Style and substance: Librarian of the Year Susan Nutter

Vice Provost and Director of Libraries Susan Nutter stands before the BookBot, a robotic sorting and delivery system, at N.C. State’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library.

Vice Provost and Director of Libraries Susan Nutter stands before the BookBot, a robotic sorting and delivery system, at N.C. State’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library.

by Hampton Williams Hofer

photographs by Christer Berg

It’s late on a Friday afternoon at N.C. State University’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library, which doesn’t look much like a library at all. Instead of red bricks and right angles, it’s all glass and metal facades, sweeping around to create a massive asymmetrical polygon. In the lobby, a staffer apologizes to a student who wants to show his mother what’s inside. This is finals week, which means N.C. State students only. No moms. A few local high schoolers, who have either come to study or to marvel, also peer longingly beyond the entrance, as if at the gates of an amusement park.

It’s no wonder they’re enraptured: Hunt features five floors of whimsical colors and eccentric furniture, everything the opposite of a traditional library – stairs you can lounge on, walls you can write on, desks you can move at the touch of a button. Featured in countless publications from Time to The Paris Review, Hunt has won one award after the next: for sustainability, innovation, architecture, and more. The woman behind it all is Susan Nutter, vice provost and director of libraries at N.C. State. Recently named the 2016 Association of College and Research Libraries’ Librarian of the Year, the highest honor in her field, Nutter is no stranger to accolades. Her 28 years of work at N.C. State have brought the university’s library system from what faculty members called “an embarrassment” to international distinction.

Like the library she runs, this librarian defies stereotypes.

On this day, in a lime green suit, she is coiffed and pristine, looking more like an invitee to tea with the Queen than like the mastermind behind a renowned library of cutting-edge technology. A ring on her right hand features a stone the exact shade as her suit. Her sparkling large-frame glasses are the same color. I ask if she coordinates like this every day and she laughs. “It’s just fun.”

At first she won’t say how many pairs of glasses she has:  “because if it’s in the article, my husband would divorce me,” she says before whispering the number off the record. It’s pretty high. Pre-glasses, Nutter was into jewelry. “I’m very good at eBay – I’m a great searcher, which I suppose is where I get all my librarian skills.” And librarian skills, she certainly has.

Nutter, who is on a first-name basis with the students, visits with four of them at the Hunt Library. She says young adults “own this library. We are just professionals who can make things happen.”

Nutter, who is on a first-name basis with the students, visits with four of them at the Hunt Library. She says young adults “own this library. We are just professionals who can make things happen.”

As she makes her way to her fifth-floor office, a student waves and says, “Hey, Susan.” Nutter shrugs at the informality. “Oh, I insist upon it. I do call them by their first names, after all.” The thing about Nutter – perhaps the root of her success – is that she is exceptionally connected to N.C. State’s students and faculty on a personal level. “Even as vice provost of a major university and director of one of the foremost research libraries in the country, Susan will still stop to ask me how I’m doing,” says senior Rubia Arfeen. “She’s inspiring, and is absolutely indispensable to N.C. State. Plus, the lady can rock an orange coat like no other.”

Librarian at 6

As a 6-year-old growing up in small-town Massachusetts in the ’50s, Nutter organized all of the books in her parents’ home into a lending library, complete with check-out cards. Her younger sister, a forced assistant, traversed the neighborhood on two wheels, pedaling books to and from the library’s patrons.

Nowadays, Nutter’s book-pedaling assistant is called the BookBot. The robotic sorting and delivery system consists of four 50-foot robots that can procure any of the two million bin-stored books at Hunt in under five minutes. Time, Nutter knows, is critical.

Perhaps even more critical is space. Rows and rows of traditional book stacks would have left little room for public study and collaborative areas. “Public spaces are it now,” Nutter says, “Those are what you need.” The BookBot creates a space savings of nine-to-one, allowing the library’s capacity to reach an impressive 1,700 students. When Nutter and her colleagues traveled to look at BookBots (only two dozen others exist in the country), she found that the robots were all hidden in their libraries, tucked down in basements fetching books in the dark. Her idea for Hunt was to do something different: “I thought, let’s show it. Use glass. Let people see.” Thus, a large viewing area on Hunt’s ground floor reveals the BookBot in all its robotic glory, with its long yellow-painted arms reaching along the rows of metal book bins. It’s fascinating to watch.

Nutter has had a long time to think about what makes a library work. After she graduated from Colby College in Maine and completed her graduate work at Simmons College in Boston, she went to work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries. MIT instilled in her a keen interest in science and engineering libraries. Boston, progressive and familiar, was home. But then she won a yearlong fellowship as an intern at UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries, and though she didn’t know it at the time, she would never leave North Carolina again.

