Library Life: Interview with University of Pennsylvania Librarian Judith Currano

Andrew Clinton
  • 10 min read

Judith Currano is the head of the Chemistry Library at the University of Pennsylvania where she is responsible for developing and managing the chemistry collection. She also teaches graduate level chemical information courses.

University of Pennsylvania

Tell me about your current role.

I am the head of the Chemistry Library at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), where I oversee the work of 1.5 full-time staff members, one of whom supervises our team of student assistants, and the occasional intern. The Chemistry Library is located in the Chemistry Department, so I assume all the duties of a solo librarian in a small departmental library while, at the same time, working on an enormous team of librarians who serve the University of Pennsylvania faculty members, students, and staff. I also teach four sections of a graduate-level course in chemical information that is required of all Penn PhD chemistry students and is elective for undergraduate and MS students. In addition to teaching my own course, I also guest lecture many undergraduate and graduate-level classes to provide students with context-specific information that they need to do their coursework and independent research.

I am responsible for developing and managing the chemistry collection at Penn, planning improvements and enhancements to the physical space of the library, and providing reference assistance to anyone having difficulty finding chemical information. 15 years ago, I was asked to teach responsible conduct of research (RCR) topics to the graduate students, and I now oversee their RCR training, answering questions about ethical practices in scholarly communication and advising on authorship issues. Finally, I serve on library-wide committees and task forces, as my expertise is required.

What is your background?

My road to chemical information has been unusually direct. At the age of 11, influenced by my experiences at the Chicago Public Library, I decided that I wanted to be a librarian. However, when I reached high school, I discovered a wonderful new science, where you mixed things together and got something completely new! This spawned an internal crisis: I loved chemistry, but I really wanted to be a librarian! Imagine my delight when my high school chemistry teacher told me, “You know, there are chemistry librarians.” I proceeded to the University of Rochester, where I double-majored in chemistry and English. Once again, my enjoyment of lab classes tried to entice me down the path of bench chemistry, and I applied for and was granted a summer internship in organic chemistry, funded by Pfizer, in the lab of Bob Boeckmann. It was a great experience, and through it, I discovered that I really prefered searching for reactions in the literature to performing them at the bench (also, literature searching requires absolutely no washing of glassware!) I completed my chemistry research, wrote my senior thesis in English, and proceeded to enroll in the MS program in library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 12 months later, I started my position as the head of Penn’s Chemistry Library, and I have been here ever since.

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

I’m usually the first person to whom my colleagues and students turn when it comes to finding and evaluating information, but I’ve also been fielding a larger number of questions about appropriate methods of using and reusing information. I regularly consult with graduating students on the best ways to ethically reuse information from their publications in their dissertations and what to do when they include information in their dissertations that they might want to publish later in other venues. I’ve also gotten more involved in areas related to personal data management, and I teach workshops for undergraduate and graduate physical chemistry students on good notebook practices, file naming conventions, and data organization. My favorite thing to do, though, remains constructing complex substructure queries with students!

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

I think that the types of tasks that libraries and librarians are undertaking has greater diversity than ever. When I started my job, librarians searched for information, purchased or licensed information, and taught other people to search for information. Now, we still perform these tasks, but we also teach data management, research and publication ethics, data visualization, and more. Our facilities include collaborative study and work areas, makerspaces, recording studios, and private study rooms where students can do video calls and interviews. The idea of what constitutes “information” is expanding, and with it, our services are expanding. This creates challenges in time and resource management, as we try to balance maintenance of our older services with the addition of new services that fill some of these gaps. At Penn, subject specialists are expanding their offerings to include services for authors and are helping students and junior faculty members navigate the complex world of publishing and scholarly communication. I have been involved in this for over a decade now, and it ties neatly into work that I’m doing with colleagues in organizations like ACS, Special Libraries Association, and the various publisher-run groups to which I belong.

What areas of interest are you focused on right now?

My laboratories are my computer and my classroom. I have an ongoing goal of remaining abreast of changes to the major databases and search tools available to my chemistry colleagues. Given the industry trend towards more “intelligent” search systems, this translates into running repeated experiments and sending copious quantities of e-mail to vendors in an attempt to determine how our searches have been interpreted and how to optimize them. My next challenge is how to convey what I have learned to my students. My graduate students frequently come to me with as much as 16 years of experience searching for information but with very little in the way of formal training in information retrieval. My goal is to enhance their skills by teaching them techniques that sometimes seem counter-intuitive, and each class is an experiment.

