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Alumna Rachel Gammons Finds Her Calling in Academic Libraries and Information Literacy

When Rachel Gammons (MSIS ’12) had to teach her first synchronous class online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she pulled herself back to a few years ago when she was in the MSIS program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, so she could extract the parts of her experience that made her feel connected to faculty and other students in virtual classrooms.

“I want it to feel like a real, holistic and complete learning experience for them. You definitely have more perspective as an online teacher if you have been an online student,” Gammons said.

Coming Full Circle

As the head of the University of Maryland McKeldin Library’s teaching and learning services, and as the liaison to the iSchool there, Gammons has had lots of opportunity to draw on what she learned while at SIS. She particularly noted that her SIS faculty advisor, Associate Professor Rachel Fleming-May, has continued to stay in touch and support her when she needed it.

For example, when Gammons was asked to teach an academic library course for the first time a few years ago, she emailed Fleming-May for advice, and Fleming-May shared the syllabus for the academic library class she teaches.

“She was so gracious and now I have aspects of my course that are based on her pedagogy and teaching, which it is so nice to come full circle from when I was in school,” Gammons said.

Teaching was never something Gammons would have picked for herself, and initially academic libraries were just a blip on her radar. She earned her undergraduate degree in art history from the University of Tennessee, and it was in an art class where she first learned about information sciences. One of her professors shared how students from the MSIS program helped him create digital images of a slide collection, and it struck her that cataloging and organizing art or artifacts would be an exciting profession. So she applied to several information sciences programs with a plan to work in museums and do curatorship. She ultimately chose her undergraduate alma mater due to an assistantship offer at Hodges Library and at the encouragement of Fleming-May.

Finding a Place in Academic Libraries

“I ended up in a career that was the big kid version of my internship at Hodges, which isn’t something I would have picked, and it really changed my life. Teaching is not something I had ever considered, but I am good at it and really enjoy it and teaching gives back as much as it takes,” she said. “I just enjoy seeing the impact that you have on students.”

In her current role, Gammons oversees the library’s teaching programs and supervises the UMD Libraries’ MLIS Research and Teaching Fellowship students. She also teaches seminars through the library and is an affiliate faculty member with the UMD iSchool, where she teaches an academic library course and occasional reference and undergraduate courses. She said that having Fleming-May as an instructor (Fleming-May was an academic librarian prior to earning a PhD and becoming faculty) really impacted her own views on the importance of practitioners teaching students in information sciences and library science programs.

“We have students who want to work in libraries, and having a pulse on what that profession is like, the challenges that we are engaged in right now, is something you can lose if you don’t have practitioners teaching,” she said.

Especially right now, as academic librarians have had to react to the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gammons said students need to understand the day-to-day challenges those practitioners face. She’s spent most of the last year supervising her team remotely, teaching them how to teach online, and teaching herself how to teach synchronous classes online.

Always Learning

In addition to teaching and supervising her department, Gammons is also in the process of earning her doctorate in Higher Education, Student Affairs, and International Education. She chose to get her PhD because she hopes to move into an administrative position one day, and also wanted to shore up her skills in research. She’s completed all her coursework and is currently working on what her dissertation will explore.

“I picked a dissertation topic before COVID and it feels like the landscape has really shifted around us, and what seemed relevant and timely has lost its luster. We’re having conversations I never anticipated having,” she said.

Gammons is interested in learning analytics, which she describes as all the disparate digital pieces of information universities gather about students, from where they swipe their student ID cards, to coursework registration, to online access – all to find indicators of student success. For example, does a student who visits the library multiple times a week have more success than one who only goes once every couple of weeks? Her particular area of interest is in privacy and how libraries will engage in digital analytics, and whether or not they should contribute to those systems and processes.

Since her university pushed classes online in March 2020, there’s been a sudden increase in digital information about students – and because of the urgent need for such a move, long-term effects weren’t necessarily considered. An exponential amount of data is being produced by these actions, and that may just change everything – if not, at least, the angle – about Gammons dissertation.

Regardless of what direction her dissertation takes, Gammons said she will always consider her education at SIS to be significant part of her life and her job. It’s a major reason why she wanted to work at the University of Maryland, as they have a library science program, and she wanted to foster the same kind of collaboration there between the program and the library that she’d observed at the University of Tennessee.

“I was so appreciative of Dr. Fleming-May, who has a really strong relationship with the library on campus, and that can’t be assumed at every iSchool and MLIS program. Seeing that relationship between a school of information sciences and the library has been important,” she said.

While she may have started as someone who thought her place was in museums and didn’t even know what an information literacy librarian was, Gammons said she found her true passion through the SIS program and her assistantship. It was an unexpected calling, but she couldn’t be happier to fulfill it.

“I really have a heart for this,” she said.