New University Library

“Less about books than about people”

For a year now, Rudolf Mumenthaler has been working behind the scenes and building up the new University Library Zurich. He will be the new library’s director from 2022. We asked him about his professional experiences, his most urgent tasks and his favorite books.

Nathalie Huber; English translation by Philip Isler

Rudolf Mumenthaler saying: "t’s crucial to communicate in all directions and listen to the stakeholders."

Rudolf Mumenthaler, what do you consider the most important factor for a successful modern library?

It has to be aligned with the needs of its target groups and take these into account as it develops. And this requires motivated and committed employees who think ahead.

What kind of requirements does the University Library Zurich have to meet?

Interestingly, the library needs vary greatly across subject areas. There’s no off-the-shelf solution that can meet everyone’s needs. If, for example, you decide to digitize all books, it’s not ideal for the humanities, since real, physical books are a crucial tool in these disciplines. In addition to the right kind of information provision, the library environment also plays an increasingly important role. Students want good infrastructure, and areas where they can read and revise in peace and quiet, surrounded by other students or where they can also work together in groups. The main thing here is that these needs are constantly changing, and we as a library must evolve with them.

In 2017, you took the reins of the Central and University Library Lucerne, where you helped develop the library’s strategy and organization. How do these experiences help you in your role at the new University Library Zurich?

In Lucerne I was able to try out different concepts and approaches. I learned that it really helps to actively involve employees and enable them to share their ideas. I’ve been able to build on this experience at the new University Library. 

You’ve been involved in the project to set up the new library for a year now. Can you share your most important insights from the past 12 months?

It’s crucial to communicate in all directions and listen to the stakeholders. This goes for the team, who are in a very uncertain situation, as well as for the members of the university, who worry about the future of “their” library. My main task has been to listen to people, to understand and address their needs and concerns – without losing sight of the big picture. It’s not about asserting individual interests, but about building a new university library together, hand in hand with the Zentralbibliothek Zürich.

Around 150 employees from various UZH libraries have had new working conditions since the beginning of the year, and some now also work in different areas. How did you get all employees on board?

It would be presumptuous of me to say that I got all of the employees on board. But I’m pleased to see that the vast majority have come together on this voyage. Not everyone joined with the same level of enthusiasm, but I can understand the skepticism. It’s important that criticism and concerns be taken seriously. The employees know the situation in the libraries best as well as the needs of the users. We want to include their voices in developing the University Library Zurich.

Personally, I was really happy to see that in the staffing process all employees agreed with and signed their future job profiles. I think that’s a great success.

What are the most urgent tasks that need to be addressed with the opening of the new library?

Our first priority is implementing the site concept. The various department and institute libraries are coming together to form something larger. We’re pooling the processing of library media into teams that will specialize in this area. And we’re reorganizing library usage, which requires some significant internal changes. The mindset of those involved may also still need some adjusting, in the sense that they start seeing themselves as employees of the University Library Zurich as a whole.

How will you achieve this?

You have to lead by example at all levels and speak with your employees. We’ve already taken various measures aimed at team building. An important aspect here will be the increased cooperation with the Zentralbibliothek Zürich (ZB). For example, we’ve already developed a product catalog for UZH and concluded the service level agreements with the faculties on behalf of both libraries. We’re also introducing liaison librarians, who will play a key role. This new role will mix up the teams, which will be made up of staff from our library as well as from ZB. This is a big step for many.

What’s your relationship with books?

A good one. I enjoy reading. But I’m not sure why you're asking me about books?

Well, you’ve worked in and for various libraries, and were professor of library science at the University of Applied Sciences of the Grisons. Books are a key part of your life, aren’t they?

Yes, but my library roles never actually involved working directly with books, but had to do with special collections or innovation management. I also got involved in digitalization early on and was responsible for introducing changes. I’d put it this way: My work is less about books than about people. And I have very good relationships with people. They interest and fascinate me, and I keep on learning new things.

What’s in your own library at home?

I wouldn’t call it a library. Since I spend a lot of time in libraries during work, I don’t have the need to build up my own library. I do have books, but I don’t really collect them. However, the range of topics is quite wide, from botanics such as the Flora Helvetica to crime fiction and works of philosophy. One of the topics that interests me for example is what it means to be a man in our society.

Can you share your three favorite books? 

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov,  which is a classic that I first read during my studies and when I was preparing for my licentiate degree exam in Russian studies – the book still fascinates me. My favorite crime writer is Swedish author Hakan Nesser, especially the Inspector Van Veeteren series and the final book in the series, The G File. I was also intrigued by Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. 

Book, iPad or e-reader?

iPad and book, in that order. I use the Kindle app on my iPad to read fiction and non-fiction whenever I’m on the move. Printed books with special content are for reading at home on the sofa – and to put in the book shelf. I’ve tried a few different e-readers, but I prefer the iPad, because I always have it with me and can also use it for other types of content when I’m on the go.

Nathalie Huber, Editor UZH News; Philip Isler, UZH Communications

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