Penn Libraries enter a ‘new era of innovation’

Having just completed her first year, Constantia Constantinou is helping to guide the Penn Libraries into the future, driving collections, forming new partnerships, and reimagining spaces.

Constantia Constantinou
Constantia Constantinou has completed her first year as the H. Carton Rogers III Vice Provost and Director of the Penn Libraries.

A small Spanish guitar is a most-precious possession for Constantia Constantinou, one of the few things she had after becoming a refugee. Another is her first book, “David Copperfield,” in Greek, given to her by the Red Cross.

Music and books have been the threads through her life ever since.

Constantinou was 10 years old the day that Turkish troops invaded her town in Cyprus, forcing her family from their home and into resettlement on the other side of the country. Her parents had the guitar made for her, hoping to create a way for their oldest child to heal and find a way to a formal education.

The first in her family to have a passport and leave the island of Cyprus, she came to New York City at 18 to study classical guitar at a conservatory. But while she loved the music, she found her passion as a work-study student in the music library.

“I fell in love with libraries. It is in this setting with people and books and information specialists who know how to find things, because I realized knowledge is something you acquire and you never lose,” she says. “It’s not like when someone could take over your home or your family or your childhood. It is something you always have and something you always continue to build, knowledge.”

As her career outlook evolved from a musician to a librarian, Constantinou discovered the power of technology to preserve, protect, and share knowledge through digitizing collections. She also learned to build bridges and communities through partnerships and collaborations, even to those who took away her childhood home.

Constantinou arrived at Penn one year ago to become the H. Carton Rogers III Vice Provost and Director of the Penn Libraries. Rogers had been at Penn for 43 years, the Libraries director for the last 14, building the libraries on “very solid ground,” she says.

“This is truly an exceptional opportunity to lead the Penn Libraries into the future. Now is the time that we begin to look at our historical strengths, and with technology how we can do things differently while preserving the lessons and the best practices of our past,” she says. “Penn Libraries is entering a new era of innovation.”

Libraries have a way of collaborating and a way of finding common ideas and common projects. Constantia Constantinou, the H. Carton Rogers III Vice Provost and Director of the Penn Libraries

This is a time, she says, that libraries are becoming global societies, expanding on the role of collecting, preserving, and making knowledge accessible. Penn, she says, will be a leader in addressing the most important issues and challenges facing scholarly communications.

“We have to share what is unique to Penn with the world so it can benefit the world,” she says. “That will be in our guiding principles moving forward, as we look at our collections, as we explore what is the expertise here at Penn, as we look to see what innovative projects we will be engaging in, as we continue to build stronger partnerships around the globe.”

Provost Wendell Pritchett was a key member of the search committee. “Constantia is bringing tremendous energy and vision to the work of the Libraries,” Pritchett says. “She has a profound respect for our intellectual traditions, along with a passion for innovation and a vibrant interdisciplinary curiosity. These traits have quickly made her an invaluable leader and collaborator across every part of our academic mission.”

Getting ‘Penn ready’

Constantinou’s office is open and uncluttered, with a conference table that easily seats 10, the original blueprints for Penn’s first library, Fisher Fine Arts, on the wall, along with a historic map of Philadelphia and a rendering of Penn’s campus. Tucked away behind the sofa and chairs by a big window is a wardrobe with clothing and a line-up of shoes, because Constantinou walks to work from her Center City home.

constantia speaking at a podium
Constantinou held 13 town hall staff meetings to listen and discuss their ideas to form the foundation of a five-year strategic plan.

Arriving in August 2018, she toured the 14 libraries in the system, her goal to become “Penn ready” before the school year started. She then held a series of 13 town hall meetings, each two hours long, to meet the Libraries staff and discover what they believe is important. She also met with deans and other Penn leaders to learn about their schools and centers and how their work relates to the Libraries.

The information gathered from those conversations are forming the foundation of a five-year strategic plan, expected to be completed in November, to create a mission statement and identify priorities.

Constantinou is applying her life’s rich experience to her new role, including what she learned in her most-recent position as Dean of University Libraries at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook.

“I am deeply committed to engaging the libraries in the acquisition, dissemination, preservation, and creation of new knowledge, delivering world-class physical and digital content and resources that are critical to the university’s research,” she says.

New leadership

Constantinou has promoted several key members of the Libraries leadership team, focused on building partnerships, collections, and communication.

constantia with statue at the orrery society
Staff promoted to newly created leadership positions include Jon Shaw (right), who is focused on strategic planning. 

William Noel now has an added title of associate vice provost for special collections and external strategic partnerships, charged with creating collaborations with libraries and institutions across the country, and the globe.

