A passionate advocate for the power and relevance of libraries—now and into the 22nd century—takes the helm at Penn.
Constantia Constantinou has been doing a lot of listening since she was named the H. Carton Rogers III Vice Provost and Director of Penn Libraries last summer, meeting with Penn’s senior leaders and libraries staff and being introduced to “our partners around Philadelphia”—the historical societies, cultural centers, libraries, and universities with which Penn collaborates.
She’s been out on the road, too—there is a major fundraising campaign underway, after all—getting to know far-flung library supporters and alumni. At a “Library Salon” she headlined in Chicago, her hosts gave her the topic of “fake news.” Her presentation focused on “the role of the library in today’s society at Penn,” she says.
“Of course we make sure that the information that comes from the library is accurate,” she adds, citing a partnership with factcheck.org at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. “The search skills [we teach students], the research skills, all of that builds a person’s confidence in being a good information consumer and how to recognize what could be manipulated information, whether it is in technology, in imaging, in fake manuscripts, in statements.”
The topic “generated a lot of discussion,” she adds. “What an opportunity for news media and libraries to talk about the things that we do and do well—that perhaps in the past were taken for granted.”
Before joining Penn, Constantinou was dean of University Libraries at SUNY-Stonybrook and a SUNY Distinguished Librarian. That post followed a 12-year term as director of the Stephen B. Luce Library at SUNY-Maritime College, and positions with several other New York region educational institutions. In announcing her appointment, Provost Wendell Pritchett Gr’97, who led the search committee, called Constantinou “a global leader in integrating the work of a large university library system with the wider academic mission of a university.”
Constantinou was born on the island of Cyprus and became a refugee when she was 10 years old, following the Turkish invasion in 1974. Her parents had always regarded education as “the one thing that you’ll never lose in your life,” she says. “Once you lose all your earthly possessions, once you are displaced, when you lose your relatives, your family, and everything that you have known up to this point, there’s only one thing my parents recognized, which is a good education. And they remained committed to that. And they sent me to the United States to go to college” at age 18.
No one in her family had attended college, or even left the country, before her, she says. “And that was a very long trip—from Cyprus to New York.” A gifted classical guitarist, she continued to pursue her training as a musician in the US, earning a BA in music and MA in music theory at Queens College of the City University of New York.
She found a job working in the music library as a way to make money, but found a career and a calling as well. The experience “opened my world to librarianship,” she says, and she added a master’s in library science from Queens College. “Music is wonderful to have in my life,” she says, but “to really experience the power and the impact that the library has—in the life of the students, in the life of the community that we serve, in the success that we bring to the university and to the faculty and to research—made me feel that this was my chosen profession.”
The first book Constantinou ever owned—David Copperfield, in Greek—was given to her by the Red Cross, she says. “I still have it. I brought it with me. I will never part from that book.” Having come from a background without ready access to books, “I can see how we can change people’s lives when we provide them with the resources that they need.”
At first by chance, she found herself in administrative positions and discovered that she had a gift for and interest in leadership. “I put a lot of effort into building that aspect of my librarianship—becoming a good leader, learning how good leaders are successful in life, attending a lot of leadership courses and seminars, and finding key people that could be my mentors, to continue to guide my growth,” she says. “And once I became a library leader, I thought that this was maybe my true calling—orchestrating opportunities for people to be successful … Identifying those opportunities that bring impact, change people’s lives, and enable others in our organizations to carry on that mission is really what inspired me.”
As her three-month anniversary passed in November, Constantinou was on track to meet with all 450 or so library system employees, in a series of town hall meetings of 30 people at a time, by mid-December. She’s been struck by “the pride they bring into our daily lives here at the Penn Libraries,” calling them “one of the most enthusiastic groups of people I have ever come across.”
Constantinou’s predecessor as libraries director, Carton Rogers, was in charge from 2004 until his retirement last June, after a 43-year career at Penn [“Gazetteer,” Jul|Aug 2018]. Following in the footsteps of someone with such a profound impact on the institution—to the extent that the position she now holds is named for him—was “like inheriting a success story,” she says. She called Rogers an “amazing librarian” who had left the libraries in excellent working order. “Truly, nothing is broken, nothing needs attention,” she says.
Her challenge, she adds, will be in leading Penn’s research libraries “into the 22nd century,” in areas ranging from “perceptions and misperceptions about fake news” to the role of libraries in preparing the next generation of citizens and building communities of learners. “What do we have to do in order to envision the future of our research libraries in collections, in technology, in expertise, in [library] spaces? That is a continuous evolution.”
That will require bringing the library community, Penn faculty, and students together to “begin to think with us about the future of our Penn Libraries,” she says, and how they can remain relevant and central to the University’s mission. “How do we fulfill the president’s promise when she speaks about Penn as an institution of impact and inclusion and innovation? What is the library’s role that enables the success of the researcher and the student and the faculty?”
Though the libraries’ priorities for the University’s ongoing Power of Penn campaign [“Gazetteer,” May|Jun 2018] were established before she came on board, Constantinou has set up teams in each of the identified areas to think further about them “not only as campaign priorities but also as strategic library priorities.”
They are doing things like examining the goal of community outreach and engagement to come up with a more comprehensive definition of community; trying to imagine what support for collections—a priority that “will not expire,” Constantinou says—looks like from the perspective of the next century; and to ensure that the long-expressed priority of the “biotech commons” is firmly focused on “how to deliver that priority for the future, not for the past”; and refining ideas about fellowships and related to innovation and technology initiatives.
“Once we move to the next level of our thinking, that these are no longer [just] campaign priorities but deeply rooted into our organization as strategic priorities,” she says, “then we will look into our strategic plan—that Carton was very, very wise to let expire in 2018, giving me the opportunity to inherit the next five-year strategic plan and engage the University and our stakeholders and our libraries into re-envisioning our future directions.” —JP