A Year in Photographs
An Essay on The Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University
Heidi Herr is the Outreach Coordinator of Special Collections and Librarian for Philosophy in The Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University. Recently, she appointed two undergraduate students, John Belanger, JHU '14 and Eric Chen, JHU '16, who were photography student interns, to create a pictorial archive of The Sheridan Libraries from undergraduate students' perspectives. The photo essay is titled A Year in the Life of The Sheridan Libraries. We got an opportunity to chat with Heidi via email about her vision and purpose for the photo essay.
WJ: What was your objective in designing a photographic essay project on the Sheridan libraries? Why not a written article?
HH: The libraries are both a hub of learning and social activity for our students. Not only do they study and conduct research in our libraries, but they also attend art openings and whimsical programs like our Edible Book Festival. What better way to showcase all these activities than through a series of photographs that document student life? Photographs, after all, are a compelling and versatile way to tell a story. Students see themselves in the images and visitors and prospective students get a much more personal sense of what it is like to be a student at Hopkins. We now have a lovely collection of photographs that can be shared on social media and displayed on the walls of the library.
This internship program was designed to offer a challenging learning experience for the interns that moves beyond the traditional learning activities often associated with libraries, as well as document just how much a part of student life the libraries are. As Outreach Coordinator for Special Collections, I like to develop projects that may have a legacy component to them. For instance, the University Archives is making great strides in collecting documents about current student organizations and events.
As a compliment to the Archives project, I thought it would be awesome to hire two student photography interns to take photographs that showcase what the libraries are like now, what technologies the students are using, and how they are using the space. John Belanger and Eric Chen, the two student photographers, have essentially created a portfolio of images that are not just beautiful but will in the future have a strong historic component as well. The photographs will be accessioned into the University Archives and will become part of the University's history.
WJ: Did you or the student-photographers consider a theme to develop the essay? What were the themes?
HH: I felt very strongly that the student photographers should have creative control and freedom over the type of photographic portfolio they wished to create, so I intentionally kept the theme broad and offered support to the students. After all, the project was meant to be from the perspective of our undergraduates, and I did not want my views as a librarian to overly influence the nature of the images.
One of the very pleasant surprises with the project is that Eric and John had two very different takes on what documenting the library life meant. Eric chose to document student life within the library and Brody Learning Commons, while John wished to explore the space itself, in particular examining how the absence of individuals in public spaces reveals hidden details.
WJ: Since some spaces in the libraries are relatively new, like the Brody Commons, how has library usage been transformed by these redesigns and additions?
HH: The Brody Learning Commons has certainly transformed the way our students use the library. The addition was created with student input as to the design and collaborative learning in mind, so the students are often rearranging furniture to accommodate their study groups or are busy writing complex equations or drawing goofy "stress buster" doodles on the study room walls. Furthermore, the space was designed for everyone. For those students who wish to have a quiet study experience, the spacious quiet Reading Room provides an elegant and studious atmosphere, whereas those who like to chat and be a bit more rambunctious can hang out in the colorful and light-filled atrium.
The Brody Learning Commons has also worked wonders in bringing attention to the Department of Special Collections. Special Collections has a wonderful location in the BLC and its student employees create displays in the department's Reading Room for other students to explore and enjoy. The exposure has certainly integrated Special Collections much more into the daily life of the library and has counteracted stuffy old-fashioned notions about what Special Collections are!
WJ: Did you and the students discuss any challenges that might come up during the duration of the project?
HH: Yes! Aside from the students worrying about juggling their internship with their academic obligations, they were worried about intruding on the personal space of their peers or that their photography activity would be considered a disruption to others who were studying. Fortunately, Eric and John had very positive experiences with the project. Since they are students, they knew that working on their project during certain periods of the academic cycle such as finals would be inconsiderate. They used their knowledge as students to figure out when the best times to take the photographs were and were able to communicate with our diverse student body and get some really great shots!
We also provided them with support. Library staff and security were informed about the photography project, we advertised the project on our social media channels, and John and Eric were given an official letter discussing the project. They were also encouraged to share my contact information in case anyone had questions or concerns about the project.
WJ: Which three photos do you feel best represent the role of the Sheridan Libraries? How do they do so?
HH: It's so hard to select just three! John and Eric's photographic essay surpassed my original expectations for the project. I simply cannot speak enough about the creativity and enthusiasm they had for the project, but choose I must.
One of my favorites taken by Eric involves a group of students intently studying together in a room in which they've scribbled chemical structures and other notes upon the walls. Upon a closer look, the viewer realizes one of the students is looking at goofy cat memes on their laptop! It's a great photograph as it combines the educational and social ways students use the libraries.
Another photo I admire, also taken by Eric, features a student in the stacks browsing books, with a small stack of tomes upon the floor. The aisle of books seems almost endless in the shot. The photo is a moment of quiet contemplation amid the buzz that surrounds activity in Brody and reminds us that the research process can be a solitary struggle. It also shows that we have the resources our students need, be they online or shelved among the endless aisles of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library.
I also love the photograph taken by John of the John Work Garrett Library, one of our Special Collections spaces located at the Evergreen Museum and Library. The photograph, especially when viewed in conjunction with Eric's photographs of student life in the BLC, shows the richness and diversity of the Sheridan Libraries. Not only do we have cutting-edge study spaces and a rich array of online resources, but libraries that look as though they belong in Downton Abbey as well, and is available to the students to use.
Photographs courtesy of Eric Chen and John Belanger and used with permission. Check out the complete collection (301 photos) on Flickr. Special thanks to Eric and John for the photos, and to Heidi Herr for taking the time to answer our questions.