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From opera stage manager to superstar librarian: 4 questions with UMSI clinical professor Kristin Fontichiaro

Kristin Fontichiaro sitting cross-legged in colorful cubes at a library, wearing a green sweater and smiling.

Monday, 02/19/2024

For more than a decade, University of Michigan School of Information clinical professor Kristin Fontichiaro has been advocating for libraries. From creating makerspaces for children to play and learn, to creating information literacy skills, Fontichiaro believes libraries are foundational to free speech and equitable access to information. 

In the last five years, Fontichiaro’s role has evolved to meet new needs. Amid book banslibrary censorship and growing pressure from the parental rights movement, Fontichiaro often finds herself wondering: How did we get to a place where our libraries are under attack? 

In this Q&A, Fontichiaro shares her thoughts her path to library science, what she’s working on right now, and her predictions for the future of libraries.

How long have you been at UMSI and what led you to the field of information? 

Kristen standing between library shelves, wearing a blazer, glasses and smiling.

I’ve been at UMSI for 15 years. I actually started my career as an opera stage manager, which might not seem like it has a lot to do with where I am now, but I think every job has led me to where I am. I’ve met some interesting people in my day, and operas are about bringing people together from different disciplines and creating a place where remarkable things can happen. Libraries serve a similar function.

I did a lot of travel in my opera career, and I think that was helpful because it exposed me to different kinds of communities, priorities and needs. But I knew that life on the road was not forever. I come from a family of teachers and like everyone else, had the illusion of getting summers off. I worked K-12 for a few years, and decided to go back to school. I took classes at UMSI and then joined as a clinical associate professor in 2010. 

How has the school changed over the last 15 years, and how has your work changed? 

I think we’ve changed and grown a lot in size, in the number of programs and where the majority of student interest lies. I remember when we were almost like a land of misfit toys — a lot of people with a vague idea of how the internet was changing everything. It was uncharted. It’s been formalized over time and grown so much. 

My research has gone back and forth through the years. It ebbs and flows, but the theme is centered around libraries, how they continue to grow, thrive, innovate and respond to changing needs. The most joyful parts are building capacity in various ways and reconceptualizing what roles libraries play in local, specific ways. During the pandemic, it was a lot of work with library directors in rural communities, exploring how to be more hands on and create a place for people to feel safe. When we’re able to help build capacity, whether it’s thinking about innovative teaching methods in a school library, or creating makerspaces for kids to experiment and play, that’s the best part of my job. 

And finally, this past year was about working with library directors. Where do we see the future of libraries going? It’s about shaping what it means to communicate with our community, our board and our patrons in light of well orchestrated efforts to demonize libraries and take issue with the idea that they’re for everyone. 

This time has clarified our driving force and allowed us to focus on the things we think are absolutely critical. We want to preserve the diverse voices and interests of all kinds of patrons. That’s the green flag right now, and the renewed focus on that prime objective has been refreshing. 

In your opinion, why do you think libraries are under attack right now? 

I think there’s a trend of people wanting everything in the world to be exactly how they want. When I was growing up, there was something beautiful about civic institutions and libraries being a place where distinctions came together. Society right now is not interested in compromise. We’re not interested in saying, “I don’t like this material, but I do like this other piece, and as long as there’s something for everyone, that’s fine.” 

And then we have this power class that’s riling people up and saying, “Hey, the real problem isn’t that your minimum wage hasn’t been raised in 10 years. The real problem is this library book you don’t like.” 

What are you working on now? What are you looking forward to in 2024? 

2024 is going to be busy! With Elizabeth Keren-Kolb of the U-M Marsal Family School of Education and Beth Sherman of the U-M School of Social Work, I’m working to coach and bring U-M students into Ann Arbor middle schools to work on practical, peer-to-peer strategies for improving our collective online health and digital wellness. We’re grateful that this year’s pilot effort is supported by the U-M Center for Research on Learning and Teaching and developed collaboratively with the Ann Arbor Public Schools. With teammates from the University of Iowa and the University of West Georgia, we’re wrapping up the IMLS-funded Online Ready project to better prepare school librarians for effective and culturally-relevant pedagogical practices online. We’re reviewing data from our pilot courses and polishing everything up to be shared openly online. And with the Library of Michigan and MSI student Rion Berger, and with funding support from IMLS, I’m launching a big new project with 100 library directors from around the state to further develop community engagement and strategic communication skills to meet emergent needs. Library directors have such deep care and concern for their communities – it is a thrill to work alongside such smart, big-hearted leaders.


Keep up with Kristin Fontichiaro by visiting her UMSI faculty profile