With an eye on digital and traditional resources alike, Torsten Reimer is leading the UChicago Library into a complex future.
For Torsten Reimer, the potential of libraries in our digital age is unbounded. At Imperial College London in the 2010s, Reimer led the development of a cross-campus data infrastructure that vastly increased access to faculty research. As head of content and research services at the British Library, he focused his attention on the revered institution’s legion of users from around the world and their evolving needs. This April Reimer moved to Hyde Park with his wife and young child to become University librarian and dean of the University of Chicago Library.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Why the University of Chicago?
Having studied and worked at universities that take pride in advancing society through research, I found the University of Chicago’s research focus very appealing. Together with its location in a vibrant city, the proud history, terrific collections, and impressive buildings of the library were a strong draw too. In Germany [where Reimer earned his history PhD from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich], university library systems often consist of small independent libraries, so leading a library that brings its services and collections together was another strong point. There’s a very solid foundation but also the opportunity to have a conversation across campus about what we want the role of the library to be in five, 10, 15 years—and then to build on what is already here.
What are some of the new roles you foresee the library playing?
Historically the role of university libraries has been to collect material, mostly from the outside world, and then to make it accessible within the organization. In an environment where more is published online and most people go to search engines to find it, our role expands. It includes supporting the creation of knowledge in digital form and helping faculty and students push that knowledge out to the world. Libraries can help make publishing processes easier and make the exciting fruits of research at UChicago widely findable and usable. In addition, we need to think not just about our local collection but also about the global collection of knowledge and how we can ensure transparency, reproducibility, and equitable access to information.
Libraries face challenges different from those of other organizations going through the digital transformation. Others can shift all their resources into digital, but that’s not a sensible approach for us. After all, libraries are custodians of cultural heritage and historical material in print. In humanities research in particular, print continues to have a key role. So it’s not digital replacing physical, but thinking about how both can support each other, and about the spaces that will facilitate this. If you’re a musicologist, for instance, you might want to see original printed sheet music and historical writings, you might want to listen to different recordings, and you might want to do computational analysis of that music. Libraries can be the space to do that.
On the computational research side, there’s a drive to make the research process more transparent and reproducible. That means making available not just publications but also the data that went into the research: the collection materials used, the protocols, the code. These are all becoming part of the scholarly record, and librarians need to help users track those materials and make sure they remain usable in the long term. It’s a classic preservation challenge made much more complex by dynamic digital objects.
Can you give an example of how the library can more actively support the creation of knowledge in digital form?
One topic on many people’s minds is climate change, where much of the work is built on complex simulations using large-scale data and specialized software. The more the world talks about the impact of climate change and how to deal with it, the more we’ll want to look not just at the data but also the models and code, which you need to properly assess the data. Libraries can facilitate the preservation of digital research, assuring persistent access.
Or, if a historian wants to understand how decisions have been made or how communication has circulated in, say, early modern Europe, one way to track this is through letters. You can create helpful visualizations if you look not at individual letters, but at who’s written to whom and how knowledge flowed across the continent. If you want to do network analysis on how thinking evolved over time among European elites, you can make the letters machine readable, and then trace the concepts that are mentioned in them—or do the same on a larger scale if you have digitized newspapers and maps. These types of research would have been impossible before. And by the end you’ve created a data set of digitized material for use by other scholars.
At the British Library you were focused on users and their experiences. How do you think about different users with different needs at UChicago—for example, undergraduates?
A few years ago, there was a perception that undergraduates would start coming to college super digitally savvy, more so than faculty. We’ve since learned that knowing how to be a creator on TikTok is not the same as understanding the back-end machinations of the internet or being able to critically evaluate sources. Universities and libraries have provided research training for centuries, and we need to keep evolving our offer to give undergraduates a first-class grounding in the challenges and benefits of working with digital information.
What about users and partners in the community?
The library has done interesting work with the community before. We’ve been in a project with public libraries across the South Side to train librarians to help patrons who are looking for medical advice. We work with public schools by, for instance, bringing items from Special Collections to teach about. I would like for us to develop a strong civic engagement strategy that develops joint programming and provides information resources and training.
I’d also like to see the library raise funds to set up apprenticeships in library information management aimed at South Side residents. Like other parts of higher education, libraries struggle to recruit from a pool of applicants as diverse as we wish; we should train more people to come into librarianship from different backgrounds.
