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Wednesday, September 17, 2014, 12:48 p.m.
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Rachel Whittingham

Opening the library to possibilities

This article was published February 2, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

Rachel Whittingham, 38, said she knew during her sophomore year of college that she wanted to be a librarian, but she majored in journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter first. Whittingham is director of the new Story Library at Central Baptist College, which was scheduled to have an open house and dedication Saturday.

Rachel Whittingham describes herself as “loud and obnoxious,” so, of course, she became a librarian.

Wait, what?

“This is what I’m supposed to do,” Whittingham said.

Whittingham, 38, of Wooster is director of the Story Library at Central Baptist College in Conway.

The building is new — the dedication was scheduled for Saturday — but she isn’t.

She was hired in 2005 as assistant librarian and became director in the 2011-12 school year.

“I think it’s fun,” she said. “This is the longest I’ve ever worked anywhere.”

Whittingham and her identical twin, Esther, grew up with their parents in Delaware and Maryland.

In 1992, when Whittingham was in junior high school, her family moved to Arkansas when her father took a job as a professor at Arkansas State University-Jonesboro.

“It was a culture shock,” she said. “We were living close to the D.C. area. We were used to things like public transportation and diversity … everything from the food to the people. It was definitely different.”

She remembers entering the state for the first time by way of Arkansas 18.

“As we crossed the Arkansas border, my sister burst into tears,” Whittingham said, laughing.

“Now, I love it, and I’m used to it. I appreciate it.”

Whittingham said that first she had to overcome a language barrier of sorts.

“It’s a completely different accent. Down here, people draw their syllables out — like pe-un, instead of pen. We really had a hard time with that,” she said.

After high school, Whittingham went to ASU, where her dad taught zoology and was a department chairman.

“I wanted to be a journalist,” she said.

She loved books and liked to write, but the fire wasn’t in her.

“It was fun. I liked it, but I could tell automatically that I did not have the drive that other students did,” she said.

In her sophomore year, she started working in the Dean B. Ellis Library at ASU.

“That’s when I realized I wanted to be a librarian,” she said.

But not for the reason people might think.

“It really had nothing to do with the books,” she said. “It’s the method and the order. I like the tediousness of it. That’s very soothing to me. Also, the fun part to me — you’re a little bit like a detective sometimes.”

She likes to help people when they come into the library and can’t find what they need.

“I like the hunt for information,” she said. Those reporting skills come in handy.

Whittingham got her journalism degree and worked in Jonesboro as a reporter at The Sun newspaper covering school board meetings and religion.

She married Jonesboro native Jeff Whittingham, and after he finished his doctorate, he got a job teaching at the University of Central Arkansas. The couple moved to Conway in 2002.

“I was excited. I was used to moving,” she said.

Her first library job was at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock as a paraprofessional. It wasn’t much money, but it was in a library.

She got a call from Central Baptist College about a position in the library.

“I didn’t know anything about CBC,” she said.

At the interview, she learned a lot.

“We sat down, and Dr. [Gary] McAllister said, ‘OK, let’s open up in prayer.’ I was like, ‘What?’ I’m a believer, and I’m a Christian, but I’d never worked at a place where that was even a possibility,” she said. “I really thought the separation-of-church-and-state police were going to come after us. But that was very nice, and I’d never had that happen before.”

Anytime she goes to a CBC event and it is opened with prayer, she said, she still remembers how that first visit to the school felt: “‘Wow, I can really be myself here.’ There’s a lot of freedom in that, and that was very attractive to me.”

She was hired, and CBC helped pay for her to get a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of Pittsburgh.

“CBC was very supportive,” she said.

Her work was done primarily through online classes, although she would travel to Pittsburgh several times a semester.

“It was great to go … to graduate school and also be working in a library,” she said, adding that it was a definite advantage.

“A lot of library science is semantics: What is the real subject of this book so you can catalog it?

“People think library science is shelving books. No. It’s a lot of semantics, nitpicky work, and it’s awesome.”

Having input into a new library can be filed under the awesome category, too, Whittingham said.

“The administration was very good about letting the librarians who work here be a part of it,” she said. “I don’t know how we got so lucky about that.”

Whittingham praised Rik Sowell Architects of Conway, and especially lead architect Liz Hamilton.

“The architect listened and really did what we asked her to do,” Whittingham said. “This library, we’re just in love with it. It is my vision. I don’t want to say I’m the only person who had this vision, but when I was thinking of what kind of library I wanted, this is what it was.

“I told them, ‘I want a noisy library.’”

Whittingham said she’s not a quiet person, and she wants people to enjoy being in the library.

CBC President Terry Kimbrow described Whittingham as “a fun person to be around.”

“She’s not your stereotypical librarian. She’s fun, and she wants the library to be a fun place for students,” Kimbrow said.

“We do have quiet study rooms if they want peace and quiet,” he added.

Kimbrow said Whittingham has gone “above and beyond” to get the new library ready.

The library was named for major donors Max and Debbie Story of Magnolia.

“You couldn’t have a more perfect name,” Whittingham said.

She said Kimbrow “really cared about the cafe” inside the library, and it is better because of it.

“It’s called Café 52 because 1952 is when the college was founded,” she said.

“Crystal Long, the other librarian [at CBC] — she’s just wonderful. She helped with the library; this is her vision, too,” Whittingham said.

“I wanted two things: I wanted a place for students, and I wanted a place that was flexible for growth,” Whittingham said.

“In this space, everything is flexible. The furniture can be moved easily,” she said.

The library also has the latest technology.

“It’s really tricked out,” she said.

Whittingham, still in her 30s, said she stays in touch with what students want.

“It’s a little tricky. … People think that a library should have books, so we have books, and we’ll continue to have books, but my personal and professional preference is to do what people will actually use,” she said. “College students would prefer to do their work online.

“I feel like my job as a librarian is to give them credible information online.”

Whittingham said she would rather put aside her “love for the physical book” and spend money for online resources. The library does offer downloadable books.

“There’s no point in putting books on the shelves if nobody is going to use them,” she said. “I think you could build a library with no books and still be a library. I know some librarians will shoot me for saying that.”

Whittingham said the older she gets, the more she leans toward the “public-library idea in an academic setting.”

Her goal is to see more events and activities in the library.

“When our students come in here, I want them not to just check out a book, but maybe when they come in here listen to poetry or music,” she said.

Whittingham would like to start a lecture/author series, for example.

“I want to be a hub,” she said.

“I have students who come in here sometimes and say, ‘I’ve never been in here,’ and they’re proud of that.

“Well, you shouldn’t be proud of that. What is wrong with you? The librarian is your best friend.”

Whittingham said that on Jan. 21, the first day the library was open, two students came in the first hour, sat on the new couches and fell asleep.

“I said, ‘My work here is done,’” she said, joking.

Of course, don’t count on it always being quiet enough in the library to sleep.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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