely with students and faculty.
“One of the areas of delight for me has been to see students in classes and working in the reading rooms again,” Light said. “I’m so committed to higher education and the value of students getting access to special collections materials as part of their undergraduate or graduate experiences. It has been really amazing to see the energy and curiosity in reading rooms and in the classrooms at Yale.”
University Librarian Barbara Rockenbach wrote that Yale Library special collections decided to rethink their organizational structure after the retirement of the previous director of the Beinecke Library, E.C. Schroeder. Light’s role connects the special collections as a whole with the Beinecke, which Light thinks will help the special collections work together more effectively.
The Yale Library has seven special collections units. Five support specific disciplines including arts, divinity, medical, historical and music, and the other three are multidisciplinary collections: The Beinecke Library, the Lewis Walpole Library and Manuscripts and Archives.
While working on the job description for Light’s role, Rockenbach explained that she found early memos and correspondences from the late 1950s that indicated the Beinecke was originally conceived to be Yale Library’s special collections library. But after it was found that the special collections from Sterling Memorial Library would not fit in the Beinecke, Manuscripts and Archives was created to house the excess material.
Light’s new role brings together all of the special collections and the Beinecke’s work, which Rockenbach said stays true to the original view of the Beinecke as a special collections library.
“In this new position and reorganization, we are creating a more expansive Beinecke Library in keeping with the original intent of the Beinecke family,” Rockenbach told the News.
Sterling Professor of history David Blight was a member of the search committee for the new director of the Beinecke, and wrote to the News that Light is the “ideal person” to bring together all of Yale’s holdings and collections due to her experience leading libraries at the Library of Congress.
“[Light] knows archival collections and she has demonstrated superb management skill,” Blight wrote. “Let’s remember that the Beinecke is one of Yale’s greatest treasures; as a historian I love the place and its many world-class curators. I think the faculty and students, and for that matter, the entire community should feel confident that the Beinecke is now under superb leadership.”
However, according to Rockenbach, there was concern at a recent Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate meeting about some challenges that have arisen at the beginning of Light’s tenure. Several faculty members including Sterling Professor of African American studies and history Matt Jacobson and Sterling Professor of French Howard Bloch had “tough questions” about labor and a backlog in processing new collections.
In fall 2019, Yale University Library signed contracts with two vendors at the request of the provost to address the backlog of processing collections at the Beinecke to make collection materials available for teaching and research as soon as possible.
The labor concerns relate to recent protests from library workers that are aimed at ending subcontracting, in which the University pays outside firms to get library work done by utilizing the outside company’s employees.
Rockenbach wrote that she and Light worked together to explain at the FAS meeting the urgent need to get materials from the archives processed for student and faculty use and their desire to support technical and clerical staff who have protested subcontracting.
“Michelle and I explained to the Senate that we remain committed to maintaining and supporting clerical and technical employment at the library and to advancing and supporting Yale’s commitments to the New Haven community,” Rockenbach wrote.
Light also said that she is studying the backlog project further and “looking for flexibility” in how Yale can get the project completed. She said that she is currently exploring additional options to address the backlog through a “best practices process” with the union that encompasses the technical and clerical staff.
Light’s goals at Yale
Light told the News that she is excited about being able to achieve a unified approach towards organizing and finding materials in the special collections under the combination of roles.
“I see exciting advantages and opportunities for a unified approach for how we can leverage all of these special collections materials at Yale to support not only students and faculty in their learning and research but also the worldwide scholarly community as well,” Light said.
Before Light’s arrival, she said, the special collections divisions at Yale were already collaborating in a number of ways to create a more consistent and unified experience. This work has involved many initiatives to ensure students and faculty can understand the resources available to them in the special collections and how to access it. Light hopes to build off of this work and strengthen the connections between the special collections.
In addition, Light said she hopes to update the approach to collection development to “keep pace with current and future interests of students and scholars,” and improve how materials are stored and cared for. Light said she is continuing to look at how to improve teaching and instruction programs, such as fellowships, that can increase student engagement with materials.
Light also said she hopes to help strengthen the connections between the special collections and the New Haven community.
“We’re also looking at how we can increase our outreach to the New Haven community to not only provide a really welcoming, exciting, engaging exhibit spaces for them, but how we can partner with more people in the New Haven community to bring our relevant history outwards,” Light said.
According to Light, a lot of the New Haven-related work is still in planning phases, but she plans to create a unit dedicated to community engagement. Currently, the Beinecke has online events focused on the Yale and Slavery project that describes Yale’s history in relation to slavery and its connection to the city of New Haven.
However, access to the Beinecke building remains restricted to the Yale community due to public health concerns.
The Beinecke Library opened in 1963.
Correction, Dec. 7: The article has been updated to more accurately reflect Light’s goals in her new roles.