There was a time when Gretchen Trkay thought she wanted to be an archeologist. She graduated in 1997 from Ripon (Wisconsin) College with a degree in anthropology, only to decide a few years later that her future didn’t include digging in the dirt with a pick and shovel but instead sifting through Library of Congress call numbers and metadata to find treasure in information.
That’s the spirit she brings to the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, where she started as director of libraries in July after almost 19 years in similar roles at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA).
“I’ve spent my entire career in libraries working on experiential and engaged learning for students,” Trkay said. “It’s had nothing to do with archeology but there are similarities in helping students discover what they’re capable of in an environment that feels safe.”
She earned her master of library science degree in 2004 from Texas Women’s University and went right from her practicum at UTA into a full-time role.
“I thought about doing archival work, but I took an archives class and learned it wasn’t my cup of tea,” Trkay said. “I had a project where my whole job was to organize clothing buttons. Fortunately, at the same time, I was taking a class where I was teaching students how to do research. It spoke to my soul. I was like, ‘This is what I want to be doing.’”
Wisconsin to Texas and, ultimately, Minnesota
Originally from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, her family moved to Texas when she was in seventh grade.
“When you’re from the Midwest, there’s something inherent in that experience that forms who you are and makes you want to come back,” Trkay said. “I still have a significant amount of family in Wisconsin, which felt more like home to me than Texas ever did.”
Nonetheless, UTA held her attention because it is one of the more diverse institutions in the country. Almost half of the students receive Pell grants and are first generation, something Trkay experienced herself almost 30 years ago.
“For a lot of those students, going to college was a life-changing event for their family,” Trkay said. “It meant they might take a different trajectory with the rest of their lives. That happened to me.”
During her tenure, UTA grew exponentially (it now has more than 41,000 students) and went from R2 to R1 status. There she met her husband, Andy Herzog, and now they’ve moved with their two dogs to St. Michael, which is approximately halfway between his job as a research information management librarian at the University of Minnesota and hers in St. Joseph and Collegeville. She has offices at both Alcuin and Clemens libraries and oversees approximately 20 staff and 70 student employees.
“For the enrollment we have, we are well-resourced. And I love the folks in the library,” Trkay said. “They’ve just made me feel a connection and that they have a shared ambition to do really good things for students.”
“There are a lot of comparison points between Ripon and here,” Trkay added. “It’s a small, liberal arts college, very much focused on student experience. The desire at colleges like this to focus on undergraduates and their academic life, but also on helping them form as a person. To think critically is inherent to education.”
Intends to develop collections, make libraries a magnet
Trkay said her goals in her new role include continued curation of the libraries’ collections and their integration into teaching. She also wants to make the library a destination.
“The reality, on a residential campus, is that this is the students’ world,” Trkay said. “They spend most of their time in class and where they live, but libraries should be that third space for them. It should be a space that’s free to access because of their tuition dollars, and gives them opportunities to connect with each other, experiment and explore ideas.”
At UTA, she said there was a “maker” environment at the libraries. There was dedicated space for students to fabricate and create both high stakes (assignments for class) and low stakes (recreational) projects. She would like to foster something similar at CSB and SJU.
“What are the things we can provide that they don’t have the resources for themselves?” said Trkay, whose personal passions include cooking and crochet. “If we do that, they’re going to grow more confident in their abilities and add skill sets that will make them more hirable.”
And though she’s not discovering ancient cultures or unearthing prehistoric ruins, Trkay said her role in instruction and teaching as a librarian leads to some educating finds.
“Every interaction is different and that’s what’s fun about it,” she said. “How do you grow people’s critical thinking skills around the information they uncover, how to use it and how to create something with it? As librarians, we’re not experts in subject matter. But we know how information is organized, and that means we get to learn something different every day.”