Montana State University

Spring 2013

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Mountains and Minds

Photo by Kelly Gorham

Ask her anything May 07, 2013 by Amy Stix • Published 05/07/13

Jan Zauha gives new vision to the role of reference librarian

Jan Zauha's book list:

  • Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
  • The Magus by John Fowles
  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sheman Alexie
  • Quiet by Susan Cain
  • Bound Like Grass by Ruth McLaughlin
  • Light in August by William Faulkner
  • The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage
  • How Learning Works by Susan Ambrose, et al
  • A Time for New Dreams by Ben Okri
  • One Good Turn  by Kate Atkinson
  • Girl Reading by Katie Ward
  • The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel 

If the words "reference librarian" conjure an image in your mind of an introverted, serious, solitary person whose nose is constantly stuck in a book, then you really must meet Janelle (Jan) Zauha.

With her funky cat-eye glasses and infectious laugh, Zauha, who has served as a reference librarian at Montana State University's Renne Library since 1995, instantly dispels any stereotype about her profession; save, perhaps, for the one about having her nose in a book a lot of the time.  But for as much as she is passionate about reading, the warm, funny and very much extroverted Zauha is equally passionate about sharing her love of the written word with others, especially students.

Zauha also radiates an insatiable curiosity and joy for learning--qualities that seem ingrained in her DNA.

"I've been a voracious reader since I was six," Zauha said. At just 16 years of age, the Boise, Idaho, native began working as an assistant at the Idaho State Library. Though Zauha always knew she wanted a career in library science, she had assumed it would be rooted in Boise, where she completed an undergraduate degree in English. But after earning a master's degree in English literature from Clark University in Massachusetts, followed by a second master's in library and information science from the University of Iowa, Zauha accepted a position as the documents and data support librarian at the University of Michigan's Graduate Library. When Zauha learned of an opening for a reference librarian at MSU, she jumped on the chance to move to Montana. 

"I wanted to come West again," she said. And when she stepped onto MSU's campus for the first time, Zauha said, "It just felt like home."

Today, the tenured, professor-level position Zauha accepted at MSU 17 years ago has remained a perfect fit for her.

"I love the students here," she said. "They're really refreshing. They come to campus with this sort of awe and some trepidation." 

The help that she and her fellow librarians provide to MSU's students is grounded in "making connections between people and ideas and resources," Zauha said. She calls the library an "intellectual crossroads" for students, faculty and staff, as well as local community members.

She said often, students--particularly new ones--are simply not aware of the myriad print, digital and other resources available to them at Renne Library. Many are also daunted by the process of tracking down an obscure piece of information for a research paper or project, and for that reason, may avoid entering the library altogether.

That is why Zauha, who herself searches for and reads information on a tablet, smartphone, computer and Kindle, goes to them.

"We field any question that comes to us," she said. She described how reference librarians work one-on-one with students to help them target the information they need. "But we also teach a lot in the classroom. We are faculty here whose role is not to grade you, but to guide you."

One of the many classrooms Zauha visits each year belongs to Amy Thomas, associate professor of English. 

Thomas met Zauha nearly 15 years ago, after she helped her with an abstruse reference question for Thomas' own research.

"I liked her enthusiasm and creativity," Thomas recalled.

Ever since then, Thomas has invited Zauha into her classroom to teach students about the diverse research materials available to them on campus, and to guide students in the art of conducting academic exploration.

"At heart, I think a reference librarian is a really great teacher with a lot of curiosity," said Thomas about her colleague and friend, adding that, "A reference librarian has to also be a good student."

In addition to her work teaching and assisting students, Zauha leads three different book clubs, including one at the Bozeman Senior Center, another for Extended University's Wonderlust organization and a third for the Friends of MSU Library. She also coordinates a non-fiction book club for MSU's Center for Faculty Excellence, aimed at enhancing faculty members' teaching.

According to Marilyn Lockhart, the center's director, Zauha "has touched a lot of faculty lives through the work she has done," noting that Zauha is not only an excellent facilitator, but gifted in training faculty to facilitate their own rich discussions on higher education and instruction.

"She's really good at asking people questions to draw out their critical reflections."

Lockhart also commends Zauha's positive and unflagging energy.

"She has such a wonderful sense of humor that really makes her sparkle," Lockhart said. "She makes these sessions fun."

Then there are the special projects Zauha takes on, including coordination of a women's memoir reading for the public. She collaborates with other librarians, the Associated Students of MSU and various departments to co-produce "Random Acts of Shakespeare" during exam week, in which faculty and students perform snippets from Shakespeare's plays inside Renne Library, to provide hard-cramming students some "creativity breaks."

In addition, Zauha is active with "Banned Books Week," an annual event that celebrates intellectual freedom and the First Amendment, and serves on the MSU Convocation and "One Book, One Bozeman" committees. She has won numerous awards for her service, including the Humanities Hero Award from Humanities Montana and the Cornerstone Award from the Bozeman Public Library.

Zauha spent a six-month sabbatical in 2011 in England researching technology-driven changes in book publishing as well as literary festivals. She has also published and presented widely on topics ranging from library leadership development to recreational reading and student literacy. In addition, she is focused on teaching and reference work, book clubs and mentoring peers in the Pacific Northwest Library Association Leadership Institute.

"Joint exploration is what learning is," Zauha said. "The library has always been the place where all disciplines come together. I learn something new every 10 minutes."

And though she is devoted to every aspect of her job, the moments when Zauha helps others land exactly on that single piece of information or concept they have been searching for, no matter how hidden, are some of the most satisfying. 

 "The library is a place for creation," she said. "It's not a place where ideas just sit and rest."