25 Years: The Serendipitous Path of Suzanne Klinger

From a staff of two and 70 books to an energetic space with innumerable resources, Suzanne Klinger has been connecting students and texts for 25 years as the head of Reference Services at the UW Tacoma Library.

“Not that I know anything about classical Greek anymore… I’ve forgotten it all.”

Greek?

Born and raised in Pennsylvania, UW Tacoma librarian and head of reference services Suzanne Klinger attended Gettysburg College, a small liberal arts school in the south-central part of the state. Although not the first in her family to attend college—her older brother beat her out for that title—this was still a pretty significant event.  

It was at Gettysburg that Klinger discovered classical Greek.

She had taken Latin in high school and enjoyed it, so she decided to major in Greek. “The classics department was very small,” she said, noting that she liked the personal aspects of the program.  “We would often go to the professor’s house for dinner in the evening.” It was a great experience, she said, adding that “it was the kind of broad education that is perfect for working in an academic library.”  The liberal arts focus required classes in every subject area, enabling Klinger to attain “an awareness of things beyond just the narrow focus” typical of a discipline-oriented program.

As for the wisdom of selecting Greek as a major, Klinger said, “My logic—flawed or not—was that it didn’t matter what I majored in at a liberal arts college; I wasn’t going to have a job in that area anyway.”

Serendipity
“Whatever I did, I wanted it to have some sort of public service component. But I had to figure out how to get a job, which my four-year degree didn’t really lend itself to—not high-paying jobs anyway!”

It was her quest for a job which led Klinger to discover something she didn’t know she was looking for.

After graduation, she worked as a teaching assistant in a private school established for at-risk students, many coming from inner-city Philadelphia. Following a conversation with the school librarian, she decided that working as a librarian might just be the perfect fit. She applied to the University of Chicago and earned her master’s in librarianship from the Graduate Library School.

Describing her experience as “small town girl goes to the big city,” she reveled in the “amazing vibrancy” of Chicago.  However, she quickly became aware that along with the city’s energy, there were “amazing problems” as well—problems which “fit in with my interest in social justice.”

She also met her partner (a Washington native) in Chicago—a meeting that eventually led Klinger right here to UW Tacoma.  After her partner was offered a position at PLU, “I sort of followed her here.”

A far cry from the lone cart of 1990, Klinger replaces a book in one of many fully-stocked shelves in the Tioga Library Building.Founding the UW Tacoma Library
Klinger worked as a temporary librarian in the Pierce County Library System and called the experience “wonderful.” During those “pre-internet days” people would bring her important questions about things like medical issues—“all the things people now use Google to answer.”

However, as challenging as those searches could be, Klinger loved the “intellectual detective game.” And her time in the public library system also prepared her for what lay ahead—a position in the brand-new UW Tacoma library.

She applied for the position in December of 1989, just as the founding faculty were meeting together for the first time. “I was hired and started work in July 1990,” she said, with the university opening its doors in September.

The first UW Tacoma library comprised “the library director and me”—and just 70 books!  Because the original campus, downtown Tacoma’s Perkins Building at 11th and A Streets, wasn’t ready yet, the two of them met daily at the Seattle campus.

When the university opened, Klinger did her best to assure students that the library was bigger than it looked. “But they didn’t really believe it,” she said.

In those early days, students had the same access to the UW library system that students enjoy today, but it wasn’t easy. Students had to “fill out a form for every book they wanted, every article they wanted.” Forms were faxed every night, and everything came by courier. Books still come daily by courier, although articles can now be delivered right to your desktop, thanks to the online document delivery system.

Twenty-five years in the library
After 25 years at UW Tacoma, with all the resources of a world-class library behind her, Klinger still loves connecting people with resources, and she gets something from it as well.  “I’ve learned enormously about the world from being a librarian.”

“I don’t need to know everything,” she said. “But, I do need to have the ability to place information in a ballpark, to have a sense of where I might find resources.”

“We think that computers have made research easier, and in one sense that’s true. But they add a layer of complexity. There’s so much more that people have access to,” Klinger stated. “The complexity arises out of a need to filter out all the noise, the stuff you don’t need. Helping students to become independent researchers—that’s the challenge.”

The UW Tacoma library, she said, is an “amazing, vibrant, exciting place--noisy and messy sometimes, but exciting.” Klinger laughed as she spoke of often seeing groups of students “trolling for space,” looking for vacant rooms or tables, talking or working on class projects together. There is “an amazing energy” in the library these days, she said. “People are everywhere!”

Asked about some of the changes she’s seen at UW Tacoma over the past twenty-five years, Klinger mentioned the diversification of the student population. The first students all arrived as transfers, with two years degrees under their belts and looking to complete their degrees. Their average age was 34. Most had full-time jobs and families, and could only attend classes in the evenings.

Although the demographics have changed, the campus has only become more diverse over time. Students now range in age “between 18 and 80,” representing multiple ethnicities, backgrounds, and political persuasions. “It has really blossomed,” Klinger said. “Growth has brought this diversity, and that is an incredible advantage to the campus.” There is also, she said, “a real sense of community awareness” that has come about through UW Tacoma’s “greater visibility in the community.”

Did she think she’d still be at UW Tacoma in 2015? “Not really,” she said, laughing. “For a long time, I kept looking for other jobs. But it was more out of habit than anything.”

She’s happy where she is.

Looking ahead
After 25 years here, is Klinger still looking ahead?

“Of course,” she says. She still hopes “to find ways to increase students’ engagement with their education, to find even more ways that the library can support that education.”

Asked if she had any message she’d like to offer to today’s UW Tacoma students, Klinger thought for a moment before answering.

“Take advantage—to the best of your abilities—of the resources that are available at this university. Value what you have access to here—courses, internships, student work. These things can open your world to things beyond what you knew existed before you came here.”

Last word
“Stay curious your entire life. See your education here as just one step in your life-long learning.”

That’s advice that Klinger herself has definitely taken to heart.

Section: 
Written by: 
Margaret Lundberg / June 22, 2015
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu