Allison Estell Discusses Evolving Services During Pandemic and Open Educational Resources

A woman in glasses stands outside in front of a library Image by Ed Brennen
Allison Estell, UML's new director of libraries, says she loves connecting students and faculty with information, resources and services that help them succeed in their academic pursuits.

By Ed Brennen

One week into her new job as UMass Lowell director of libraries, Allison Estell is in her office at O’Leary Library, using the metaphor of catching butterflies to describe what it’s like to learn all there is to know about the university.

“I wish I had a big enough net to capture everything,” Estell says.

Just then, her desk phone rings. It’s Tony Sampas, the library’s archivist and special projects manager. He’s calling to let her know that France’s ambassador to the United States, a noted Jack Kerouac enthusiast, may be visiting the library’s Center for Lowell History that night to view its collection of Kerouac memorabilia.

Estell is understandably thrilled. Another unexpected butterfly in her net.

“I’m excited and ready to take on the job,” says Estell, who joins UML after five-plus years at Wentworth Institute of Technology, where she was associate director for access and organization.

Born in Philadelphia but raised in Portland, Maine, Estell has spent a fair amount of her life in university libraries. After earning a bachelor’s degree in music at Middlebury College (she plays piano and viola and is a member of the Boston Civic Symphony), Estell got a law degree from Duke University School of Law. 

She loved law school but wasn’t sold on a legal career. So she returned to her first love, music, and got a master’s degree in music history at Yale.

After staying home with her two children while they were young, Estell began thinking about her next career step. She saw a story in the paper about how the librarian community was aging as a whole, which was creating plenty of opportunities in the field. This got her thinking about librarianship as a career; she saw a strong match between her skills, strengths and values, and the work of the profession. So in 2009, Estell began pursuing a master’s degree in library and information science from Simmons College, where she eventually worked as a librarian before moving on to Wentworth in 2016.
A woman wearing a face covering stands in a library Image by Ed Brennen
Director of Libraries Allison Estell says the pandemic has forced college libraries to think about how to make materials even more accessible for everyone.

“I love connecting people with information, resources and services that help them be successful,” she says of her decision to become a librarian.  

Estell put down her butterfly net to answer a few more questions about her new role.

Q: What attracted you to the Library Director job at UMass Lowell?

A: I’d heard good things about UMass Lowell from connecting with people at professional development events. I knew there was a commitment to open educational resources (OERs) with the LibGuides they do. What clinched it for me was during my first search committee interview. They said they wanted this person to help raise the profile of the library and integrate it fully with the university. That was, “OK, you got me.” I feel libraries are an amazing resource for any community in an academic setting. They can be that hub that connects and supports the whole community and connects the community with other communities. In the case of Lowell, it’s having a good relationship between the university and the historic city that it’s situated in, connecting both the history and the future. 

Q: The university has put an emphasis on making free or low-cost digital textbooks and open educational resources available to students to save them money and keep them in school. What do you see as the library’s role in these efforts?

A: As part of the Academic Affairs team with (Vice Provost) Julie Nash, we’ve talked about how this is one of the things we can all work on together. The library can be a fantastic professional support for faculty who want to either work with us to find OERs or to develop them for their classes. It’s definitely a problem; the financial burden of purchasing textbooks and course materials is significant for students. Libraries are about resource sharing, trying to get what the community needs and finding ways to help people share it in a fair way.

Q: During the height of the pandemic, students could not come to the library and had to access its resources remotely. Do you see this leading to any lasting changes in how the library operates?

A: A lot of things were done in exigent circumstances at university libraries — not “copyright be damned,” but best practices were slightly tweaked to get through the next six months. Seeing people come back this fall, we’ve gotten our footing again and we’re not in emergency mode. But we can’t do things exactly as before. The more we can get online, the better. The physical books are important to some people, but certain types of collections, like the sciences, tended to be moving online. Part of that was for equity’s sake; somebody has a family and can’t go to the library after classes. And that’s also true for supporting fully online programs; you can’t be in an online program and come in for a print book. So librarians here and elsewhere are thinking about what’s sustainable going forward. How can we make a seamless experience both for the faculty trying to get course materials to the students, and for students trying to access that course material?

Q: Libraries have been reimagined in many ways over the past 25 years because of technology. What do you see as the role of the three library locations at UML: O’Leary on South Campus, Lydon on North Campus and the Center for Lowell History downtown?

A: The goal is to match our spaces, services and resources to the needs of the community, and to get that collaboration between the city and the university. What I know we can offer right now is three really different, interesting spaces. Here at O’Leary, it’s more of a learning commons. The library is co-located with other important academic support services such as academic advising, the Honors College and the River Hawk Scholars Academy. There are so many things under one roof for students here: technology, departmental offices, even the new rooftop garden and Starbucks. Lydon is a little more traditional in many ways. Almost all of the books are over there. There are lots of nooks and crannies for quiet study, while the first floor is a more active, collaborative space.

And the Center for Lowell History is the more traditional archives environment that’s very specific to purposes of accessing materials, whether it’s maps or artifacts. It’s specialized, but it shouldn’t be gate-kept; it should be accessible to everyone. Sometimes you don’t get your good idea until you browse a little. Through our ongoing digitization projects, there may be ways to enable some of that online serendipity — so you know what you want to get your washed and gloved hands on before you come to the center.

The staff is so great at all three locations; they have so much to offer to meet the needs of our community. We see the contributions of people who have been here for decades, and we also have the opportunity to make some new hires. We can learn from each other when that strong experience and institutional knowledge is coupled with a fresh infusion of ideas.