While I want to incorporate more active-learning components in my classes, I’m also mindful of the fact that the students need to be taught the basics, and sometimes lecture is the best way of doing this efficiently. To balance the lecture-heavy nature of the course, I’ve been introducing assignments that encourage the students to experiment with the techniques the same way I do: testing different methods of performing the same search and then comparing them. For example, I’ve just finished grading a group assignment in which they compared natural language searching, Boolean searching, and fielded searching in the same database. Surprisingly enough, all groups agreed that Boolean searches yielded the most comprehensive and focused answer set. Viva la Boolean search!

In recent years, I’ve spent an increasing amount of time teaching and consulting with students and colleagues about areas related to the responsible conduct of research. While my main area of expertise is publication ethics, I have been broadening my own reading on the subject and am fascinated by the dilemmas and questions raised. In general, I think that most scientists want to do the right thing, but are sometimes unsure how to proceed.

You’re an associate committee member of the ACS Society Committee on Publications (SCOP). What has that been like?

ACS national committees have three types of members: voting members, who serve multi-year terms; associate members, who are non-voting members serving single-year terms; and consultants, who are individuals attached to the committee for a specific project or purpose. Most individuals serve one or more terms as associate members before being appointed as voting members, and this gives a member and the committee time to see if the fit is good. I’m in my second term as an associate member, so I attend all committee meetings and participate actively until it is time to vote on a measure. You can read about the tasks of the Society Committee on Publications on the governance site.

During our meetings, we learn about plans for the journals and the activities that the editors are undertaking. It has been an interesting experience. Although I’ve served on publisher advisory boards in the past, this experience has given me greater insight into the way in which editors and publishers plan for the future of a journal and develop its scope.

A very important question: Who is your favorite scientist?

My husband, of course! However, I sense that is not the answer you are seeking….

I have always been drawn to stories of people who have multiple and diverse interests and talents. I also think that it is crucial that science remains accessible to people with all different interests and skill levels, and that “popularizers,” good scientists who instill excitement and understanding of science in the minds of the general public, are crucial to the future of chemistry. As a result, I am going to choose Isaac Asimov, whom most know as a science fiction writer. I was first introduced to Asimov’s writings by my father; when I was growing up, my family would read aloud to one another in the evenings and on weekends, and my father and I worked our way through the entire Foundation series together. I knew that Asimov was a scientist, but, as a child, I always thought he was a physicist, probably on account of his Robot books and stories. I was delighted to learn that he was actually a biochemist!

Asimov received his PhD in chemistry from Columbia University, and he taught biochemistry at Boston University. In addition to writing exceedingly fine novels and short stories, Asimov also wrote popular-level books and articles and gave general lectures on a variety of scientific topics (some of his work is indexed in Chemical Abstracts and findable through a quick SciFinder search!) I was also surprised to learn that he lived in West Philadelphia during the second World War!

I think that stories like this are important and can inspire people to use their varied talents in creative ways. The story of Asimov is a story of someone who blended skill in chemistry with a talent for storytelling, proving that diversity of interest can be a strength.

What is a fun fact about Penn?

One of our former provosts, Edgar Fahs Smith, a chemist and chemical historian, was both an avid collector of books and a strong, early advocate for women in chemistry, advising he first female PhD in chemistry at Penn. His collection of books in the history of chemistry was donated to the Penn Libraries after his death and, in 2000, it was named an ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark. We have a statue of Edgar Fahs Smith outside of the chemistry complex; he is wearing his academic robes and is seated in a chair with a carboy of chemicals beside it. One foot is stepping on the head of a small dragon, which is meant to represent the “Monster of Error.”

Continuing the story of women in chemistry at Penn, my colleague and dear friend, Madeleine Joullié, was the first female organic chemist to get a tenured position at a major U.S. university. She has worked tirelessly through her extensive and impressive career to mentor and advocate for women in chemistry, and I am proud to work with her.

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