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Twenty-five years of Mears Fellows

Mears Fellows collage

What are they doing now?

By Nancy Magnuson, college librarian emerita, and Margie Simon ’75

For students who used the Julia Rogers Library between 1977 and 1996, Io DeGraw Mears was often the first face they saw, and she made it a safe, welcoming space for all. As supervisor of the library’s large student workforce, Mears knew students well and took pleasure in following their careers after graduation. At her death in 1996, her family established a fund to provide financial assistance for alums pursuing graduate studies in library and information science. The first two fellowships were awarded in 1998. As co-managers of the fund, to mark the 25th anniversary of those awards in 2023, we contacted the 40 Mears Fund recipients for updates. With responses from more than half of them, we are happy to share those stories with the Goucher community and the Mears family.

Those first two fellows were Lori Cunningham ’91 and Jessica Mathewson ’92, both of whom worked for Mears as students. Cunningham says, “I had the privilege of knowing Mrs. Mears. In fact, she was my first supervisor in a library. As a freshman in 1987, I needed a work-study job, so I wandered into the library at the beginning of fall semester. After a brief conversation, she gave me a start date, and I remember asking, ‘So, I have the job?’ Thirty-six years later, I’m still working as an eResources and reference librarian at the Community College of Allegheny County in Pittsburgh. I like to think that she would be happy and proud to know that I’m still in an academic library. … Any graduate student is grateful for a fellowship opportunity, but knowing the woman, Io DeGraw Mears, behind this fellowship was the true honor. It may sound cliché, but I truly do owe my career and so many lessons learned in life to Mrs. Mears.”

Mathewson reflected, “I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to know Mrs. Mears personally. Almost 30 years have gone by since then, but I can still remember the sound of her voice, her smile, and her willingness to believe in me despite what a bad shelver I was.” Mathewson now works for the publishing house of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, based in Rome. “I started working for FAO as a librarian 20 years ago. I moved from cataloging to reference work to social media expert and blogger. Around 10 years ago, I left library work and assumed responsibility for copyright and intellectual property issues for FAO publications. Most people think that I come from a legal background when I tell them what I do. But I think that library training is an excellent starting point for the exploration of copyright issues for publications. That, combined with the analytical and writing skills that I perfected at Goucher, has helped to make me very good at what I do, and I’m so lucky to have a job that I love.”

Mears Fellows represent the breadth of the library profession as well as related fields. They are in academic, public, school, and special libraries and archives. They are podcasting, promoting digital equity, researching the family history of Rhoda Dorsey, and supporting home schoolers.

Malissa Ruffner ’77 had worked as a computer programmer, a lawyer, and director of a small private school in Baltimore City when she saw an article about the Mears Fellowship in this magazine. After graduating from the University of Maryland College of Information Studies in 2002, she formed an information consulting business with a range of clients, including projects in the Goucher archives, describing Ridgley Family collections at Historic Hampton and elsewhere, drafting retention schedules for the ACLU of Maryland, and coordinating training and staffing for the Internet Public Library’s digital reference service. Her passion for archives and historical research led her next to professional genealogy, serving for five years as director of the Genealogical Institute on Federal Records. Since 2016, she has been the lead Maryland genealogist for the Georgetown Memory Project, tracing descendants of 272 Jesuit-enslaved men, women, and children sold in 1838 to benefit what was then Georgetown College. “I’m currently working on a ‘genealogical biography’ of Rhoda M. Dorsey, who engaged me as a genealogist after we worked together at the Goucher Archives. That project recently took me back to Goucher to study her personal and presidential papers—a labor of love that brings my Mears Fellowship story full circle.”

Ruffner is not the only Fellow who was drawn to archives. Working in the American School of Archaeology’s library in Jerusalem, Paige Smith ’73 realized she wanted to be an archivist. After graduation from library school at the University of Alabama, she helped reorganize the Birmingham Museum of Art library. “That took us a couple of years. … But how was I to get a job as an archivist? Amazingly, a local biotech/engineering research institute, loosely connected with UAB, was looking for an archivist, though their job did not require a degree. I wrote to them and explained WHY a TRAINED archivist was what they REALLY wanted, and got the job at the salary I asked for! I was immediately immersed in a plethora of government regulations and rules about how to maintain archives for government and clinical work—and I loved it.”

