Anna van Scoyoc and James Damron selected as SILSAA Featured Alumni

January 25, 2012

To start 2012 with a bang, the School of Information and Library Science Alumni Association (SILSAA) has chosen not one, but two alumni to feature: Anna van Scoyoc (MSLS '01) and her husband, James Damron (MSLS '01). James is branch manager of the Lawrence Headquarters Branch Library, a part of the Mercer County Libraries, in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. Anna is a branch librarian, also in the Mercer County Library System, focused on instructional librarianship and technologies.

Anna and James met at SILS. When asked about how their relationship began, Anna said, "Our first semester together in SILS, we had ‘Reference and Information Services’ with Carol Tobin. We had a group project together early on in the semester, and we became partners for the weekly reference exercises. Those weekly reference assignments took a fair amount of time, so we spent quite a bit of time together that first semester. In addition to the class, we had a common friend in SILS, Susan (Huffman) Brown (MSLS ‘00), which led to us hanging out a lot outside of SILS."

“James was definitely my best friend in school. We didn’t date, however, during our time at SILS,” Anna continues. “We both graduated in 2001, and we sporadically kept in touch after graduation. In 2006, a group of us made plans to meet up in Chapel Hill. I was in Atlanta, GA, and James was in New Jersey. He and I hadn’t seen each other for at least four years. You know those friends that you have, and years can pass without seeing each other, but you just pick up from where you left off without missing a beat? That’s really how it was when we met up in Chapel Hill. I guess it was at that gathering that we became a ‘couple.’ I can still picture Susan turning to me and saying something like, ‘You know what, Anna? You and James should really give it a shot...’”

"We did. Six months later, he proposed."

Mercer County Libraries, where James runs the Lawrence Headquarters Branch Library, offer an impressive array of programming and adult education courses. Being so involved with adult education and instructional services is not where James thought he would end up when he graduated from SILS.

“Right out of SILS I got a job at Virginia Union University in Richmond, VA,” he recalls. “I worked with some great librarians there, namely Dr. Vonita Foster – then director of the L. Douglas Wilder Learning Resource Center – and Rev. Ronald Shelton. At some point, Dr. Foster offered me the opportunity to manage the Circulation Department; I guess it was a staff of about four.  I can't recall Mr. Shelton talking me into taking the opportunity, but I do think he encouraged me to. So I took the opportunity that was offered me and did okay at it, I guess. Since then, it has been more of the same – taking on opportunities when they come my way. The move from an academic library to public libraries was not a difficult one for me to make, maybe because I did it early enough in my career.” 

James is closely involved with adult education programming at the Lawrence Headquarters Branch Library. “We made a decision several years ago to grow our adult programs, and we began to do a lot of trial and error,” he says. “We did this both with the types of programs we offered and when we offered them. At the same time, we began to actively engage our community in conversations about what type of programs they enjoyed. We would ask them why certain things worked for them and others did not. Once we were focused, attendance at adult programs began to increase. The more our attendance increased the greater freedom we felt for trying new things – there was less pressure in a way.”  

“Members of the community asked to lead programs at the library. This is wonderful – what better way to get a handle on what the community will respond positively to than to have members of the community leading the programs? We have members of the community hosting regular programs on knitting, reading theatrical plays aloud, exercise and memoir writing for seniors. Between 2009 and 2010, we saw an increase of 125 percent in adult programs offered and an increase of 161 percent in adult program attendance. Obviously we cannot expect that type of increase each year, but it does speak to the dedication of the staff that handles the adult programs, how the community has responded to those efforts. Hopefully it shows that we are moving in the right direction when it comes to what we offer in terms of adult programs.”  

Anna also found herself working in instructional services after imagining a different career for herself. “After specifically only working in academic libraries, I was hired as a reference librarian for a county library system,” Anna remembers. “When I applied for the position at a public library, of course I was concerned that I had become too pigeonholed (instruction librarian, academic libraries, first-year students). But I feel very fortunate that I have been able to continue my role as an instructor.”

“When I started my position, I greatly missed teaching. I kept thinking instruction and information literacy efforts were specifically set in the school library and academic library settings, and a majority of our traditional computer classes take place at the main branch. I am very grateful to Bobbi Newman, who brought to my attention to the transliteracy movement in libraries. From there, an idea started to develop, focusing on how I could start teaching again. The branch manager was (and continues to be) very supportive about my role in our branch’s classes for emerging technologies (e.g., Skype, Google Reader, eReaders, etc.), as well as online library resources.”

As at James’s library, Anna’s classes proceeded on an experimental basis. “We started out small, because my branch doesn’t have a formal ‘classroom.’ Initially, we invited attendees to bring their laptops with Wi-Fi access to follow along with the presentation, but no laptop was required for the session. Eventually, we requested funding for a few laptops for the library. Those laptops are used for attendees that do not bring (or own) their own laptop, which has allowed me to make the sessions more workshop-like, rather than primarily demonstrational or informational.”

The lessons she has learned as an instructional librarian at a public library, Anna feels, can be applied to any library situation. “Fundamentally, all libraries are fulfilling similar needs – just tailored to their specific community. In my case, I just had to find a way to blend my prior teaching experience with my current situation. So whatever the fundamental role one ‘specializes’ in (whether it's collection development, organization of information, preservation or dissemination of information, etc.), there’s a place for it. The specific library setting is just where our responsibilities take place. The tasks are simply adapted to that library setting’s community and stakeholders.”

Since 2009, Anna and two colleagues have produced a podcast called Adventures in Library Instruction. This experience, Anna says, has been a huge part of her recent professional development. “I've learned new technologies, and I've had the opportunity to talk with some fabulous librarians from a wide variety of libraries that I probably wouldn't have gotten the chance to meet at traditional conferences. Additionally, Jason [Puckett] and Rachel [Borchardt], my co-producers, are so inspiring. After every recording, I'm rejuvenated with new ideas, strategies, and teaching methods.”

When asked about her podcast titled “Balance and Burnout," she offers the following advice. “I still struggle with work-life balance, but one piece of advice I would give is that sometimes ‘good enough’ is just that – good enough. I think about the time I’ve spent on tutorials, screencasts, handouts, and presentations, trying to make them perfect. Something has to give. I may have said ‘um’ 20 times during a 60 second tutorial or made a typo in my ‘live’ search, but it’s good enough; the tutorial isn’t perfect, but it serves its purpose.” Anna also writes at her personal blog, First Conclusions

Though their careers have turned out differently than they imagined, both James and Anna are grateful for the education they received at SILS. Asked about how SILS prepared him for his career, Damron reflects, “I wanted to do government documents while I was in library school. Mike Van Fossen was the advisor on my Master’s paper. I applied for a couple of government documents jobs right out of school, but didn't get any bites. Anyway, the position came at Virginia Union [University] and it worked out great. I think SILS helped prepare me for the work I do now in a lot of ways. I think I was challenged at SILS not only by professors but by my classmates, and not only in the classroom but wherever we were at the time. I think when I was at SILS there were a lot of people there really dedicated to libraries and what they mean to the community. I'm assuming that is still the way it is at SILS today.”

What SILS has meant to Anna van Scoyoc and James Damron can be illustrated by one fact: the couple's second son's middle name is Manning - as in Manning Hall, where they met.