“I feel like I’ve been given wings to fly and that is incredibly exciting,” says Noel, who is also director of the Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, and the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies. “We can be a responsible host for a fantastic quality of data from cultural institutions and bring that to the world’s attention.”

A partnership with the Athenaeum of Philadelphia is a recent example of creating new access to unique collections for both Penn and scholars everywhere, says Jon Shaw, associate vice provost and deputy university librarian. “External partnerships are a key component of Constantia’s vision,” he says. “With the ethos of seamless access to open resources, the Penn Libraries connects a world of knowledge.”

The Libraries’ collections are central to her vision for the future, Constantinou says. “I want to add to our collections and our expert subject specialists making the acquisition of our collections possible. I want to continue to invest in our expertise, as well as acquiring new expertise for the libraries, as user needs dictate our purpose and role in their lives.”

Brigitte Weinsteiger, in the new position of associate university librarian for collections, says they are using the latest technologies to expand the Library holdings, content that lives electronically on servers around the world, such as e-books, e-journals, as well as data sets and new software tools.

“We’ve expanded beyond the physical print book that sits on the stack shelves to this whole realm of resources that fuel knowledge creation and learning,” Weinsteiger says. “Constantia is interested in promoting development of collections that distinguish our library from the rest of the world.”

Brigitte Weinsteiger
Brigitte Weinsteiger (right) oversees the Libraries' collections.

Working with donors is another crucial part of Constantinou’s job, and an essential element of expanding the collections.

“To bring the philanthropic efforts to the library, whether it is to preserve someone’s legacy or preserve someone’s collections, or to make their life’s acquisitions and their support part of our ongoing teaching mission, is something I find extraordinarily inspiring,” Constantinou says.

Transformation of the Libraries spaces is also one of the priorities for the future, she says. “Something I find essential to my job that they never taught us in library school is library renovation and construction,” she says.

She points to the Moelis Family Grand Reading Room on the first floor, and the window-ringed sixth floor, of the main Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center as examples of what she hopes to continue. The Biotech Commons is the next major project to transform the biomedical library, she says.

“We are recognizing that space is an active conversation in everything we do,” she says. “How do we orchestrate spaces to serve both the users and the collections and also inspire activity and collaboration?”

We have to share what is unique to Penn with the world so it can benefit the world. That will be in our guiding principles moving forward. Constantia Constantinou, the H. Carton Rogers III Vice Provost and Director of the Penn Libraries

She is especially passionate that undergraduates not only have access to the libraries, but are encouraged to spend time there and use the collections, especially the most precious and rare objects and documents.

“We recognize that scholars come to do deep research using these collections, but we also give greater emphasis to the student experience,” she says. “That experience, that discovery, that ‘a-ha’ moment that opens the student’s mind and eyes is something we place great value to, because that is a life-changing moment.”

For her, that moment was in the music library at Queens College, when she first listened to a record album, vinyl on a turntable, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.

“Everything that is done for the first time I think is extremely precious and we have to keep that in our thoughts when we interact with our students,” she says. “Like what I saw when I first got off the plane in New York in 1983, the first snow I saw in my life, the first subway, the first words of English that I heard—all of that remains to me extremely important in a person’s development.”

She has a particular interest in students like herself, who are the first in their family to go to college, and aiding their academic success.

“Being a first-generation student coming to a different country, you come with a sense of responsibility. You bring your family’s hopes into your future. You want to make your family proud,” she says. “Families want to see their children do something more than themselves, especially coming from a place of trouble, and war, and tragedy.”

Finding her passion

In 1974, Turkey invaded the area where her family lived in Cyprus.

“At the age of 10 my family and I left home: It was during the bombing of the city, and we would never return back,” she says. “The country remains divided, people remain displaced, people like my parents, who are now in their 80s, most likely they will never be able to see their home again.”

Refugees, her parents had a guitar made by the House of Jose Ramirez in Madrid. “My parents thought the best way to adjust to life was to make me a musician and find something as creative and as beautiful as music to help guide my life,” she says.

Why the guitar? “It was something I could hold very close to my body—the wooden instrument touches your chest, your fingers press hard on the strings,” she says. “The guitar was kind of my best friend during the times growing up. I still have it with me. And I still play it, mostly as a way of meditation, of grounding myself. It’s a way of exploring my artistic expression.”  

Her skill and talent gave her the chance to study in conservatories in Europe and the United States. She finished her music studies as a classical guitarist, earning a bachelor’s in music and a master’s in music theory from Queens College of the City University of New York (CUNY), in Spanish music, flamenco guitar, as well as baroque and renaissance music, composers like Bach and Vivaldi.

