True Librarian — Interviews with UWM Libraries Staff: Beth Kucera

photo of beth kucera

Beth Kucera. Photo by Christina DeSpears.

Beth Kucera heads the UWM Libraries’ Interlibrary Loan (ILL) department, the Access Services unit that lends books and delivers articles to other libraries around the world and, at the same time, borrows research materials for UWM scholars. In 2018-2019, the Libraries’ ILL sent 33,298 articles and book loans to other libraries and received 17,062 total items. Beth spends most of her day on the borrowing side, diligently tracking down and securing requests that come from UWM faculty, staff, and students. She joined the Libraries in 2004 as an assistant in ILL and worked her way up to her current position in 2018. Very active in service at the state level, she received the Wisconsin Library Association (WLA) Presidents’ Volunteer award in 2019. In addition to serving as chair and in other roles for both the WLA and Wisconsin Association of Academic Libraries conference committees, she is a 2018 graduate of the WLA Leadership Development Institute. Beth earned her master’s degree in library and information science from the University of South Carolina and her BA in environmental analysis and policy from Boston University.

Q: How would you describe your job?

I feel like I’m the Indiana Jones in the library. Somebody needs something and I go on the hunt to find it, scouring the earth for that obscure book or article. It is very fulfilling to actually locate something that wasn’t in Worldcat [a global library catalog]. Google is my best friend, most of the time, and little bits and pieces, little breadcrumbs, lead me down a rabbit hole to eventually find an item.

Q: What was your path to becoming a librarian?

My BA was in environmental studies, but the job market was not great for that degree when I graduated, so I went off to do various retail jobs, including assistant manager at a Blockbuster Video store. (I know other librarians who previously worked at Blockbuster, maybe it’s a pipeline to libraries.) After too many years in retail, I found work at Northern Virginia Community College as a library assistant. My supervisors encouraged me to earn my master’s degree, which I did online.

Q: As manager of your department, what are your main duties?

I make sure all functions of ILL are working smoothly. We have a pretty big lending operation, scanning and sharing articles. There are usually four student employees on the lending side and a couple of students on the borrowing side who receive and process incoming books. I have to decide which library to borrow from, based on costs, or whether I should purchase the book because I think we should add it to our collection or because no one will lend it. Besides borrowing from all over the world, we lend internationally. We’ve loaned to Turkey, Russia, Sweden, everywhere, really. If they are willing to pay for the service, we are willing to lend our materials.

Q: Sometimes you are unable to fulfill a request.

There are failures. I hate saying “no.” I usually say “yes” and we try to find some way to get what is wanted. Our fill rate for borrowing is pretty high. It may take a little bit longer for me to find and get my hands on something but I’ll try different avenues outside of normal convention. Even with our budget shrinking, our collections shrinking, databases going away–people still need access to research. We are part of a program called Rapid ILL along with a number of other libraries, and we all strive for 24-hour turnaround time for article delivery. While it’s not instantaneous access like you would get from a database, it’s pretty darn fast.

Q: Do you receive feedback from campus users?

Yes, sometimes they are amazed that I was able to find what they were looking for. I have been personally named in people’s acknowledgements in their books when they are published. It’s exciting to see that my work can contribute to their research. One day a reference intern came back to my desk and said there were two faculty members who wanted to talk to someone from ILL. Okay, I thought, what did I do wrong? When I met them at the front desk, they said, “We just want to say how great ILL is, we love your services.” They happened to be at a beer garden recently, enjoying brats and beer, when the conversation turned to the library, and they said they spent 15 minutes talking about our ILL. It’s great to know that people are impressed with the service we have and bring it up in unusual circumstances and locations!