Finding the Right Direction

University of Maine at Machias' Merrill Library builds partnerships both on campus and across the state

When the University of Maine at Machias became a regional campus of the University of Maine, the partnership created opportunities for the small campus in Machias to benefit from some of the resources offered by UMaine. For staff at the Merrill Library, the University of Maine at Machias library, the idea of collaborating more with academic institutions across the state made sense. After all, their staff had been developing partnerships both on and off-campus for years.

“We have to be generalists,” says Marianne Thibodeau, Director of Merrill Library, in describing the role she and her staff play on campus. “We have to understand things like access services, technical services, cataloging, and collection development. So, we have to know a little about a lot of different areas.”

The University of Maine at Machias library serves a campus of 800 students, but the library’s staff consists only of Thibodeau, an administrative assistant and an assistant librarian who works during the academic year.

The needs of their campus community require the library staff to serve many distinct functions. Their success in meeting those needs is part of what makes the Merrill Library a critical part of UMM’s mission. The broad scope of skills and services covered by Thibodeau and her staff help students see the library as a one-stop-shop for their research needs.

Thibodeau acknowledges that serving so many roles is both exciting and challenging. Having their “hands in all those different areas” lets them respond to the immediate needs of campus, but partnerships across the state have helped fill in gaps when the need for more specific knowledge arises.

In particular, Thibodeau cites collaboration between libraries in the URSUS library system as a significant support structure to the Merrill Library. URSUS is a shared library system that brings together the seven University of Maine System libraries and combines them with the collections of the Bangor Public Library, the Maine State Library and the Maine Law and Legislative Reference Library.

The shared URSUS catalog is the largest in Maine, but the collaboration between staff at the different libraries gives the Merrill Library a significant pipeline to resources and expertise.

“Because of the relationship that we have with the other URSUS libraries, there’s always an expert,” says Thibodeau. “There’s somebody we know that we can email or pick up the phone and say ‘this is happening, what do you think is the best approach?’ That’s a real benefit of having all the libraries working together.”

Thibodeau says that working together is part of the nature of libraries and librarians—there’s virtually no competition between libraries in the state. Instead, the focus is on sharing and building partnerships that benefit patrons across academic and public libraries in Maine.

When Machias became a regional campus of UMaine, the foundation for collaboration between the two campus libraries had already been in place for years. The Merrill Library has always had a strong working relationship with Raymond H. Fogler Library. Several years ago, Thibodeau and Joyce Rumery, Dean of Libraries at the University of Maine, worked on developing a road map to solidify both Fogler Library and Merrill Library as centers for information literacy instruction. Their goal was to create a plan that would ensure UMaine libraries remain an integral part of university research.

“The collaboration between [Merrill Library] and Fogler has been a tremendous support to us here,” says Thibodeau. “We’re working together. We all want students of the University of Maine System to have access to the resources that they need. [Working with Fogler] has just been a very collegial kind of cooperation, and I truly appreciate it.”

The spirit of working together is also a major part of the UMM community. The small, close-knit nature of campus fosters collaboration and partnerships. Over the summer, Thibodeau worked with UMM faculty to establish a pilot program where they would embed information literacy training into introductory English courses.

Information literacy is a set of skills that helps people effectively locate, evaluate and use information. It’s an essential skill set for anyone pursuing advanced education. By embedding information literacy lessons in introductory courses, Thibodeau hopes to engage a greater percentage of new students earlier in their academic career.

“When I show junior and senior-level students how to do research and how to use the various tools available to them, they frequently say, ‘I wish we had learned this as freshmen.’ And I say, ‘Okay, let’s see what we can do about that.”

For Thibodeau, serving the campus means being an active part of the community. There’s no hard line or delineation between Merrill Library and the people on campus. Examples of this blending are easy to find. Both Thibodeau and her staff take classes at UMM. They volunteer in the community, serve on the boards of professional organizations and are members of campus and UMS Library committees.

“We’re a closely-knit community,” says Thibodeau. “We know just about all of the students by name.”

And then, there’s the community events they bring into Merrill Library: A student food club uses Merrill as a distribution point for locally grown produce. Therapy dogs visit during finals. Faculty and staff meet on a monthly basis for informal networking events. The library has even been used as a laser tag venue.

“To me the library should be a warm and welcoming place,” says Thibodeau. “Not some place where stuffy librarians look down their noses over the tops of their glasses.”

Most of all, this means giving students a place they can rely on when they’re looking for answers. Even if the questions aren’t about library resources, Thibodeau is proud that the Merrill Library is a starting point.

“You never know what students are going to be asking about or just want to have somebody know about,” says Thibodeau. “The library is at least a place for them to start. Any question. We can point them in the right direction.”

This story was originally featured in the 2019 Raymond H. Fogler Library Magazine.