“I had a good sense of what was coming.” – An Interview with Susan K. Nutter

Susan tells the story of her visit to the White House to receive the IMLS Medal to Chancellor Woodson and guests at the Chancellor’s residence. © 2016, Kenneth Martin

While still in graduate school at Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts, not far from where she grew up, Susan K. Nutter chose MIT’s Project INTREX as her internship over a more typical library position. “It was the job that scared me…the biggest challenge. The other opportunity was a traditional kind of library environment and job…a narrow environment.” Anything but traditional or narrow, the goal of Project INTREX—one of the most significant library experiments of its kind—was to devise advanced technologies and methods for the library of the future.

If this is starting to sound familiar, the direct parallels between this early formative experience and Susan’s industry-changing career at NC State are not hard to draw, and they start with the project’s director, Carl Overhage.

A protege of Vannevar Bush’s, Overhage was a physicist and electrical engineer who led a research group in the Airborne Division at the Radiation Laboratory during World War II. He went on to make advances in a variety of emerging fields including radar, radio physics and astronomy, space surveillance and ballistic missile defense.

Dr. Overhage was awarded a presidential Certificate of Merit for his technical contributions during the war, and the Air Force presented him the Exceptional Service Award for contributions to aerial reconnaissance. In 1964, he initiated INTREX at MIT for the application of then-emerging principles and methods of information processing to library operations.

“I was only 24 or 25, but he really pushed me,” Susan remembers. “He identified speed and not working to your comfort level or how you wanted to work. It was clear that he cared about this.”

“And what really impressed me was that he wanted me to pay attention to the little details too. He had done a lot of analyses of how scientists and engineers look for information and how quickly they needed it and what you had to do to be a good librarian in that environment. No detail was too small for him.”

That exposure to how scientists and engineers work and the kind of information they need certainly informed Susan’s vision upon arriving at NC State, an institution known for its traditional strengths in those fields. But Overhage also instilled in her the value of cross-disciplinary perspectives to the health of any library or campus.

“They brought in an internationally recognized speaker once a month for the whole community. And there were psychologists, computer scientists, all kinds of people on the staff. So that taught me that you needed to have a staff of people with different strengths and backgrounds to really understand what’s going on and how you need to be responding to things.”

Susan’s tenure at NC State is littered with some of the biggest names across a variety of disciplines—Junot Díaz, Barney Frank, and Mona Chalabi have all recently visited the Libraries—and she became known on campus and around the library world for her innovative hiring and professional development strategies.

And Overhage’s attention to detail? Also not lost on Susan. Whether hand-signing thousands of individual holiday cards or painstakingly choosing every piece of furniture and fixture in the Hunt Library, she honored Overhage’s speed [what she calls “student time”], his penchant for particulars, and his aesthetics.

“He had all of these original Albers on the walls of his office, and it isn’t until recently that I realized that he had all of this kind of furniture...he had impeccable taste, and it was just wonderful to be exposed to all of that.”

Hearing that, it’s impossible not to think of the Hunt Library and its iconic deployment of colorful, modern furniture. Clearly the message that such great design choices sent the staff, students, and faculty at MIT—one that inspired their best work and endeared the library to them—was one that Susan wanted to send the NC State community.

“[H]e has to be one of the smartest people I have ever known, and he was a man of such integrity. I wanted to be him in a sense. All those lessons really served me well. I had a good sense of what was coming. If I had gone into another library I wouldn’t have had any of that. I wouldn’t have even known what was coming.”

Listening to Susan speak about Overhage with such admiration and respect is a lot like hearing those who have had the opportunity to work with Susan talk about her. And the same holds true for her account of his retirement.

“On his last day of work, I was just heartbroken. I bought these incredibly beautiful flowers. They happened to be purple [Susan’s signature color]. I don’t think I thought about the color purple at that time...I also had a bottle of really good champagne [also a signature of Susan’s]. To bring it to his office was really hard for me, because I felt like a groupie or a fan. And when I went out to the parking garage at the end of the day—we all tended to walk this path to our cars—there were all of these purple petals from the flowers, and I just fell apart.”

Susan chats with students at the Hunt Library

“I’ll play guard”

“The chancellor at the time had a vision for Centennial Campus, and that was one of the reasons this was a good place to come.”

And so it began. Susan arrived at NC State over 30 years ago, already dreaming of a library on Centennial Campus.

“I had a really interesting provost. He believed in me and would tell me I was a good administrator. That was very powerful. But he also felt the same way I did about diversity and building a staff and bringing in people with different backgrounds. And he also believed in finding ways to make things happen.“

When asked about the difficulties, as a woman new to campus, of navigating a primarily male administration, Susan’s response was unexpected.

“The whole place was male. But maybe because my father didn’t have a son, and we watched sports together, I could always talk to my male colleagues. They may not have liked what I was doing or saying, but we always got along.”

That knowledge of sports came in handy at least once in helping to defuse a potentially intimidating situation with her new supervisors.

“I remember the first time I met the chancellor. The provost was sitting with him. They both stood up, and the provost was 6’ 4” and the Chancellor was 6’ 7” or 6’ 8”. It was overpowering to have these two huge men standing there, so I said, ‘O.K....I’ll play guard.’”

After the ice was broken, Susan set out building relationships and collaborating across campus to get the Libraries to the place she envisioned it needed to be.

“We had a blue ribbon commission on the libraries in 1990. The new provost was leading that and had some really distinguished faculty on that committee, and he had been really convinced that we needed to go in the directions that I was talking about.”