She stayed at Queens to earn her master’s in library science, focusing on information technology, fascinated by the internet in its infancy. Her first job was at New York University’s Bobst Library, followed by jobs in libraries at Rutgers University and Iona College.

As director of the Luce Library at SUNY Maritime College she once went out to sea for 90 days, like all students and faculty must, sailing to six different countries, while working in the ship’s library. “That was one of the adventures of a lifetime,” she says. “I spent a lot of time with them in the library, of course, but also in the engine room, on deck, on the bridge, as well as standing watch with them at night.”

‘The perfect world’

Both Penn and the city of Philadelphia spoke to her core values, she says, as she looked for the next opportunity after five years as the library director at SUNY Stony Brook.

“It was like finding the perfect world. Philadelphia is a city of history, a city that values libraries, that values books and historical collections, a city that invites diversity, that inspires innovation,” she says. “It is a city with a community of libraries and librarians who value their collaborations.”

Learning about Penn, she says she was inspired by videos of President Amy Gutmann talking about innovation.

“My career was guided by technological innovation, by exploration, by adventure, by ways of wanting to explore and learn communities and countries,” she says. “I learned this is what Penn is all about: It is about the innovative spirit, it’s about having permission to try new things, having permission to engage with communities within Penn and outside of the university.”

And she found a surprising personal connection. Penn archaeologists conducted excavations in Cyprus at Kourion starting in 1934, uncovering ancient cities buried under mountains of dirt and sand. The records are in the Penn Museum Archives.

constantia in cyprus between two columns
(From left) Penn archaeologists, including former Penn Museum Director George McFadden, conducted excavations in Kourion, Cyprus, from 1935 to 1954.  (Photo: Penn Museum Archives) Constantinou, who is from Cyprus, is pictured in 2013 at the place excavated by Penn archaeologists at Kourion. (Photo: Anne R. Kenney)

Constantinou found a black-and-white photo in Penn’s collection of George McFadden, former Museum director, working near giant columns at the Kourion excavation. She had a photo of herself, taken in 2013, in that spot, her arms outstretched as if to measure the columns. 

“It is the same. This was exactly where I was standing. Isn’t that amazing? I got goosebumps. I felt a connection,” she says, showing the two photographs. “My appreciation for this university goes back decades. There is something in our histories that brought pride into my cultural heritage as a Cypriot knowing that this is the university that discovered the history of my ancient people.”

She has already connected the director of Penn’s archaeology library with the director of the archeology library at University of Cyprus to find ways to share their collections.

Building bridges

Connecting librarians is a primary mission for Constantinou. With two Fulbright scholarships she returned to Cyprus to bridge her past and her present, bringing together librarians on both sides of the divide created when her country was torn apart in 1974, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots.

“I decided one way of coming to terms with the conflict I experienced as a child was going back to Cyprus as a librarian, working with libraries and universities on both sides to find ways where we could learn to understand each other better, accept each other, and overcome the hatred that was part of our lives,” she says.

An American citizen, with the first grant in 2003 she worked with the American Embassy to cross the United Nations-managed Green Line buffer zone into the forbidden land that was once her home. She became the connection between the two, who were not allowed to meet, sharing information. She worked to put their scattered collections online so they could search and discover each other’s treasures.

With her second Fulbright, in 2009, she returned to build on those relationships. With the help of the U.N. she brought the Turkish and Greek Cypriot librarians together face-to-face for a lunch. She also brought one librarian from each side to the United States, visiting libraries and museums, including the Cypriot gallery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they considered the antiquities from their shared nation.

“Libraries have a way of collaborating and a way of finding common ideas and common projects,” she says. “It was a great accomplishment of faith that we could, yes, overcome our national racial, religious, and ethic differences and just celebrate our humanity.”

During that time, violence erupted in the Middle East during the Arab Spring. Museums and libraries were targets, the looters and the military bent on destruction. On the news she saw the people of Alexandria forming a human chain around the Library of Alexandrina in Egypt, which has some of the most precious papyrus documents in the world.

“That was a moment of transformation in my life. I realized that when governments fail, it is up to the people to preserve what is precious and dear to them. And that made me feel that as a librarian I had a different calling in my life,” she says. “It is our responsibility as librarians and scholars to preserve the history, to preserve our cultural heritage, not to just preserve it by ensuring that it is kept in safe places, but we need to have those collections preserved in digital format as well, and once they are digitized, then make them accessible to the world.”

Homepage photo: After gathering information throughout her first year, Constantia Constantinou is working with staff at all levels to create a five-year strategic plan, expected for release in November.