Nutter recalls her first trip south, when she came to find a place to live in Chapel Hill: “I was having coffee at Lenoir Hall, which I mispronounced, and everyone kept talking about this dean at the university: dean this, dean that. I had never heard of a dean who was so compelling, and when I asked his name, they said: ‘You don’t know Dean Smith?’ They were horrified.” It was early evidence that Nutter was never meant to be a Tar Heel.

However, her husband-to-be (again, she didn’t know it at the time), librarian Joe Hewitt, then vice provost and director of libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill, was a Tar Heel through-and-through. On her first trip to Chapel Hill, Nutter had also heard people talking about Hewitt. “They described this male librarian at UNC who always wore cowboy boots, and here I was from Massachusetts, wishing they would spare me. But then I met him. Joe came strolling over with this ambling sort of walk, and I thought oh, no.”

When Nutter finished her intern year at UNC, she visited the libraries of all the major universities in the area. Everyone wanted to know which she would choose for a career: UNC or Duke. When she said “State,” people didn’t know what to think. Nutter did. She knew she could make a difference there, she knew the university’s students were remarkably talented, and that they needed a good library. “Susan has a vision of libraries as transformative places,” says Marian Fragola, director of programming for NCSU Libraries. “With a tremendous amount of personal charisma, she also has the ability to make people believe in that vision.” Nutter’s vision, now come to fruition, has proved her early skeptics wrong. Back in 1979 when they asked her why not UNC and why not Duke, Nutter told them: “You watch. In the next century, N.C. State students are going to be driving the economy.” No one believed her then. They do now.

Collaborative team

Through the years, Nutter and Hewitt found more collaboration than rivalry as they maintained identical posts at N.C. State and UNC. Hewitt, who is more humanities-focused, and Nutter, who is adamantly science-focused, found their niches at their respective schools.

Still, you’ll see a trace of Hewitt at Hunt, in an inviting glass-walled space called “Joe’s Room.” It’s filled with Sacco beanbag chairs, which lack a fixed form and allow maximum flexibility. Nutter picked them out, like most of the furniture in Hunt, because they caught her eye as being particularly unconstrained. And she pushed back against initial pressure to paint all of the walls of the library Wolfpack red, opting instead for a wild palette that aims to foster creativity with vivid hues and shapes.

The furniture is fantastical, archetypal, and alluring, all because the students, Nutter learned, are fascinated with design. “Most of them come from backgrounds where they wouldn’t be exposed to environments like this,” Nutter says. Take for instance the Eames Lounge Chair by Herman Miller, which retails for $5,000 and presides in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection as a pinnacle of classic design. Hunt Library boasts a row of them beneath floor-to-ceiling windows revealing views of Lake Raleigh. “We went all out,” Nutter says, “and the students are enthralled.”

In addition to Nutter’s most recent personal recognition, N.C. State Libraries have won the 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, which recognizes not only the excellence of Hunt and D.H. Hill libraries, but also the way N.C. State’s library system serves the Raleigh community and acts as an incubator for Triangle businesses and entrepreneurs.

Nutter says she realized early in her career at N.C. State that, unlike Chapel Hill, Raleigh is a big enough city with enough going on that people were not paying much attention to the university libraries. She wanted to find a way to break through, to make Raleighites realize what a jewel they had in the library, and in the school.

Hunt has been a game-changer. The impact of the library doesn’t stop at N.C. State; it reflects on the city as a whole, attracting international attention of the best kind. Will Quick, an N.C. State alumnus and the current President of the Friends of the Library Board of Directors, believes Nutter deserves the bulk of the credit. “Susan Nutter is a master of her craft,” he says. “With a steady hand and a clear vision for what a 21st century research and academic library should be, she has put the N.C. State Libraries on a level with some of the most well known and recognized libraries in the world.”

When Nutter is not at the library, you might find her dining out at Bloomsbury Bistro in Five Points, or at home with Hewitt watching PBS mysteries in a house furnished much more simply than Hunt Library. Because even though it’s vibrantly colored, Hunt is not a projection of Susan Nutter herself, but of the students and faculty she serves. She gets things done on what she calls “student time,” recognizing that undergrads aren’t at the university for very long. Nutter is adamant that a library cannot have an agenda of its own.

“These are young adults who should be involved in creating a space that works for them,” she says. “They own this library. We are just professionals who can make things happen, but it’s not our library.” She points at the frosted glass wall of her office, on the other side of which scores of students are bowed over books and keyboards in the magnificent Skyline Reading Room: “It’s theirs.”