Kathryn Mendenhall (’76) concludes distinguished career with the Library of Congress

June 2, 2016

Kathryn Mendenhall (MSLS ’76) found inspiration for her professional path in a book while working at a library, an appropriate beginning for a 40-year career in librarianship that included 33 years at the Library of Congress.

Mendenhall was a bibliographic searcher at UNC’s Wilson Library in the early 1970s when a new acquisition about the Library of Congress arrived. “The book showcased the stunning art and architecture of the Library's historic buildings and the international scope of its work,” she said. “The beauty of the Library and its noble mission made me want to work there.”  

Mendenhall, who had a master’s degree in French, wrote to inquire if the Library needed someone with her qualifications. The response she received indicated the Library was looking for staff members with professional library degrees. “My husband pointed out that Manning Hall was a just short distance from Wilson Library,” Mendenhall said.

After completing her MSLS at what is now the UNC School of Information and Library Science (SILS), Mendenhall worked as a business reference librarian at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., for about a year. Then a flyer for the Library of Congress intern program reminded her of why she had initially decided to pursue her library degree. She applied, and credits her acceptance to a recommendation letter from her advisor, Dr. Ed Holley, as well as SILS’ outstanding reputation.

The intern program gave Mendenhall a chance to learn the different functions and organizational units of the Library of Congress and to interact with senior library managers. “Best of all, it included a permanent position at the end,” she said.   

As her career progressed, Mendenhall sought opportunities to gain different experiences, which ultimately led her to leave the Library of Congress so she could assume positions of broader responsibility in smaller organizations. She worked as a project leader on library-related contracts at the research organization Battelle, and as head of systems and research services for the UNC Health Sciences Library.

She rejoined the Library of Congress in the mid-1980s and remained there until her retirement in late 2015. For more than a decade, she was involved in developing and managing the Library's Cataloging Distribution Service (CDS). 

“Through the CDS, other libraries throughout the country and the world could benefit from the bibliographic record files, standards, and tools developed by the Library of Congress for organizing and providing access to its collections,” she said.  “The MARC distribution services alone saved other libraries millions of dollars in original cataloging costs."

During her last 10 years with the Library of Congress, she served as the Director of Partnerships and Outreach Programs, with responsibility for a variety of divisions that covered multiple disciplinary areas, including Interpretive Programs, Visitor Services, Scholarly Programs, Publishing, Business Enterprises, Center for the Book, FEDLINK, and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. 

Reflecting on her career, Mendenhall said two particular developments stand out, though she is quick to note, “My proudest moments were never mine alone. They were always the result of extraordinary teamwork and collective efforts that produced a real and lasting benefit for the users we served.” 

One highlight was the transformation of the reading experience for blind and physically handicapped Americans through the digital transition of the Library's long-time “talking books” program.

“Hundreds of thousands of users experienced a quality and convenience of service that had not been possible in the analog mode,” she said. “The digital transition enabled patrons to download braille and audio books and read them on digital players or on their mobile devices.”

Mendenhall is also proud of the Library's transformation into a major tourist destination in Washington, D.C., which was achieved through a steady array of exhibitions, tours, public programs, and other substantive cultural offerings. Over a period of 10 years, the number of visitors to the Library almost doubled to more than 1.2 million annually.

“I am proud of this because, from its inception, the Library was intended to serve not only the Congress, but also the American people,” she said. “The Library invites visitors of all ages to enter and experience one of America's great treasures–their National Library working to acquire, preserve and make available to all a record of the world's knowledge and creativity. The Library of Congress was quite the place for a career.”

In addition to helping her land her Library of Congress internship, Mendenhall credits SILS with providing a strong foundation for the start of her career.

“The breadth, depth, and quality of the SILS curriculum and instruction were invaluable in developing the knowledge, skills, and confidence for those early jobs,” she said. “I am proud that SILS has sustained this tradition and evolved its program to meet the changing needs of the profession. The vital role that SILS is playing in the area of digital curation is just one example of how the school is maintaining its outstanding reputation in the field.” 

Now that she has retired, Mendenhall is refocusing on her early academic interests in literature, art, foreign languages, and culture, but insists that “libraries will remain an abiding interest.”

“I believe that libraries are vital gateways to knowledge, and essential to our society and culture. I would like to share with others the joy of reading and the difference that books can make in people's lives. After all, who knows when a book, newly discovered by a searcher in a library, might change the direction of one's life.”