Norwich librarian supports use of information to benefit society

Ellen Hall

When Ellen Hall interviewed at Norwich four-and-a-half years ago, she was delighted to read the University’s mission statement scrolled around the ceiling of the library. The phrases she especially appreciated were “…to act as well as to think…” and “…to execute as well as to conceive…”

“I am a strong believer in helping people access and use information to deal with real-life issues,” Hall says. “Information should support decision-making for the benefit of society.”

Such “decisions must be based on valid research,” she adds, “not on hunch or anecdote, not on what we knew 20 years ago, but on fact. The most important thing I do is teach students how to support the decision-making process with fact.”

Impact of useful and accurate information

Hall’s career as a librarian has given her a strong appreciation for information that is both useful and accurate. At the University of Missouri at Columbia, where she was director of the science library, she worked with graduate students and faculty doing research on issues of significant economic impact such as reducing the costs of protein production in several ways: by using soy and mung beans, interbreeding cattle and buffalo to reduce feed costs and fat content, and controlling plant and animal pests.

Later, as library director at Mercy and University Hospitals in Minneapolis, Minn., she helped access information that influenced economic decisions and even had an impact on life-or-death issues.

“I could see the impact of access to the right information,” Hall says. “It could have a direct impact on the length of a hospital stay, the cost of health care and even the incidence of disease or death.”

Hall also directed the library at Presentation College in Aberdeen, S.D. She came to Norwich from the University of Vermont, where she was interim associate dean of libraries and interim director of the medical library.

Hall earned a B.A. in English and an M.A. in library science from the University of Minnesota and, in 2000, was selected to attend the prestigious Summer Institute for Women in Higher Education at Bryn Mawr College.

“Ellen has brought a high level of academic professionalism to the library,” says David Westerman, who chairs the Geology Department at Norwich. “She clearly understands how the library can help both faculty and students, especially how to use the library to get to material that is credible.”

“The most important thing we do,” Hall says, “is teach students how to support their decisions with fact so that they have the skills to lead and articulate their thoughts in a powerful and convincing way.

“We need to think not about the third-year business major,” she adds, “but the business worker. We need to focus, not on graduation, but on the day after graduation.”

Fundamental role of libraries has not changed

The way libraries help students and faculty access information has changed since Hall began her career 35 years ago at the University of Missouri. However, the fundamental mission of libraries has not changed, she says.

“Often, when I speak, I’ll get introduced with some phrase about how libraries have changed so much,” she says. “People think that we used to just help people check out books, but that’s what we’ve never done. Our core purpose is the same – to provide access to information. The physical tools have changed enormously – we’ve moved from the index card to computers. But we are doing what we’ve always done, just in a much more powerful way.”

The huge difference, she says, is that the amount of information available has grown exponentially.

“Four years ago,” Hall says, “the Norwich library had 800 print journal subscriptions. Today, we have 22,000 subscriptions but all except 800 are electronic.”

The tremendous increase in the amount of information does not mean that all of it is accurate. Libraries have an important role in helping students and faculty judge the reliability of the information, she says.

“Students generally don’t know how to evaluate one Web page from another,” Westerman says, “but Ellen helps them get to the body of knowledge that has gone through the rigor of peer review.”

“There is no editor for much of the information on the Web,” Hall says. “Some of it is unwittingly or maliciously inaccurate That’s the blessing of the Internet – that there’s no editor and no control. And that’s the curse of the Internet. It’s a ‘buyer beware’ situation.”

Supporting distance education

As Norwich University continues to provide more graduate classes online, Hall has worked closely with the School of Graduate Studies (SGS) to provide resources for its students.

“Ellen’s vision of what a contemporary academic library should be is important to the graduate program, especially distance education,” says William Clements, dean of the SGS school. “She has been instrumental in helping us do it (distance education) well. She has enhanced our electronic databases significantly and added librarians very familiar with distance education needs and how to serve those populations.

“She’s very thoughtful,” Clements adds, “and has a vision that reflects how a library fits into an academic institution.”

In addition to helping faculty and staff access information and verify its reliability, Hall acts as the patent and copyright officer for the university and lectures on the protection and use of intellectual property, mainly research, produced by Norwich faculty, while making sure that the university’s use of intellectual property produced elsewhere is legitimate. Both issues have legal and economic ramifications, she says.

“For instance, a number of universities seek our permission to use articles from a Norwich University publication, American Journal of Art Therapy,” she says. “We give them permission, but we charge royalty fees. Similarly, the university pays about $7,000 a year in royalty payments for use of copyrighted materials.”

Hall co-chaired the committee that wrote the university’s intellectual property policy and receives several questions each week from NU faculty and administrators on use of copyrighted work.

Celebrating faculty research

Hall also has taken the lead in developing a campus-wide program to highlight faculty research at Norwich.

Each year, Hall gathers scholarly publications and creations by faculty including artwork, books and articles. They are displayed at the library, and a reception is held, followed by a week of presentations by the faculty on their current work.

“I see it as a celebration of faculty accomplishments,” she says. “Norwich is good at recognizing teaching, but we need to increase awareness of the wonderful contributions our faculty are making to their disciplines through their original professional publications and presentations. I see this event as thanking the faculty for their hard work and acknowledging the contribution that research makes to teaching.”

Westerman, as chair of the faculty development committee, has worked with Hall on the celebration. “Ellen has been a tremendous supporter of research at Norwich,” he says, “both for faculty and students. And when you work with Ellen, you know it will be a productive and efficient exercise. She’s very highly respected and appreciated by the faculty.”