February 9, 2023
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Keepers of the Times: Eric A. Kidwell and Houghton Memorial Library
Say the word “library” and the space that comes to mind may be a Hogwarts-style or Beauty-and-the-Beast-like book-lined room—a bastion of dark wood shelves supporting musty volumes standing soldier-like, guarding the knowledge they impart. If you’re ticking off boxes, put a check next to dark wood and another next to books and shelves. But today’s Houghton Memorial Library at Huntingdon College celebrates knowledge in an atmosphere of welcome while addressing with a flourish the many ways of learning available in the 2020s and the speed with which resources must be accessed. Except for the original building, the space and collections have been crafted under the watch of the library’s central guru, director and professor Eric A. Kidwell.
“Everybody should see themselves in the collections of the library,” says Professor Kidwell, who has been a member of the library faculty since 1985 and has directed the library since 1987. He has made it his mission—and that of the library—to craft a space and collection that support the mission of the College and make students feel included and at home.
Houghton Library patrons in 2023 may, for example, check out and play Earthology, Mythbusters, or Treason from the game collection; de-stress by putting together a jigsaw puzzle, coloring, or playing checkers; borrow an asset from a library in Australia through interlibrary loan services; view the treasures in the Huntingdon archives; watch a movie through online library streaming services; listen to past lectures and concerts in the audio-visual room; view thousands of periodicals, scholarly journals, and articles through online subscription services and digitized assets; study all night in an individual carrel or with friends in a special study room; grab a late-night coffee for that all-nighter; and even check out that old-fashioned thing called a book.
Prof. Kidwell’s longevity does not betray his ability to be current in his work and outlook. His national and regional involvement with the American Library Association, the Alabama Library Association, and the Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA) keeps him up to date on national trends. “Networking helps you know how others are addressing concerns and puts you in touch with new resources and vendors,” he says. He cites topics such as space usage, student retention, diversity, equity and inclusion, costs of resources, predatory publishing, privacy, book banning, social movements, and information access as issues pertinent to higher education in general and to library administration.
He co-chairs a national committee for the American Library Association developing the first national library facilities survey. In 2022, he made conference co-presentations for the Alabama Library Association and for the Alabama Title IX Association, since he also serves as Huntingdon’s Title IX coordinator and on the national Association of Title IX Administrators (ATIXA) publications committee and advisory board. In fact, he was honored with an ATIXA Distinguished Service Award last year. He was recently interviewed by Scott Carlson of the Chronicle for Higher Education for the publication, “The Library of the Future: How the Heart of the Campus is Transforming.” Through hands-on experience and national involvement, he has plenty of insight to share.
The original building for Houghton Memorial Library will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2029. Built two decades after the College moved from Tuskegee to Montgomery, by the time Prof. Kidwell arrived in 1985 the building was too small to serve the needs of students or to house the expanding collections of books and periodicals; antiquated in its approach to information access (even for 1985); and in disrepair, with a leaking roof. Plans had been drawn for a building expansion many years prior, but a gift from trustee Catherine Dixon Roland and her mother made that plan a reality just as Mr. Kidwell was named director in 1987. He oversaw the expansion from the ground-breaking up, concluding in 1989. The resulting Charles and Thelma Dixon Wing, named for Ms. Roland’s parents, extended the back of the library, doubling its size, and includes the beautiful atrium with skylights, offices, classrooms, and expanded rooms for asset collections.
In 2001, Prof. Kidwell oversaw the library automation project, which transformed the facility’s former card catalog dependency to availability for online searching and preservation of thousands of periodicals. Today, a sizeable portion of the library’s budget covers registration with databases that allow access to articles and scholarly journals.
In 2019, Prof. Kidwell advised the administration on the creation of Caroline Slawson Commons, a redesigned interior space at the building’s entrance. Made possible by a gift from Mr. Guice Slawson in honor of his wife, the space includes individual study carrels, fully equipped study rooms on the second floor, updated seating throughout the new spaces, and the creation of offices and rooms on the second floor to house the Staton Center for Academic Enrichment. With this modernization, part of the library remains open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and coffee, available at the Coffee House in the basement of the library, is welcome.
Prof. Kidwell chose the study carrels and furniture colors and designs with input from students, as he does when making many decisions. “I have always maintained that this facility is for the students, and their ideas and needs are foremost when I consider anything from the book collection to the holidays we celebrate,” he says, with a nod toward purple, green and gold twinkling lights, beads, and other frills announcing Mardis Gras. “I want students to feel comfortable here—and I want every student to feel a sense of well-being and belonging.”
In keeping with his own involvement, Prof. Kidwell encourages his faculty and staff to be involved beyond the College campus or the library as well. Paige Crumbley ’14, research and interlibrary loans librarian, chaired the conference planning committee for the annual meeting of the Alabama Library Association last year. Elizabeth McCord, access services librarian, chaired the planning committee for the annual Montgomery Higher Education Academic Library Research Forum. Dan Dubei, systems and electronic resources librarian who also teaches for the music program, released a new musical composition. And Frank, the mischievous but never threatening library ghost, is … well … everywhere (so much so, he has his own paragraph on the library website and his own email address).
In addition to student input, Prof. Kidwell seeks and values the wisdom of library faculty and staff when making decisions about the building or the collections. “I’ve had the privilege of working over the last 30-plus years with some very talented and dedicated library faculty and staff. There’s a long history of people [joining the library faculty and staff] and staying for 20, 25, 30 years.” Administrative assistant Joel Godfrey, 30-year volunteer John Matthews, archivist Sharon Tucker, and assistant librarians Marjorie Korb, Yvonne Williams, and Donna DeCoste Clements ’90 are among the long-timers who have more recently been joined by Jill Tucker and Alex Vainstein ’20.
“Librarians are good examples of individuals with multidimensional professional interests,” says Prof. Kidwell. “Most librarians have degrees in fields other than library science, and we have interests that go beyond libraries. I love to learn things, so the library profession is perfect for me because I’m surrounded by resources for learning.” Mr. Kidwell has also led or co-led various Huntingdon Plan international travel-study experiences and core curriculum classes, including directing the College’s Liberal Arts Symposium for most of its years.
Prof. Kidwell has spent a great deal of time working with students and librarians on the creation of LibGuides on topics of interest. LibGuides are collections of works that can include documentaries, films, music, articles, books, works of art, and other resources on a particular topic. LibGuides on COVID-19 and on Ukraine are linked to the homepage of the library website.
Increasingly, Houghton Library’s facility usage is less about book storage and more about programming and student needs. In recent years the library has included annual observances and/or lectures for Constitution Day and Martin Luther King Day, among other occasions, as well as Salon gatherings to read a selected literary genre and a mini-conference on a topic of pertinence (the 2022–2023 topic was “Good Trouble”). Prof. Kidwell envisions future programming that could include crafts classes, spaces for students to meditate and de-stress, and more classrooms and study rooms.
Whether looking toward decisions of service, building needs, or collection development, “Student inclusiveness and belonging are central to every decision,” says Mr. Kidwell. “Houghton Library is no more English or history than we are chemistry or biology. We are here for everybody.”