Elaine L. Westbrooks, vice provost and university librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been named the next Carl A. Kroch University Librarian. The appointment, effective July 1, was made by Provost Michael Kotlikoff and approved by the Executive Committee of the Cornell Board of Trustees.
For Westbrooks – who is deeply committed to making scholarly publications more accessible and sustainable and to advancing diversity, equity and inclusion – the appointment marks a return to Cornell, where she worked as a metadata librarian for eight years.
“Elaine has the knowledge, experience and passion to ensure that a world-class research university with a global reach like Cornell has the library it depends on,” Kotlikoff said. “Under her leadership, Cornell University Library and Cornell University Press will continue to thrive in the digital age.”
At UNC, Westbrooks oversees a library system that includes 10 libraries, nearly 10 million volumes and 300 librarians, archivists and staff members.
Of all her accomplishments, she’s proudest of her role in setting up the Sustainable Scholarship initiative, which sought to make scholarly publications more affordable, sustainable, transparent and accessible, as well as launching the Reckoning initiative, which mobilized the university to address equity and inclusion while also infusing antiracist practices into the library system.
“I’m passionate about creating a better world,” Westbrooks said. “I’m passionate about the important role that libraries play in democracy, and the important roles that the library plays in advancing the mission of a university like Cornell: a land-grant, an Ivy, a New York state school, all the special things about Cornell; you have to have a great library. And a library can’t be great if it’s not truly committed to being the best library it can be for everybody.”
Westbrooks plans to continue those efforts at Cornell. She is particularly focused on ensuring that Cornell University Library has – and can retain – a skilled, knowledgeable workforce that is diverse and inclusive, and that the library continues, in the digital age, to get information and primary resources into the hands of people who need them the most – whether they are researchers pushing the frontiers of knowledge, citizens who need to make informed decisions, or students looking to change the world.
“Some ships are built to stay in harbors and look pretty,” she said. “Cornell University Library is that ship that was built to go out, test the waters and then tell everybody else what is going on. It’s a leader. It was built to lead.”
Westbrooks succeeds Gerald R. Beasley, Cornell’s 12th university librarian, who announced in April 2021 he would not seek to renew his five-year term, which ends July 31. During the transition, Beasley has focused his efforts on researching the changing role of academic libraries in the 21st century, and the library operations have been overseen by Senior Vice Provost Judy Appleton.
“We’re grateful to Gerald for his work on these critical aspects of library strategy, and to Judy for her steady leadership during this transition,” Kotlikoff said.
At Cornell, the university librarian is the chief academic and administrative officer of the library and the press, overseeing a combined budget of approximately $69 million and approximately 350 staff members. Housing more than 8 million volumes and millions of electronic resources, Cornell University Library comprises 20 constituent libraries located in Ithaca and New York City. Cornell University Press has over 5,000 titles in print and publishes 175 new books a year. The staff supports teaching, learning and research across the university’s colleges and schools, and serves scholars and alumni worldwide.
Westbrooks served as metadata librarian, then senior metadata librarian, at Albert R. Mann Library from 2000 to 2006, after which she led metadata services for Cornell University Library until 2008. She went on to hold leadership positions at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and the University of Michigan before moving to the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2017.
Westbrooks holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and a master’s in library and information science from University of Pittsburgh.
She is the co-editor of three books: “Metadata in Practice” with Diane Hillmann (2004); “Metadata and Digital Collections: A Festschrift in Honor of Tom Turner” with Keith Jenkins (2010); and “Academic Library Management: Case Studies” with Tammy Nickelson Dearie and Michael Meth (2017).
Libraries have been at the center of Westbrooks’s life ever since she was a child living in the small mill town of Homestead, Pennsylvania, which has one of the first libraries built by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
“I grew up going to the Carnegie Library. It was a really important part of the community,” she said. “When I got to college at the University of Pittsburgh, I went to the library the very first day of class, at the strong encouragement of my sister, who was also an undergraduate student. She had a job, so I got a job at the library, and I have never left.”
“I literally worked in every department, and it was my home away from home. And I really loved it,” she said. “I loved the people. I loved the work. I could also study. It was really a great learning environment for me.”
Even while working at other institutions over the last decade, Westbrooks kept an eye on Cornell.
“I knew that Cornell University Library was a forward-thinking, innovative organization, so I always wanted to know what they were doing,” Westbrook said. “There’s this whole cohort of us who used to work at Cornell and we’re all doing our own thing, leading our own libraries, and I’ve always stayed in touch with them. So in my mind, I physically left, but I don’t feel like I fully mentally and emotionally left Cornell University Library. Because it’s the kind of place that you’d never really leave.”
Westbrooks, who has a grown son and daughter, plans to move back to Ithaca in June with her husband, John Mack, and their 12-year-old terrier mix.