Karen King Day ’89 is the assistant director of the York County (PA) Archives, where she has worked for over 30 years with county records from 1749 to the present. “I had the privilege of working with Mrs. Mears as a student at Goucher, including full-time in the summers. She taught us not only library skills but also strong customer service and professionalism. I have carried these with me through various jobs since my years at Goucher.”

With a dual degree in history and archives management, Suzanna Calev ’11 worked in a variety of public libraries, museums, medical libraries, and academic libraries, leading to her current position as university archivist at Wilkes University. There she has built an archive from the ground up and developed a successful program training students to process archival collections. Her advice for people interested in archival work is to “network, collaborate, and develop good relationships with archivists across the field. … Find great mentors who will encourage and nurture your growth within the field. Keep learning, keep growing, keep being your fabulous self.”

Emilie Pichot ’15, currently an archives and collections assistant at the Glasgow School of Art, realized that “working in libraries might be a career path when playfully wandering around the library at Goucher.” As a recent graduate of the University of Strathclyde, her goal is to work in a public research setting. Deeply grateful for her critical education at Goucher, she recently published “Comfortable Terms: Diversity Discourse and Institutional White Supremacy in UK Libraries” in Radical Librarianship Journal.

Julianna Head ’19 is an archivist for the government in Alabama. It took a “hot minute” to get there as she navigated a job search complicated by COVID. A big influence on her career choice was her student work in the Goucher College Archives as well as the book studies minor. “I’ve always had a fondness for history and old texts, but the Goucher Archives (and the library as a whole, really) drove home just how much I enjoy working with books, manuscripts, and everything in between. … I’d do myself a disservice not to mention the year-long independent study I did with the Mencken Collection. I’ll always have a soft spot for Sara Haardt Mencken and her love letters. All the hours I spent wading through that collection was the tipping point in whether or not I wanted to brave grad school, and I’m so happy I did!”

Some of our Fellows are using their library training outside of traditional libraries. Teri Dorsey Rising ’93 worked for Mears for all four years of college, including summer. “She always knew what kind of shenanigans we were up to even when we thought we were so clever. She also knew that sometimes when we were late it was because our stress level was off the chart or there was drama in our lives. Mrs. Mears could read us like a book.” Today Rising is the program manager for Baltimore County’s Cultural Arts and Science program, an independent architectural historian and board member and volunteer researcher for the county historical society. “The skills I learned when it comes to conducting research, especially when it comes to finding quality and reliable sources of information, has become increasingly important in our world.  Examining materials with a critical eye was easier when you had very clear divisions between primary and secondary sources. I think now, more than ever, librarians are important partners for information management.”

Caroline Thompson ’98 worked in the Julia Rogers Library and remembers Mears as a “warm, lovely person who was kind to us student employees and seemed to really enjoy her work as a librarian. The fellowship is such a wonderful way to honor her and share that joy of librarianship.” Today, Thompson is a senior development manager for Macmillan Learning in Boston. “My job involves developing content and learning experiences for college courses in the humanities and managing other editors who do the same. My library training informs my editorial work in so many ways! Everything that I learned at Simmons about research, digital archives, metadata, indexing, and taxonomy construction comes into play on a regular basis. The program also emphasized flexibility in adapting to technological changes and new digital tools, which is certainly a valuable skill in the ever-changing landscape of higher ed (ChatGPT anyone?).”

As an informatics analyst with Emory University, George Peckham-Rooney ’05 builds research and healthcare datasets. He says, “The tenets found in librarianship can be found in many different sectors as well as within a traditional library. Be curious. Information is everywhere and is always in need of those inclined to arrange and disseminate it to those in need.”

Johanna Goldberg ’05 is a “research informationist (fancy term for reference librarian) at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center,” she says, “where I find evidence-based information for doctors, nurses, researchers, patients, and other members of the hospital community to inform patient care, publications, presentations, and grant applications. I was working for a nonprofit that focused on brain research while in library school, which led to a career in medical libraries. As an English major, I never expected this! … I learn something new every day, from trends in scientific and academic publishing to hot topics in cancer research to the best way to teach research skills via Zoom.”

Britt Rimmele ’07 works with 10th graders in the Raleigh, NC, homeschooling program Classical Conversations, where she teaches Logic, Reasoning, Latin, Western Cultural Studies, Research, and Debate. Though not a traditional setting, Rimmele’s library skills help her students every day.

