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KAUST library exterior at night

A librarian’s journey: from America to Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah University of Science Technology (KAUST) is based in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, on the east shore of the Red Sea. It was founded by King Abdullah and opened its doors in 2009, with the vision of being a destination for scientific and technological education and research, to inspire discoveries that address global challenges, and striving to be a beacon of knowledge that bridges peoples and culture for the betterment of humanity.

In the middle of the KAUST campus sits the university library, an American Institute of Architects (AIA) award-winning piece of architecture with stunning views of the Red Sea. Recently we spoke with Janis Tyhurst, a librarian from the United States who works at KAUST, to find out about her career and what it’s like to work at this unique institution.

What is your first memory of the library at KAUST?

I remember walking upstairs to where the office is, and looking out at the Red Sea, at all those Mediterranean colours, the blues and aquas. You can see the KAUST beacon, which is the symbol of the university, through that window too. When you look out at the Red Sea with the KAUST Beacon in the foreground, it’s incredibly beautiful. That view is my first memory of the library.

View over the Red Sea from the window of KAUST library.
The view over the Red Sea from the window of KAUST’s library. Used with permission of KAUST.

What makes KAUST different to other universities in Saudi?

It’s the late King’s legacy gift to the nation. The King was very visionary; he realized the country couldn’t depend on oil wealth forever. He already had this idea of a university in mind, and when he became King, he charged some of his people to build this university. It’s a graduate-level only research institution, and the idea is that it will be like Oxford or MIT or Stanford: a university where research focusing on national and global challenges would be done and promoted, as well as being a technology incubator generating new companies and employment opportunities for the benefit of the country.

It’s different from other Saudi universities because it’s a Western-style institution. The language is English only, and it’s the only campus in the country which is gender-mixed. We have students from around the world. The idea is to recruit the brightest minds to come and contribute. The largest section of the student population is Saudi, but there are people from around the world studying and working here.

You were Associate Reference Librarian at George Fox for many years before you started working at KAUST. Can you tell us some of the common challenges at both universities, and then about some of the new challenges you’ve faced at KAUST?

The common thing when you’re dealing with students and faculty is they think they know everything until they can’t find what they need! Focusing on the students at KAUST, many think that they can just Google everything. Faculty think the students should know how to do research before they arrive at the university. Our work as librarians is to build relationships where we can work collaboratively with students and faculty to raise awareness of the resources and services available to them.

Having said that, at KAUST there are a lot of unique advantages. The library is phenomenal. It’s probably the most fully resourced Science and Technology library in the world, and up to 98% of it is electronic. If a faculty member realizes they need a resource, we can get it; we don’t have to cancel something else.

Can you tell us about some of the projects you’re working on at the moment?

We’re working very hard on the issues of Article Processing Charges (APCs) and Open Access (OA). Faculty will often ask to pay to have their articles Open Access to get their research out there while the library is subscribing to the same content. We’re an OA campus, so we’re working on APC and OA language for our licensing.

What’s nearest and dearest to my heart, though, is developing an intellectual property (IP) awareness programme. We need to raise IP awareness, and we need to discuss how you go about turning research into IP. So far we have over 150 patents, including a solar panel cleaning technology called NOMADD, but we want to equip our researchers to effectively and efficiently navigate the process from research to patent.

What are you most proud of in your career as a librarian?

At my old institution they were going to phase out the information literacy programme, and it needed to be vastly improved and revamped. After a lot of work on the redesign of the programme, I managed to turn it around. But then it was made optional, which is often the kiss of death for these sorts of programmes. So for the next two years I worked really hard at marketing the program to faculty to get their buy-in, and at the end of that time it became an obligatory part of Orientation. I’m definitely most proud of saving the programme, and I want to build something similar with the IP awareness programme at KAUST, because it’s so important.

KAUST library exterior at night
KAUST library exterior at night. Used with permission of KAUST.

Tell us about some of your hobbiesdid you work on a lot of art shows in your library at George Fox?

Yes, I worked with the George Fox University Art department, which has an excellent programme and talented students. The art department didn’t have enough exhibit space to put on all the shows they wanted to produce and we had a lot of wall space in the library that was just blank. So in collaboration with the art department faculty, we set up a programme to host art shows in the library.

I think it brought more people into the library, and different sorts of people too. And what’s interesting is that when the engineering department heard what we were doing, they started helping out with hosting the art exhibitions in their building. The art exhibits started spreading out across campus.

The library at KAUST does similar things, not just art exhibitions alone, we host sessions like science cafes, where faculty and researchers come to talk about their research, and we lend our facilities to our annual winter enrichment programmes. All the graduation receptions happen here in the library building. It’s the perfect place, because when the sun goes down and you have all the lights on the horizon, it’s really quite a beautiful view.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Working with so many different people. I have good colleagues, and I also really enjoy working with the faculty, who are doing some very interesting things, and the students, who come from all around the world, from Kazakhstan to Uruguay. It’s the people who really make or break it. We do the job because we love books and information, but it’s an even better job when we’re doing it with people we like.

Featured image credit: KAUST Library exterior at night. Used with permission of KAUST.

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