“They had their meetings at night because everyone was too busy, but there was a sense of urgency about this. The interim chancellor was on board and believed in data-based, evidence-based approaches, and he would tell me that if you say the library needs to do this, you have to look at the exemplars in libraries and compare yourself and see where you are.”

“They made a series of recommendations, and one of them was to make the library director a member of Deans Council. But that didn’t happen. I think they were afraid that if I were the only non-Dean on Deans Council, then everyone would come running and want to be on it, which I realize was totally legitimate.”

“But when Marye Anne Fox arrived from Texas and met with Deans Council she asked, ‘Well, where’s Susan Nutter? Why isn’t she here?’ I think the University Librarian at Texas was an influential figure, and she’d seen that.”

“They quickly organized and the Faculty Senate drafted a resolution, and that’s how it happened. And that’s been a great enabler for the Libraries…to bring things to their attention. And we had a lot of fun. I would guess I was seen as the least formal on that group…and I spoke my mind.”

“The first thing you should do when you wake up in the morning is think about the students”

Time and time again, colleagues have said that what they admire most about Susan is both her ability to forge strategic alliances with key university partners and her tenacity in enabling the work of NC State students and faculty.

“I particularly wanted to have a relationship with the Dean of Engineering. To get on the Academic Oval was going to be a big effort, and they weren’t ready to save a space, and I was terrified we wouldn’t get a space like that.”

“The Dean of the College of Design was also an advocate for Centennial Campus…and we hit it off during my interview, because while everyone was naysaying Centennial, I told them it was the reason I came here. He loved that.”

“So I went over and visited him and asked him to please save us a spot on the Academic Oval.”

“It was important because it was the academic center of that campus, and if you want to affect things, you have to have students coming and going. And that’s what we’re about. If you don’t see that, the place feels dead.”

Students are at the center of everything Susan has fought for. No matter the issue, conversations with her almost always came back to the students.

“I took to heart people who said the first thing you should do when you wake up in the morning is think about the students.”

“Students didn’t always have a voice, but when they got involved in issues related to academics, they were heard. Maybe because I’ve never had children, I don’t see them as children, I see them as adults and treated them that way.”

“I tried to demonstrate that through the University Library Committee and the Student Advisory Forum. We would listen to them and make changes as fast as we possibly could. They love those groups. The students learn to speak as our peers, which is amazing, and they love it, and the faculty love it and I love it.”

“We have a whole progression of students from the past who really made a difference and they believed in it.”

“I wanted to finish things even though I didn’t believe I ever would”

During her transformative three decades at NC State, over which she won every award the library world had to offer, it stands to reason that there were opportunities to leave.

“I felt I’d made a commitment to something I hadn’t fully realized yet. If I’m happy and satisfied and challenged, I don’t start looking at other places. I didn’t think about going.”

“I have close ties to the people I work with. And I didn’t like the thought of going without taking some of these people with me—which is not something you should do—and you probably can’t take as many as I would have wanted to take, anyway,” Susan says with a smile.

“I wanted to finish things even though I didn’t believe I ever would.”

Susan, of course, did finish those things, famously, and when asked about the moment she knew her vision had a chance of being realized, she recounts having mixed emotions.

“The day we got the money from the legislature, I was dazed. I couldn’t believe it. And then I was terrified. How are we going to create this kind of library?”

The Hunt Library has gone on to garner nearly every award in the architecture and higher education worlds, has attracted visitors from all over the globe, and has been featured in the highest-profile media venues, with TIME dubbing it the “library of the future.”

Susan with Governor Hunt at the dedication day celebration for the opening of the Hunt Library.

“If I have any legacy—and I really don’t believe in that kind of stuff—it would be investing in staff”

Always quick to note that what makes a successful library on one campus is not necessarily what’s best for another campus, Susan would like to see certain things change in the library world.

“First of all, 50% of research libraries have tenure. That’s always going to have an impact in terms of change, which is always hard for people anyway. In that system, I don’t think the best people always rise to the top.”

”I see some directors really taking to heart what we’ve done with the development of our staff. These things have to change over time, and one way of doing it is by growing your staff or filling vacancies with non-librarians who have other expertise. Maybe then you can get to a tipping point. It’s the disciplines that change, too, and you have to know that and respond to it.”

If given another five or ten years on the job, Susan, fittingly, would do more of the same.

“I would just be trying to make the library as meaningful for the students and faculty as it can be, because we can lose that very quickly. That means you have to have an appetite for change. You have to have persistence. I guess you have to be tenacious.”

“If I have any legacy—and I really don’t believe in that kind of stuff—it would be investing in staff. Developing people who are going to go out and further libraries in a sense.”

When asked about her new role as an ex-director, Susan is quick to point to her predecessors as role models.

“I.T. Littleton has been perfect…they all were. They were wonderful. Every time I would see them, they would exclaim about all the wonderful things we were doing. They were so generous.”

But another thing she has valued over the years is the space the former directors have given her to make the NCSU Libraries her own. And she wants to respect that tradition and the new ideas and styles of Interim Vice Provost and Director of Libraries Greg Raschke and whoever the permanent director ends up being. Though the idea of putting space between her and the NCSU Libraries makes Susan wistful.

“It’s the people and the fun. It’s very rich here, and you get to try out your thinking—something you’ve seen or read—I love that.”

“But I am looking forward to being able to be spontaneous. To not have everything planned out. Being able to say, ‘today I’ll…’”


More in Focus: Read more about Susan's legacy at NC State and the campus-wide celebration of her retirement.