Lily Kowalczyk (A18) Brings Library Science Degree and Passion for Accessibility to St. John’s

November 23, 2021 | By Les Poling

Lily Kowalczyk (A18)

This interview is part of a three-story series featuring conversations with recent St. John’s graduates who have returned to work at the college. For the complete series, read our conversations with Aparna Ravilochan (SF12) and Alex Ingham (SFGI13).

Growing up in Maryland, Lily Kowalczyk (A18) never wanted to attend St. John’s—in fact, she says, she had never even been to the state capital until she visited campus during high school. After that visit, though, St. John’s raced up her list of potential colleges. “I’m so glad I came here,” Kowalczyk says now. “I don’t think I would have been this happy anywhere else.”

Of course, Kowalczyk has ended up at St. John’s not once but twice: early in 2021, she returned to the college to work as a circulation assistant in the Greenfield Library. We connected with her to discuss St. John’s, grad school, library accessibility, and much more; our conversation, which can be read below, has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you graduate from St. John’s, and what have you been up to since then?

I graduated in 2018 and immediately went into grad school. I didn’t think I was going to go do that; I kind of thought, “All my friends are doing this, I might as well toss my hat in the ring.” And then I got into Syracuse University, which I think is the second best school nationwide for my field, library science. So I was like, “This is really exciting. I guess I’m going grad school!”

While I was attending online, I started working first as a receptionist, then part-time in a library. And then I started working at Johns Hopkins University in their library, as a library specialist and a billing coordinator, and I did that for about a year. Then I saw the opening here and came back—because what better place to work than St. John’s?

Was there anything in particular that made you want to be at St. John’s in a professional capacity?

St. John’s has this really interesting thing where everyone cares. We’ve collected a lot of people who like to talk, and that’s great. You can find that in a lot of places. But we all care so much. I have not met an alum who doesn’t have an opinion about our Program. It can seem a little much at times, but you just don’t have that in other places. I could not tell you what’s going on in Syracuse right now.

That’s kind of what brought me back. I’m from Maryland, and besides growing away from Hopkins and some of the things that they were doing, I wanted to be able to make a difference here at St. John’s. Because even after you leave, you’re still invested in this community, you still see a need that you can meet. This place has given so much to me, I want to help shape the future so that it keeps giving back.

Were there any specific “needs” that factored into your return?

A lot of my work here so far has been getting things out of paper and online. I think I came, unfortunately, at a fortunate time during COVID, where we were really forced to do that. We had to give up a lot of misgivings about, “well, what if I don’t write this down?” We don’t want to trust the cloud. But we have to. And it really helps our communities.

We have a very unique set of accessibility needs here. We’ve got students who are young and very good at technology, but we also have tutors who are very used to analog. We have people with very different mobility needs and levels of comfort getting in and out of spaces. And our community is so small; we know all these people and can actually interact with everyone. So it’s such an interesting project to have for a library—you can really tailor it down and say, alright, we’ve got people with neurodivergent qualities, how can we support them? We’ve got audio books; we have foot pedals in our library now, so that if you can’t use your arms or your arms or full of books or anything in between, you can still use the elevator to get around. There are so many areas in which to grow. It’s a very fertile ground.

What are you looking forward to in the upcoming school year, and how do you think being an alum will help and influence your role in the library?

This is an incredibly selfish answer, but the problems that I encountered as a student, I now get to solve. For example: I remember I would get all of my reading from the library at the beginning of the semester and truck it back to my dorm, and finding the seminar reading list was a frustrating deep dive into the website every time. Being able to solve that—we have a redirect link now, SJC.edu/Greenfield, and then you click a button that says “seminar reading”—is so gratifying. It’s those little things that I can do to streamline things. Another example: we have a QR code for reserving the Cohen study room now. That has been so exciting to me.

I think being an alum has really given me such rich experience for what the library is used for. If you design a car and never drive that car, you’ll think, “this is theoretically perfect.” And then you sit in it, and you’re like, “these are the most uncomfortable seats I have ever sat in.” Having driven the St. John’s car, I can say, “No, you have to do it in this way.” There are little things that I think I never would have had perspective on—even just knowing what students are thinking about when they’re walking around downstairs. Knowing how Johnnies talk lets you open up those dialogues with students. I didn’t know how to tell the library I wanted different books when I was a student; now I can at least make it very obvious to students that they can tell me.

Are there any specific projects or ideas you want to pursue moving forward?

I love digitization, and I love access. We’ve had a lot of people come in, in the past few weeks, not knowing that we have a rare book collection—first editions of Ptolemy, books that you can’t touch unless you’ve got gloves on. People seem to think that’s really cool, and I think it would be really awesome if we had more infrastructure for getting people to see those; maybe an online reservation system, where you can request a tour (because we offer those)! That, and trying to get more resources down in the stacks. We have so many books, and finding which one you need for your seminar is just a continual challenge. So providing guides, maybe a QR code or something at the end of the stacks to be able to see, what am I reading now? What should I be reading? Where is that compared to where I am right now? What are recommended editions? Stuff like that.