For thirty years, Susan Nutter has found unexpected ways to build a world-class library system at NC State.
By Grayson Haver Currin
Photos courtesy of NC State University
Susan Nutter never thought she would get her second library.
When she arrived in Raleigh in 1987 to lead NC State’s libraries, she was immediately tasked with drafting a strategic plan for the entire system. One of her boldest ideas in the report, as she remembers, was the construction of a high-technology, high-connectivity library on Centennial Campus, the sprawling research hub newly under construction a few miles south of the school’s Hillsborough Street strip.
The possibility of Centennial Campus had helped lure Nutter, an associate director at MIT’s library system for most of the decade, to Raleigh. A library of the future, she asserted, would give Wolfpack students a competitive edge that D.H. Hill – that red monolith, long stuffed with rows and rows of enormous volumes at one edge of NC State’s Brickyard – couldn’t.
But school administrators ignored her.
“They believed the library would disappear. They were even talking that way when I came, what with computers,” she says. “I knew they were wrong. I had been at MIT, and I had been working on a simulation of an online library. I knew what the future could be.”
Today, Nutter leans back in a comfortable tan leather chair at a gleaming white modern table in a private conference room on the fourth floor of the James B. Hunt Jr. Library. More like a lavish lounge in some high-dollar hotel suite than a drab conference room of the past, this is the space Nutter says she holds for special occasions and guests, when she really wants to dazzle them.
She has that authority, after all: This is that library she has been talking about since 1987, a fusion of high technology, high education, and high design so stunning that it’s won dozens of awards and been lauded by the likes of Time and The Boston Globe since opening only four years ago. Now the crown jewel of Centennial Campus, its angled glass-and-metal exterior, which offers the sensation that it is always in motion, is only as striking as its interior, where interactive video displays, an automated book retrieval system, and kaleidoscopic furniture that seems to defy the very rules of physics suggest you have landed squarely in the future. In a world of noise, it is an inspiring ark of information and focus.
“I didn’t think we’d ever get a new building. I was resigned to that,” she says, frowning. Then, she breaks into a laugh. “It only took twenty-five years.”
Nutter has been at NC State for three decades. Now 72, she is in the top tier of America’s library leaders, having been named “librarian of the year” by Library Journal in 2005 and, after Hunt, the “academic/research librarian of the year” in 2016. According to one award-committee member, she reaffirmed “the very idea of a library’s centrality to its campus community.”
Doing that, of course, was neither quick nor easy, and Nutter’s perseverance and devotion are instructive marvels. When Nutter arrived at NC State, the library system, dominated by the aging D.H. Hill, was “bad,” as she says simply. What’s more, she realized they would never have the resources to match the country’s great print catalogues. Technology was the school’s last great chance to give its students and faculty more information.
Indeed, Nutter has spent much of her 30-year career in Raleigh overcoming institutional inertia and governmental obstacles through an admixture of imagination, innovation, and ambition. When Hunt opened in 2013, it was the culmination of an arduous quest to bring the school’s libraries online and pull them headlong into the 21st century.
“I felt like I had to do something right away, and I had to move on all fronts,” she says of her arrival in 1987. “You don’t get much time before people start to think that whatever the situation is, that’s what you accept. You have to show something, to have a track record.”
Nutter began by poring over the library budget, trying to find the areas that needed the most reinforcement and areas that were leaking money. She launched a series of small-scale efforts to stretch NC State’s resources and update the library’s infrastructure.
She understood, for instance, that the school spent a vast amount of money on collections, but was not actually getting the materials to people. For a few thousand dollars, she started a rapid delivery service that “would change the lives of our students and faculty.” The system slowly spread across the Triangle, so that books could be delivered from library to library within a matter of hours.
She wooed private donors to invest in early CD-ROM technology for journals and catalogues, so that NC State students outside of engineering school could see the way the information and technology were merging. And she charmed “an arrogant son of a gun” in the engineering department to network the library in the early ’90s.
“He said, ‘Why would I want to do that, to network some dumb library? That’s a little project,” she remembers. “I said, ‘Just do it. You’ll see.’ So he did it, and we were doing that stuff ahead of anyone, even in the country. We started to be known as this innovative space.”
Nutter also used old-fashioned North Carolina politics and pride to advance her cause. Not long after moving to Raleigh, Nutter met and married Joe Hewitt, a provost of the libraries at UNC. She understood that her library would never match his or that of Duke University’s “We just don’t have a lot of extra money lying around,” she quips.
So she cleverly played on those traditional Triangle rivalries, as if she were an athletics director asking for a bigger stadium. In presentations throughout the ’90s, she told would-be donors and anyone who would listen how UNC and Duke students had access to a comparative wealth of resources. State was getting shortchanged.
Those statistics eventually trickled into The News & Observer. Roy H. Park – the 1931 Wolfpack alumnus whose Park Foundation established the prestigious Park Scholarship in 1996 – read about her predicament.
“I knew the university wasn’t thrilled with me about that. But he called. He called the development office, and he said, ‘Ask her what she’d do with $100,000 or $200,000,” remembers Nutter, grinning mischievously at the memory. “I told him I’d get it matched, get it up to $500,000, and do something. And he was just thrilled. That big gift gave us some attention.”
Later, she had graduate students give legislators tours of D.H. Hill’s special collections dungeon, crowded beneath leaky pipes and crackling plaster.
“It was so awful looking. The place looked like a dump,” she says. “But it was good for our purposes.”
Eventually, they began to funnel more money her way, too.
These are all, she admits, incremental steps that led to the construction of Hunt. She seems to view her career as a war of simultaneous attrition and accretion: her successes led to more resources and more trust from NC State administrators and donors. Her insistence that it was never enough made them, over time, drop the belief that libraries were destined for obsolescence and that she understood best.
After thirty years at NC State, Nutter is, by all reports, reluctant to talk about retirement. Instead, she likes to brag about what’s next on the agenda, about the millions of dollars of renovation that she will soon guide in order to add new technology labs and capabilities at D.H. Hill. She raves about her staff and how “most of the time, I don’t know what’s going on,” a reflection of the fact that she hires smart, young people and allows them to help shape the library. She extols the 300 students they hire every semester – not to do menial work, but to ensure that the library continues to evolve for the students who pay for and depend upon it.
And above all, Nutter remains candid about the defiant spirit that led her this far: about how she despises committees and bureaucracy, about how certain administrators have understood her vision and others haven’t, about how the institution must move at the student’s pace, about how the library will only increase in importance as the ways we access information continue to multiply.
“Libraries don’t always get that they need to change and develop, and that they need to do that in the context of their community,” she says. “But there’s nothing better than a library.”