A Conversation with Lisa German
By Nina Clements

I had the pleasure of speaking with Lisa German, currently the Associate Dean for Collections, Information, and Access Services at Penn State University Libraries. Soon, she will leave Penn State to take on another leadership position as Dean of Libraries and Elizabeth D. Rockwell Chair for the University Libraries at the University of Houston. Lisa German has a long and impressive history with libraries, and her professional career is a wonderful example for women librarians. I asked her to discuss her career and some of the choices she made as a librarian, and she was incredibly generous in her response.
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When asked what advice she could give new or not-so-new librarians, she encouraged everyone who’s ever had a mentor to choose at least one mentee. This can happen within the library or across the university or in the community.
Women librarians can make a difference by cultivating a mind-set of helpfulness within the organization.
Lisa’s interests in feminism and libraries began in college, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She studied twentieth-century American History and enjoyed learning about the accomplishments of women such as Alice Hamilton, Emma Goldman, and Emily Dunning Barringer.

After marriage and the birth of her first child, she got a job in the Acquisitions Department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign checking in serials. Lisa brings a particular understanding of the perspective of library paraprofessionals; she worked in staff positions for seven years before pursuing a graduate degree in library science, also from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The women in her department really encouraged her to go to graduate school, especially Karen Schmidt and Betsy Kruger. Lisa says that their “mentoring made a huge difference.” Lisa is also a mentor, in both Penn State University Libraries and the university-wide Commission for Women, which advocates for women’s concerns to the president of the University.

Lisa became the Head of Acquisitions at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio before going on to become the Head of Acquisitions at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She was in this position for nine years and obtained tenure before coming to Penn State as Assistant Dean for Technical and Collections Services.

It seems that Lisa succeeded in having a career in leadership as well as a rich family life, something that was made possible by prioritizing her career. This is a challenge many librarians and academic couples continue to face. It is often difficult to balance dual careers. Especially in heterosexual relationships, men’s careers often take priority. Lisa’s husband, who worked for OhioLINK, followed her to Penn State, where he was able to work remotely. The Germans have three daughters, and Lisa raised them to be strong women; she taught them not to depend on men for income, noting that “fiscal balance is empowering.”

I asked Lisa about the role feminism played in her librarianship, and she described it as both above and below the surface. It came through in her scholarship and in her mentoring.

In full disclosure, I was fortunate to have Lisa walk me through the tenure process as she served as our Associate Dean during a period of administrative transition. She took the time to read drafts of my narrative and helped me to strengthen it by highlighting my accomplishments more, something that women often have trouble doing. Her involvement made a huge difference in my experience of the process.

While she was at Wright State, she wrote an article for American National Biography on Emily Dunning Barringer, the first woman ambulance surgeon in New York City. Lisa is also a member of the Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL) Women and Gender Studies Section (WGSS). She has previously analyzed women’s studies databases in The Serials Librarian (1998).

During our conversation, Lisa noted that depressing fact: while most librarians are women, the percentage of female leaders is smaller than the percentage of females in the profession. Thus, it’s been Lisa’s priority to mentor women in the profession and encourage them to take leadership roles. She has benefited from strong women mentors in her own career and finds it important to give this gift back to women newer in the profession.

I asked her how to be a good mentor. As far as I know, I’ve always been a mentee. Lisa mentors by inviting women in her staff to chair committees, task forces, or to create leadership positions for themselves when possible. She participated in the Leadership Institute for Academic Librarians at Harvard University and encourages other women to do so as well. She has also participated in leadership programs outside of librarianship. For example, she was involved with Leadership Centre County as well as Penn State’s Leadership Academy. While Head of Acquisitions, she encouraged many women to pursue the MLIS, especially women of color. She cultivated a safe, friendly work space for all women.

One important way Lisa has mentored others is through her role in Penn State’s university-wide Commission for Women. She was introduced to the commission by Doris Malkmus, a librarian at Penn State, and then she got further involved through the mentoring program. She was eventually encouraged to run for chair, to which she was elected. In this capacity, she became an active participant in university leadership. She worked on the promotion and tenure symposium, an annual event for all faculty. It seemed logical to hold it in the University Libraries. This served as an opportunity to meet a wide variety of people across the university and to forge new campus partnerships. She served on the selection committee for the Administrative Fellows program at Penn State and served on the childcare task force formed by President Erikson. While working at the University of Illinois, Lisa was also a volunteer at Planned Parenthood and served as a reviewer for organizations seeking United Way funding.

As Lisa pointed out to me, libraries generally want to make work climate better, so she had a natural affinity with the Commission’s goals. She encourages Penn Staters like myself to tap into the wonderful Commission for Women activities happening at the university level.

Lisa talked a lot about the wonderful community at Penn State and suggested ways in which it could be an even more positive working environment for women. For example, all campuses could use more rooms for nursing mothers. There’s a room in the Pattee and Paterno libraries, but more are needed. “It’s also important to be mindful of family responsibilities,” Lisa says, as staff in the libraries and throughout the university don’t necessarily have offices and may need to make private phone calls or rush home to care for a child. It’s important to be aware of the situation of all staff members.

When asked what advice she could give new or not-so-new librarians, she encouraged everyone who’s ever had a mentor to choose at least one mentee. This can happen within the library or across the university or in the community. Women librarians can make a difference by cultivating a mind-set of helpfulness within the organization.
We’re going to miss Lisa at Penn State, but we wish her well in this exciting leadership opportunity in Houston.

Nina Clements is a Reference & Instruction Librarian at the John D. Vairo Library, Penn State Brandywine.