Jessica Garman ’07 is pursuing an M.S.W. to become a therapist after working in independent school libraries for 10 years. “While the field of therapy differs from libraries, my library experience helped shape my skills and perspectives in working with diverse populations, fostering communication, and promoting lifelong learning. …The library profession equips you with so many transferrable skills, like research and information literacy, organization and management, and a deep appreciation for fostering learning and community engagement that are invaluable in any profession that involves human connection and providing support. … Libraries are such a radical idea when you think about it, and one that probably if proposed today, wouldn’t fly. (Free books? For everyone?) We are so lucky to have them! The library profession plays such a crucial role in society, and I’m grateful for the experiences and insights it provided me. While I am currently on a different path, I remain inspired by the valuable work of librarians and the impact they have on communities—I may be back one day.”

Clare Kuntz Balcer ’15’s interest in librarianship was sparked by her four years working at the circulation desk and two classes taught in the Special Collections classroom. While in library school, she reflected on her time volunteering with the Goucher Prison Education Partnership (GPEP) and how GPEP students pursued their research and interacted with the library. This led her to teach several information literacy sessions along with a GPEP instructor and writing an article about the experience for College and Library Research News. Today, Balcer is a freelance researcher who assisted Dr. Nicole Fabricant with the history chapter of her book, Fighting to Breathe: Race, Toxicity, and the Rise of Youth Activism in Baltimore. She also works as assistant producer for the podcast Congressional Dish, where she reads bills, listens to Congressional hearings, and conducts in-depth research into a wide range of topics. “I’m so glad I pursued my M.L.I.S. because I would not have found the work I am doing now. I think the skills and approach that you will learn are invaluable regardless what field you might end up in.”

Lo Smith ’13 is a senior programs manager with the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, supporting digital inclusion programs and policy. They transitioned into digital inclusion through a technology exchange fellowship at the Enoch Pratt Free Library with the Media Democracy Fund and the Ford Foundation. They served as Pratt’s first coordinator of digital equity, developing Pratt’s digital equity and inclusion strategy. They also founded the first harm-reduction initiative between Baltimore County Public Libraries and the Baltimore City Health Department and coordinated Pratt’s outreach program during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Smith says, “Work in libraries is based in compassion, active listening, and quick decision-making. We serve people, not information networks.”

Two of our respondents are working with special and rare materials. Debra Elfenbein ’83 leaped from book and journal publishing into librarianship as a second career. She came to the Enoch Pratt Library after working as a dance archivist and consultant and pursuing postgraduate studies in rare books and digital humanities at UNC Chapel Hill. In her third Pratt position she is a librarian in the Special Collections Department—the “perfect resting place. … My last and best job.” The satisfactions of work in special collections and rare books in a public library include “welcoming strangers and receiving back their softened faces, smiling; teaming with fine people to answer questions; getting and giving access to new, arcane, rare books, Edgar Allan Poe’s lock of hair, and oral history digital audio kits extemporizing show & tells for tour groups, inventing new and better programs, and creating exhibits that entertain and historicize; helping organize Pratt Workers United for improved library services for all.”

Cassie Brand ’09 was inspired to special collections librarianship by a course with Professor Arnie Sanders. As curator of rare books at Washington University in St. Louis, she manages a collection ranging from cuneiform tablets to the present, including two original printed copies of the Declaration of Independence. She was recently involved in two repatriation projects. Working with a librarian from Prague, she determined that several of the Jewish books in the Washington University Collection had been stolen by the Nazis during World War II. She worked with Washington University to return the books to the library in Prague. Only a month after that, she was contacted by a library in Switzerland about a book that had been stolen in the 1970s. Once again, she was able to verify that the book had indeed been stolen before making its way to the WU collection. She delivered the book to the Swiss Ambassador in DC, with a signing ceremony, photo shoot, and interviews to discuss the cooperation between the libraries. Brand comments on “how often I think back to what I learned at Goucher in my classes and working in the library. I am constantly pulling on that knowledge, whether it’s teaching classes, curating exhibits, working with interns, or making the best use of shelving space. I am and always will be grateful for the amazing experience, but mostly for the extreme generosity of faculty and staff as they created opportunities for me and took a great deal of time to mentor me and pass on their vast knowledge and experience.”

