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Taking the lead: Kaya van Beynen shapes research paths and instruction at USF libraries

Kaya van Beynen, associate dean of library research and instruction at the St. Pete campus, has dedicated her career to facilitating research and guiding others who have the same passions for library sciences and education. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

This story is part of a continuing series that features women leaders at USF during Women’s History Month.

Kaya van Beynen has made her mark around the globe — teaching across the sea in southeast Asia, completing her studies in ice-cold temperatures in Canada and Massachusetts, examining age-old exhibits in Washington, D.C. and most recently venturing down to Florida — all in the name of education.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from McGill University in Montreal, van Beynen’s career path was flexible. She was unsure of what she wanted to dedicate her life to, but since earning her master’s degree in library and information science from Simmons University in 2003, she moved up in the field from being a visiting librarian to now USF’s associate dean of library research and instruction.

“I thought, well, I like research, I want to be mobile and there’s jobs in libraries everywhere. I did not want to be a professor or researcher, so I went back to library school and got my degree, super fast track in one year,” said van Beynen.

After her recent appointment as associate dean of library research and instruction in August, van Beynen was awarded the Distinguished Education and Behavioral Sciences Librarian Award only six months later in March, which comes with $2,500 in cash and a plaque sponsored by the American Psychological Association.

The award is given by the Education and Behavioral Sciences Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries to a “distinguished academic librarian” that has made specific contributions in the fields of education or behavioral sciences. As the 2021 recipient, van Beynen will also be honored for her award at the annual American Library Association conference, which has shifted online due to the pandemic.

When she received the news, it was after a long, busy day at work. The official email notification actually went to her spam folder days before.

“I checked, I had a message on my email as a voice recording,” said van Beynen. “I listened to it and it was a colleague of mine from up in [Albany State University] saying, ‘Kaya, you won the award. We sent you the emails a couple of days ago and you haven’t responded, we thought you were responding and they really need your information and your picture and are you still wanting it?’ And I’m like ‘What? What’s going on?’

“Of course, it made my day that much better instantly. It was wonderful.”

Before her career in librarianship, traveling was at the top of her bucket list after finishing her undergraduate degree. She went off on her own to Vietnam to teach English in 1996 after the country opened its borders to Americans for the first time since the Vietnam War.

“I thought that would be an exciting place to go to. I went, and it was exciting. It was wonderful. It was interesting. I was in Ho Chi Minh City, which was [previously known as] Saigon,” said van Beynen. “I stayed there [and] it was easy to find work teaching English. I made enough to survive, live cheaply. That’s all I needed at that point.”

The road from Vietnam to her current position at USF was a bumpy one, full of twists and turns that exposed her to all kinds of people and experiences.

“I always admire people who know what they want to do, and knew at the start what they wanted to do. They had a focus, a career and all of that,” said van Beynen. “That was never me.”

Upon returning from Ho Chi Minh City, she chose to explore a new avenue of work as an intern at the Smithsonian Institution. She worked for a year in Washington, D.C. conducting assessments of the various exhibits at all of its museums and was hired as an employee within one month of working as an unpaid intern.

“I came back from Vietnam and I was like, ‘OK, what the hell am I going to do? And I was thinking to myself, ‘Well, I’m an American who’s never lived in America,’” said van Beynen. “So, I thought ‘Well, I’m trying to explore, maybe I want to work in museums or anthropology.’”

Her time at the Smithsonian ultimately opened the door for her to start work as a visiting librarian at USF’s St. Pete Nelson Poynter Memorial Library in 2006 when it needed a new librarian with assessment experience.

St. Pete’s work environment was filled with supportive and uplifting mentors who offered van Beynen, as well as her colleagues, opportunities to grow in her librarianship and into “exciting” and “innovative” learners.

“We have a work environment where one person’s successes are celebrated, and we’re all trying to support and help each other,” said van Beynen.

As she rose to her current position as associate dean, van Beynen stepped into her own as a mentor for those she works with. Catherine Cardwell, dean of the Nelson Poynter Memorial Library at the St. Pete campus, was able to witness van Beynen’s care for her colleagues as her supervisor for five years.

“She’s very committed to being a mentor. It’s just a part of her fabric,” said Cardwell. “I think she recognizes the librarians and the faculty who were mentors to her when she was a young librarian coming through, and so she really emphasizes paying it back to early-career library faculty and staff and she really embraces that role.”

As a continuous learner and someone always wanting to go the extra mile, there was a point in van Beynen’s career where she had to sit down and do some introspection when her work at St. Pete felt static.

“I was happy, absolutely and utterly happy in my job at USF St. Pete at that time, but I also felt like I was languishing that same old same old. My job wasn’t really changing,” said van Beynen. “I didn’t have new challenges.”

Reading the book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck triggered a new open-minded outlook for van Beynen to use with her work moving forward. She was recommended the book by former Associate Dean of the College of Education Olivia Hodges, whom she met during her time as an education liaison librarian at St. Pete.

“You know what, it was at that time, a little bit of an ugly reflective process that I thought about, where there were times where I did not have the most growth mindset. Where I could see ‘You know, you’re getting a little closed off’ … And I reflected on that a lot,” said van Beynen.

“I actually printed up [a] little quick diagram and have it pinned in my office, just to remind me to catch myself from not being too reactive, to keep an open head, to keep an open mind, to reflect.”

Day in and day out, van Beynen brings that open mindset to her work, according to Assistant Director of Research and Instruction at the St. Pete library Theresa Burress. She described van Beynen as a “visionary” in helping shape research at USF’s libraries.

“I love working with her because I feel like we have complementary skill sets and she’s very good at [helping me] if I’m working on a research manuscript that I want to send out for peer review,” said Burress.

“I ask her to look at it and she’s really talented at pulling out the findings that would be most significant for the profession. She’s good at shaping research narratives.”

Van Beynen’s natural leadership skills became immediately apparent to Cardwell when they started working together in 2016. Throughout her time as a librarian at USF, she’s remained attentive in supporting those who work with her while keeping a caring touch.

“I think she’s a natural leader too, she thinks a lot about how to be effective and how to be compassionate,” said Cardwell.

Van Beynen’s leadership skills were put to the test once the university began the road toward consolidation, which is a highlight of her time at USF’s libraries so far, especially under the virtual conditions posed by the pandemic.

Librarians from all three campuses created workshops through Canvas that faculty members could use in their courses for extra credit or to facilitate discussion in classes. Moving forward, van Beynen wants to see that kind of inquiry and learning be generated through USF supporting faculty and student research.

“USF wants to increase its research, productivity, capacity and visibility,” she said. “All of the subject librarians have a role in that, we’re working with faculty to help them with their research questions, whether it’s finding content or not, they’re helping them increase their visibility, finding out about what’s open access or how they can make their materials open access.”

When she goes to work, although now virtually, van Beynen’s biggest passion is a day of unrestricted possibilities when it comes to subject matter and learning.

“There’s a joke among geographers that they are jack of all trades and master of none. Because if you look at geographers, there’s human geography, there’s physical geography. Do they study people? Do they study places? Do they study the environment? They do all of these things. I actually liked that about librarianship,” said van Beynen.

“I can go in the same day, helping a faculty member with something that pertains to children’s literature, multicultural children’s literature, to helping someone dealing with the field work and specimens that they collect in field work and how they are going to organize that. You really can get a range of questions.”