These partnerships work both ways. I am continually impressed by public libraries and how on a shoestring budget they manage to be very creative. We can help them in many ways, and also we have things to learn from them.
What is most on your mind right now, several months into the job?
Staff recruitment and organizational development is first. We lost a lot of staff in the “great resignation,” so we have to recruit and build a new team.
Then we are looking at spaces, the services we offer, and the future needs for collection development and storage. What services can best be provided where, how we can respond to users’ needs for more and more flexible spaces for solitary study, group study, group work and teaching, and so on. For the Regenstein in particular, we also need to improve spaces for staff and think more about users’ journeys through the building.
In parallel, we are investing in digital services—for example, around open access and research data. We have also just submitted a multimillion dollar bid in partnership with the Humanities Division to improve access to digital collections, data, and research tools—not only library collections but also faculty research. In the long run, I envision a space to explore all the exciting work that comes out of the University of Chicago.
Can you describe your PhD work in history?
As an undergraduate I spent a lot of time on digital projects, which I really enjoyed. But as a historian I wanted also to do something that built on an archival collection. Over time I developed a strong interest in history, not so much as it happened, but how it was remembered and how the received memory of what happened then shaped current and future events. I looked at how, over about 260 years, public discussion in early modern England constructed the idea of England, and later Britain, as a maritime nation.
I looked at everything I could find: early historical descriptions of England, 16th-century pamphlets about the fishing industry, navigational manuals, newspapers, theater, music, pageantry and court ceremonies, government publications, debates in parliament. By tracing these discourses over a long period, you could see that the English invented their own mythology and every generation added something to it, taking the previous discussions and using them for particular political interests. I saw a lot of this reflected in the debate on Brexit.
Did you consult both physical and digital resources?
I used more physical collections, partly because not everything was digitized at the time. But I also feel there was something about the materiality of sitting in the English wing of the Bodleian Library surrounded by 16th-century pamphlets and prints—an experience we have not found a way to re-create in the digital realm. If purely from an emotional perspective, that really mattered to me. It also emphasized the need to think about print and digital together. One is not going to replace the other. We want to preserve both and make them available to our users in the way that fits their research purposes best.
Which libraries have meant the most to you as a user?
One of the libraries I feel most attached to is the Bavarian State Library in Munich. It has terrific collections, it’s located right next to the university, and I found the librarians willing to treat an undergraduate student seriously—which was not my experience at all libraries. I am also closely attached to the British Library in London, although I wish its humanities reading rooms had more windows. The British Library was built partly to preserve the books; it’s a closed environment where you step out of the world to just focus on your research. But after a long winter in the rare books reading room I was dying to see daylight again!
I love the old reading rooms at the Bodleian Library. Reading early modern materials in a room that existed at the time they were written is a wonderful experience. Maybe two years into my PhD, when I had lots of separate ideas, I remember sitting there and having one of those click moments when I felt, there’s a story emerging here. I’ve always looked at history as essentially storytelling—a story based on good research and evidence and reasoned argument, but still a story. It was the first time that I felt I really knew what the story of my PhD would be. To an extent it was the environment that helped me get to that point. I can’t point to a single book that provided that; it was having all these materials around me and engaging with them in those surroundings every day.
What do you read for pleasure?
I still have an attachment to the weird and wonderful world of 16th- and 17th-century pamphlets and books, though I don’t read them on a daily basis. Currently I enjoy a subgenre of fantasy/sci-fi literature called urban fantasy: stories that are set in a world that’s not quite ours. My favorite series is Rivers of London, which tells the story of a young policeman who discovers that the supernatural world is real and that the Metropolitan Police have a small unit investigating supernatural crimes. The author spent much time in archives in London digging up historical anecdotes. He takes the city that I love and its history and writes witty stories about supernatural beings interacting with everyday London life. The creative use of history, crime fiction storytelling, fantasy, and contemporary issues combine to make me very happy.
What else would you like readers to know?
Being new here, I really appreciate talking to people who use the library—but also to those who don’t use it because it may not serve their needs very well. I want to put out an invitation to all who read this. If you have strong views on the library, or feel we could do better, then I would like to have a conversation with you and learn what we could do.
Write to Torsten Reimer at firstname.lastname@example.org.