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People on campus: librarian, critic David Hellman

October 22, 2004

Photo of David HellmanSenior Assistant Librarian David Hellman is trying to rid people of the stereotypes in his profession.

"There's this weird perception about librarians," he says. "People think we have all this time on our hands."

With the door open to his office in the J. Paul Leonard Library, Hellman adds -- in his louder-than-average conversational tone -- that librarians are not quiet, staid types who read all day, only putting their books down to remind customers to keep their voices low. A librarian's job is actually much more complex and busy, he says, noting the many hours spent in teaching roles.

Hellman finds the variety in his work exciting. In his new position as the Library's collection development coordinator, he manages a collection budget of more than $3 million and is responsible for working with faculty to acquire and refine collections -- books, periodicals and electronic resources. His duties also include coordinating gifts to the Library and providing support for accreditation and program reviews.

Hellman still finds time to read one or two books a week. This is less than the three to four per week he read in recent years as an active member of the Notable Books Council of the American Library Association.

LaVonne Jacobsen, Hellman's supervisor and the Library's head of collection access and management services, says his broad experience and education is of exceptional value to the University, serving the Library in many areas.

"Because of his personal interests and technical skills, he appreciates both the newest technologies and the traditional book, and helps steer us through the balancing act that is so challenging these days," she says. "He has lots of vitality, an expansive intellectual curiosity, and a somewhat impish sense of humor."

Hellman's love of books is certainly one librarian stereotype that does fit him. He has a strong emotional attachment to the 1,500- to 2,000-volume collection at his Fremont home.

"My wife and I are about to have a baby, and one of our biggest issues is what to do with all the books," says Hellman, who joined SFSU in 2000 after holding a similar position at Santa Clara University.

Hellman, who grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., has been passionate about books since his adolescence, when he began to read to help overcome learning disabilities.

His interest broadened with age, expanding from science fiction and mysteries as a teenager to literature, poetry, theater and social science in college. His list of favorite authors ranges from Franz Kafka and William Faulkner to Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to lesser-known writers from Africa, Japan and Turkey.

"(Reading) offers a great deal of comfort and entertainment," says Hellman, who earned his master's degree in library and information science from State University of New York, Buffalo, and bachelor's degree in liberal arts at Eugene Lang College. "It's looking at the world through somebody else's eyes."

Hellman has also become a book critic, frequently writing reviews for Booklist, the Library Journal and San Francisco Chronicle.

Last year he founded a book group for members of the Friends of J. Paul Leonard Library, a nonprofit affiliate of SFSU that promotes community support for the Library. He helps choose books and facilitates discussions of the group, which meets every couple of months. He plans to start a group Web log to help get more people involved and active.

"It's been a really good group, as far as everybody coming in and offering interesting perspectives," Hellman says. "There hasn't been a meeting where most individuals in the group don't have anything eye-opening to say about a book."

Hellman considers the book group a part of his job -- not an outside activity -- providing an enjoyable community service to the Friends.

Another part of Hellman's job that is taking more time of late is planning for the upcoming renovation and expansion of the Library. During construction, the Library will make every effort to deliver collections and services. Virtually all of its collections will be housed in a Library Retrieval System that uses a robotic crane to retrieve materials requested by library users. Once the project is complete, hundreds of thousands of volumes will be returned to open shelves.

"I want to make the period during construction as easy for the people I work with and even more so for the students and faculty," he says, "so it will have the most beneficial effect."

-- Matt Itelson

Note: This story also appears in the Oct. 25 edition of CampusMemo.


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Last modified October 22, 2004 by University Communications