Retiring Director of Libraries Jay Schafer fondly recalls his time at UMass

By Shelby Ashline

Umass' Jay Schafer speaking of new 3d printing lab. Sophia Willinger/ Daily Collegian
Umass’ Jay Schafer speaking of new 3d printing lab. Sophia Willinger/ Daily Collegian

University of Massachusetts Director of Libraries Jay Schafer recently announced his plan to retire from the position he has held for 11 years, just as soon as his replacement can be found.

As Schafer, 66, prepares for his retirement, he’s taking the opportunity to look back at his time at UMass, in which he oversaw a library system that underwent significant change as it evolved in the digital era.

Schafer originally joined the University in 2000 as the associate director for collection development for UMass Libraries. But when several library employees retired, the University found itself understaffed and Schafer stepped up to fill the interim position of director of libraries in 2004. He was later named the full-time director in 2005.

His work with UMass wasn’t his first experience running a library system, or even a college library. He had previously served in library administrative positions at the University of Colorado Denver and at Bay Path University. Yet, Schafer said librarianship wasn’t always the career he saw for himself.

“I graduated from the University of Texas El Paso with a bachelor’s degree in English and I thought maybe I would go into teaching,” he said. However, such a pursuit would require further schooling, which he wasn’t interested in at the time.

Due to his familiarity with using libraries and also needing to earn a living, Schafer instead fell into a job at the El Paso Public Library as a paraprofessional.

“I found I liked it,” Schafer said simply. “The people there were very supportive and talked me into going to library school at the University of Denver.”

That was 43 years ago, Schafer said, and the rest is history. His work has changed significantly as library systems change and adapt to new technology, providing him with the “enjoyable challenge” of learning new ways to do things.

Helping libraries evolve into the digital era has been key in Schafer’s work with UMass. He is perhaps best known for his transformation of the underground level of the W.E.B. DuBois Library into a Learning Commons for students.

“It was kind of a collective idea,” Schafer said. “When I came in as director in 2004, there was the information technology minor program that was looking for kind of a computer lab space. At that same time, we were looking to renovate that space on the lower level, and it seemed to me that we should do more than just a computer lab. We should try to transform that entire floor into a technology-rich, collaborative space for students.”

Schafer received funding for the idea, which transformed the print-based reference area filled with microfilm cabinets and antiquated wooden tables into the space we see today.

“It’s much more of an updated environment for today’s students,” he said.

In addition, Schafer and his staff have tried to “increase the focus on undergraduate students” by creating the Undergraduate Teaching and Learning Services Department. He said the goal of the department is to work with educators on campus to increase students’ information literacy, or knowing how to find the information they’re looking for, as well as to teach them critical thinking skills and how to avoid plagiarism.

Schafer has also overseen the Open Education Initiative, which provides small grants to faculty who are interested in moving away from using commercial textbooks in their classes. Instead, they can use open access texts that are available to students at no charge. By investing $50,000 in a four-year period, Schafer and his staff have saved students more than $1 million, per a University news release.

More recently, Schafer has worked with the Amazon bookstore to ensure that faculty and students have the resources they need to “ensure scholarship on campus.” The UMass library system buys books directly from Amazon, as opposed to using interlibrary loans to obtain books UMass does not already own or forcing students to buy the course material directly.

“We try to be as accommodating to students (as possible),” Schafer said.

Now that he is retiring from his position, Schafer explained that the University is currently forming a search committee that will be responsible for hiring his replacement. According to Schafer, Bruce Croft, interim dean of the College of Information and Computer Sciences, and Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, dean of the Commonwealth Honors College will act as co-chairs.

Once the committee has established and released a job description, Schafer expects prospective candidates will be brought to campus in the spring of 2016. The University aims to hire a new director by summer or fall of 2016, according to a UMass news release, but Schafer intends to stay in his position until then.

The director of libraries oversees the 28-story brick-and-mortar building at the heart of campus, the Science and Engineering Library, located within the Lederle Graduate Research Center Low-Rise and the Image Collection Library, which altogether contain more than four million books. In addition, the director heads a staff of 125 full-time employees and around 200 student employees, and is in charge of an $18 million budget.

During retirement, Schafer said he is eager to travel with friends and colleagues, which he has always found to be a rewarding and enriching experience. However, despite looking forward to the journey ahead of him, Schafer leaves with mixed feelings.

“(This job has) been such a big part of my life for such a long time that it was a difficult decision to decide this was the right time,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll miss my colleagues. We see each other probably more than we see our families, so it’ll be a different life.”

It has been made clear, Schafer said, based on his colleagues’ reactions to the news, that they will miss him too.

“I’ve been a little overwhelmed by the reaction to my retirement,” he said. “It’s very heartwarming the kind things that people have said and how much their kind thoughts have meant to me as I go into this new stage. I didn’t realize that the library director touched the lives of so many people.”

Shelby Ashline can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @shelby_ashline.