Home 9 Blog Posts 9 Back Talk — Another New Library?  What Fun!!

Back Talk — Another New Library?  What Fun!!

by | May 7, 2024 | 0 comments

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Column Editor:  Jim O’Donnell  (University Librarian, Arizona State University) 

Against the Grain V36#2

One day last spring, I went to a meeting that had turned up on my calendar.  I hadn’t a clue what it was to be about, and it turned out to be a working group focused on “inboarding” a whole new enterprise in Los Angeles.  ASU had purchased the facilities and program rights of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM), a 50-year old private degree-granting institution in downtown LA.  “And Jim,” they said, “you’ll run the library, right?”  First time anybody’s ever given me a whole library without, you know, a warning.

Now as any Charleston-goer who’s seen me ambling in and out of the Francis Marion in my J.C. Penney Geezerwear(TM?) will immediately know, fashion isn’t exactly my, um, métier, but, hey, we’re “America’s most innovative university” (our busses remind us of that all the time), and we can try anything.

It’s been a revelation.  Back and forth to LA a few times, and if you hate LAX, I’m happy to tell you about Burbank, and if you need a downtown hotel with rooms that aren’t large enough to change your mind in, I’ve got a great recommendation.  That said, it’s been a wonderful experience.

What can be different about running a fashion library, I naively asked myself.  Well, for one thing, the focus is relentlessly visual and tactile.  The print collection (quite a good one) is heavily oriented towards materials that will stimulate the visual imagination of students learning the basics of fashion design.  On top of that, the FIDM library has two unique collections of a kind I’d not seen before.  LA is a fashion-manufacturing city (the place ASU bought is a few short blocks from the Fashion District), so the library has a standing relationship with various vendors who donate odds and ends of their current fabrics, which turn into the substance of a fabric swatch library collection, where students working on a project rummage around and are allowed to snip off a sample to attach to their finished project.  Next door to the swatch library is the innovative fabrics library offering specimens of newly invented materials — vegan leathers made of unusual materials and the like.

And the traditional print collection has its own delights.  Running a fashion school in LA means an interest in Hollywood, which means an interest in costume design, especially for period pictures.  That remake series of Perry Mason set in 1930s LA?  They need costumes, you know.  So the FIDM library has collected for that sort of request.  To my delight, one of their regular tools is their collection of old Sears and Roebuck catalogs, the big fat mail order volumes that take you right back — took me right back — to 1960, in elaborate detail.  I’ve never seen those in a library before, but they fit right in.

There are other features of fashion school that I had never imagined.  It turns out that sizing patterns for manufacture is a tricky and complicated business.  You don’t just design a size medium top and expect the factory to be able to do everything from small to XXL with the same pattern, because human beings don’t change size by scaling in a linear fashion but go out more than up and some parts go further than others in what turn out to be complicatedly predictable ways.  Enter the faculty member who teaches students to use the software that’s now the tool of choice for taking a brilliant original design and making it something that can actually be mass-produced and sold:  fascinating to listen to, working at the boundaries between art, taste, physiology, and technology.

And then there are the trend books.  These cost several thousand dollars each, are published twice a year, and come with elaborate designs, typography, and inlaid swatches of fabric.  The fashion industry, I am told, lives and dies by these books, because they purport to tell the industry what will be hot 18 months from now — tracking trends.  So in early 2022, these books would have said SUMMER 2023 – THINK PINK!  Or something like that.  Everybody outside the fashion business is skeptical of just how good these books can be.  Everybody in the fashion business pays thousands of dollars for them.

Well, who knew all this?  There have been some curious bits of business in the transition from the old management to the new and some interesting headaches with the wifi network in the building.  (In the transition year, we needed to run the old institution’s program and students with access to one set of digital resources and the newly-admitted ASU folks with access to another.)  We were lucky, though, to inherit a small but truly excellent staff of smart people who know what they’re doing, genuinely like each other, and (as it happens) really like the new ASU management.  (Another set of headaches?  Get an American public university based in one state to run programs in another.  Employment laws, tax, health insurance, retirement — even America’s most innovative university has to take bureaucratic pettifoggery in stride!)

We’ve just completed a search for a senior librarian to replace one who had left during the ownership transition, and we’re about to grapple with all the adventures of integrating catalogs and de-duping subscriptions.  The whole experience has been one with the special pleasure that comes from discovering a domain of human activity I knew nothing about and finding that it is populated by smart and interesting people with imagination, creativity, and (nowadays) technology applied in amazing ways.  Our taking on this library has really been a perk and privilege of my job this year.

So, another day, another new library.  Since that meeting last spring, ASU has announced that it will open a medical school in two years, so there’s another all-hands-on-deck scramble to figure out accreditation requirements and work on getting licensed resources in place.  (NOTE TO OUR VENDOR FRIENDS:  Yes, we know you’re there and we’ll come talk to you when we’re ready.  Don’t call us, we’ll call you.)

Then recently (in September 2023), the President of the United States showed up in town and announced a significant gift for ASU to build a John McCain National Library on a nearby hilltop, and that’s got a two-year timeline attached.  Note to all friends:  if you want to give ASU another library, maybe we could chat first?  It’s all a bit much, but quite wonderful at the same time.  

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