Library Life: Interview with Northwestern University Librarian Elsa Alvaro

Andrew Clinton
  • 5 min read

Elsa Alvaro is Head of Academic Engagement and the Librarian for Chemistry and Chemical and Biological Engineering at the Northwestern University Libraries.

Library Life Series - ACS Publications

Tell me about your current role:

My job as Head of Academic Engagement involves connecting the Northwestern community with the library’s collections, services, and expertise; overseeing two of Northwestern’s most notable libraries, the Transportation Library and the Herskovits Library of African Studies; and supporting student success connected to the library in a variety of ways, from directing orientation programs for undergraduate and graduate students to managing technology-rich spaces in which students can collaborate, learn and create. I am also the Librarian for Chemistry and Chemical and Biological Engineering.

Elsa Alvaro

What is your background?

I am originally from Spain and have a PhD in Chemistry. After obtaining my postdoc at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I decided to pursue a degree in Library Science. It was at that time that I was awarded the ACS Division of Chemical Information Lucille Wert award, which started my involvement with CINF. I joined Northwestern as a chemistry librarian in 2013 and in 2019, I advanced to a leadership position in the library, becoming Head of Academic Engagement.

How do you help to address challenges faced by your institution’s students and faculty?

By putting librarians at the heart of academic life! We are an indispensable thread in the academic fabric.

For students, we do that by acknowledging the many different facets that define their experience at Northwestern University; those facets are opportunities to help students succeed. For example, if you are a chemistry major, we have a subject librarian specializing in your field who can help you discover the resources you need for rigorous research. If you are conducting undergraduate research, we have you covered there, too; we offer a summer grant for undergraduate students and a librarian works with the Office of Undergraduate Research to make sure we are addressing your unique concerns. For those who are studying abroad or interested in entrepreneurship, we have partnerships, tools, and resources to support those needs. Our engagement efforts extend to other aspects of the student experience, including new student programs and orientations, and end of term programming to support student well-being.

What are some trends that you are observing in the library world right now?

Academic libraries preserve, produce and provide access to knowledge. But we do not live in a bubble – our mission is connected to advancing research, teaching and learning at our institutions. That means that trends and challenges that impact universities, researchers, and society in general, are going to influence and shape our work. In the past years we have seen an increase in openness in the communication of research; and we are also observing that more fields are embracing AI and machine learning. Those trends have implications for us, including making available the work of our institutions (though licensing agreements, but also by being publishers), and the need to have a robust digital strategy and infrastructure.

As a result of the pandemic and understanding that the library is a workplace, one important current issue is how to be an equitable and inclusive community in which all library workers have the support to succeed in their roles.

What areas of interest are you focused on right now?

My background as a chemist and a researcher strongly influences my approach to my job as librarian. I’m always looking forward to challenges, and I love to develop new programs to address gaps or unmet needs. For example, we are launching a new service to support systematic reviews and other types of evidence syntheses; this type of reviews is common in fields such as medical research but not so much in other disciplines. I am interested in bridging that gap, for instance by providing workshops and consultations in different aspects of the review process, and collaborating with researchers in projects.

You were also the chair of ACS’s Chemical Information (CINF) division in 2019. What was that like?

It was truly terrific. The experiences, opportunities and connections that I got through CINF have been key in my professional career, so I was honored and delighted to serve as chair. CINF is unique in the way it brings together informatics, librarianship, and data expertise in one community. Also, CINF officers and volunteers are a welcoming, talented, and supportive group of people, and a joy to work with. I was pleased that we engaged in strategic planning during my tenure.

A very important question: Who is your favorite scientist?

My spouse. Hands down. He is a theoretical physicist who works in neuromorphic computing and materials growth. Neuromorphic computing is a computer engineering approach that models and develops computing devices inspired by the human brain.

What is a fun fact about Northwestern University?

In 1921, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Marie Curie visited Northwestern University with her daughter to receive an honorary degree. During her visit, 100 area women coordinated a fundraising campaign and raised $100,000 (this would be over $1.4 million today!) to allow Madame Curie to purchase one gram of radium to continue her studies.

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