Building a Competitive Advantage

Budget and innovation put NCSU’s Libraries on track

October 28, 2011

When Susan Nutter took over the leadership role at North Carolina State University Libraries in Raleigh, it wasn’t a very inspiring organization. A study found it to be the academic library least able to meet its mission in the state; as a result, faculty were upset, and then they did something about it. In 1996 the faculty senate voted unanimously to use a portion of tuition increases to improve the libraries rather than to raise their own salaries. This was the spark that Nutter needed.

A 35% budget increase paved the way for a transformation. Nutter invested widely in new professional positions, print and digital collections, learning spaces, and a robust technology infrastructure. “At first the students were upset because they didn’t want to pay higher tuition,” said Nutter. “However, once they saw the facility change, and once the faculty had access to great research collections, it started a love affair with the library.”

Over the next decade, NCSU climbed the rankings of the Association of Research Libraries, moving from 99th to 32nd. The revolution had begun, but it was about more than just a financial surge. For Nutter the primary objective was addressing user needs. “By giving users ownership of the library when the changes were made, they became invested,” she explained. “You can be bold and take big risks because you’re not alone: The users have your back.”

Nutter strives to develop an innovative work environment that is project-oriented. She limits bureaucracy by encouraging small working groups instead of standing committees. “I prefer gathering a diverse group of people to work on a particular initiative, rather than having an ongoing group making all the decisions about directions we need to take.”

She also advances entrepreneurism through an opportunity fund that seeds new ventures. “We needed to have unencumbered money to do interesting things.” Nutter budgets $500,000 each year to launch new projects, encouraging librarians and staff at all levels to put forth ideas. This has led to the development of mobile apps, virtual shelf browsing, video walls, a technology sandbox, and a host of other creative efforts.

Implementation happens at a rapid pace. “I like to move on everything,” confesses Nutter. “We can’t wait three years to plan something when in reality we need to be doing it now.” She speaks with urgency about the need for libraries to act quickly to address emerging scholarly needs. “Things don’t have to be perfect. We can roll something out that still needs improvement and then let users guide enhancements.”

A good example of this is the Learning Commons in the D. H. Hill Library. Amidst construction delays, the library filled an open area with beanbag chairs. When students brought in their own furniture and supplies, the librarians realized that their initial plan was completely wrong. “It was clear this needed to be about collaboration, not service desks and stacks.” After observing student behaviors and work preferences, these flexible planners quickly reworked the commons concept, helping to make the space a popular campus destination that averages 10,000 visitors per day.

The next challenge for Nutter is opening a new building. Located on NCSU’s research-focused Centennial Campus, the futuristic Hunt Library resembles a spaceship rather than an academic building. With expansive use of glass, vibrant colors, and large open flexible technology-rich spaces, the facility has been dubbed “a library for the 22nd century” by the university’s PR department. This iconic building furthers the library’s vision of being NCSU’s “competitive advantage.”

Over the last 25 years, Nutter has continuously brought passionate and enthusiastic people together to solve problems. Her investment in professional development has allowed staff to build expertise and experience as well as confidence. “Once you build a culture of confidence,” she explains , “then you have a group of people willing and eager to take risks, and that’s when things get really exciting.”