Public and children’s librarianship is well-represented among the Fellows. Kristy Raffensburger ’01 has been a children’s librarian at the New York Public Library for 17 years. “For the first few years after graduation, I worked in children’s book publishing. Being part of the process to help create books was thrilling but putting them in kids’ hands is even more rewarding. Besides matching kids with books, I’m always up for the never-ending librarian quest—you know, finding the book with the bear on the cover. I think it might be blue.”

Arnessa Jeffery Dowell ’03 is executive director at the Kent County Public Library System on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “My passion for books and libraries led me on a well-traveled path. I’ve had the opportunity to work in various military base libraries around the world, including in Germany, Italy, and the Azores.” She has held diverse positions, including being a supervisory librarian at military bases in Alaska and department manager for a public library in North Dakota. “During … my journey, I’ve come to realize that running a successful library requires more than just a love for books. It demands dedication, adaptability, and a commitment to serving the community. … Having so much wanderlust, I may never consider one place as my permanent home, but I can confidently say that the Goucher Library, where I started, will forever hold a special place in my heart—a symbol of hope, comfort, and promise.”

While pursuing a graduate degree in contemporary communications, Abigail Lyon ’10 worked for Baltimore County Public Library and realized librarianship was the field she should be studying. After five years as the assistant lower school librarian at the Gilman School in Baltimore, she is now the children’s librarian at the Roland Park branch of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library. “As a member of the Class of 2010, I was fortunate to use both the Julia Rogers Library and the Athenaeum for my senior year. I have such fond memories of both!” Making that relationship permanent, Lyon’s name remains in the library, on a study carrel she and her mother, Lynne Sherman Lyon ’74, sponsored.

Kasper (formerly Camden) Kimura ’12 relayed many stories of his work in public libraries, which he balances with part-time youth ministry, two roles calling for compassion, patience, and grace. He advises that one shouldn’t “expect to come out of the field unchanged by the people you work with and meet. … You’re interacting with strangers all day with the expectation of being unerringly helpful and nice; it can be very draining but there are so many small joys to be found in the work—the regulars who are excited to show pictures of their new grandbabies or the teens who look at me and trust me not to judge them when they ask for books with LGBTQ characters. Also, don’t go into public libraries expecting a nice quiet space. … Maybe it’s because I work in the youth division, but if there’s no one screaming their head off about Peppa Pig, I’m like, What’s going on, where is everyone?”

Beck Fink ’20 is a children’s librarian in Massachusetts. They started on an archives path but discovered they enjoyed engaging with young patrons and so applied for youth services positions after graduation. “I’m really glad I did because I love working in a children’s room and enjoy all the different and creative work I get to do. It’s just so rewarding to see kids engaging with your programs. … I miss my time at Goucher; I enjoyed opening the library Saturday mornings and learning the faces of the student body. One of the most incredible things about the job is getting to know your patrons one checkout at a time.”

Interest in the fund and the profession continues. Among the newest cohort is Kathleen McGill Wyer ’02, who will complete her M.L.I.S. studies at St. John’s University this fall, including the Advanced Certificate in Social Justice for Information Professionals. With extensive experience in public behavioral health systems and inspired by the many services available at the Enoch Pratt Library, she plans a career in public libraries. “I’m grateful that this fellowship exists and that I’m among its numbers,” she says. “It speaks to the Goucher community and its commitment to lifelong learning and development.”

Mears would have been delighted with how many of the recipients of the fund were former student workers. From 2000 until his death this past spring, Tom Minnema supervised those students. Though he never met Mears, Minnema had a similar impact on students. Johanna Goldberg ’05 says, “All libraries should have managers with the sense of humor, unwavering support, and warmth that Tom showed to everyone who stepped through the library door, especially the student workers.” Goldberg could have been describing Mears.

The Mears family has appreciated hearing these stories as evidence of the impact of their fund. Goucher has been a family affair for them; Mears’ children Jon and Susan took classes and her sister, Bertha DeGraw Miller, also worked for the college. And the connection continues with her granddaughter, Audrey Betley ’25, who is currently a third-year psychology major.

You can see more about the Mears Fund on the library home page. We are proud to be co-managers of the fund and look forward to working with more future librarians.