Since 2017, Siebach-Larsen has had a transformative effect on the River Campus Libraries and the daily experiences of students, faculty, and staff.
Author: Matthew Cook
Anna Siebach-Larsen in front of a bookshelf in Robbins Library

One way a person at the University of Rochester earns consideration for the Martin E. Messinger Libraries Recognition Award is through cumulative contributions to the educational mission of the library and service to students and faculty that goes above and beyond what is expected of all library staff.

“Cumulative contributions.”

“Above and beyond.”

For staff and colleagues of Anna Siebach-Larsen, the director of the Rossell Hope Robbins Library and Koller-Collins Center for English Studies at the River Campus Libraries, those phrases made the task of supporting her Messinger Award nomination one delight and distress.

Those who wrote in support of Siebach-Larsen’s nomination were thrilled to have the opportunity because her worthiness wasn’t in question. That was a non-issue. The challenge was knowing where to begin explaining why it was a non-issue. How were they supposed to do her resume justice without writing a dissertation? How could they adequately capture her prowess as a scholar, the generosity and empathy she shows everyone she works with, and her seemingly inexhaustible dedication to creating exceptional user experiences?

Having an embarrassment of qualifying achievements and attributes is why Siebach-Larsen was selected for the 2023 Messinger Award.

“Awarding the Messinger Award each year is a challenge because of our great staff,” says Kevin Garewal, a vice provost and the Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of the University of Rochester Libraries. “That being said, I cannot imagine anyone more deserving than Anna. Rarely have I been lucky enough to work with someone like Anna. She simultaneously thinks about the past and future and takes a humanistic approach to mentoring, supervising, and collaboration. We are lucky to have her with us.”

Despite all the heartfelt endorsements she would receive, Siebach-Larsen has had a hard time believing the award isn’t a joke—humility is another of her valued attributes.

“I am deeply grateful—and not a little verklempt—to receive this award,” she says. “In my mind, this award belongs to the entire Robbins Library staff and community. Every day, they dedicate themselves to building a supportive, creative, safe, and accessible (and hilarious) space for scholars and community members, and it is a privilege to work with them. I am consistently in awe of them and humbled by their work and how they show up for their community every day.”

‘A remarkable series of achievements’

Since 2017, Siebach-Larsen has distinguished herself as a transformative, innovative, and versatile leader and an uncommonly devoted mentor.

Thomas Hahn, a professor of English at Rochester, describes the library director’s performance over the last six-plus years as “a remarkable series of achievements that have enhanced the lived experience of many University community members while simultaneously strengthening the institution itself.”

The challenge of knowing where to start—or stop—detailing Siebach-Larsen’s impact on the River Campus Libraries and the University at large is quite real. If one only looked at the Messinger Award winner’s impact on the Robbins Library and Koller-Collins Center, they would be omitting her leadership of and contributions to the Central New York Humanities Corridor and work with “Shifting Paradigms: Women, Rhetoric, and Power,” an international research network that partners with University College (Dublin), the University of Edinburgh, the University of Notre Dame, and Queen’s University (Kingston, Ontario).

There was also the stretch between October 2019 and June 2020 when Siebach-Larsen served as the interim director for the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation. Despite the minor inconvenience of a pandemic, she took on initiatives to improve efficiency and capacity while conducting a department assessment and reorganization.

The only way to make exploring Siebach-Larsen’s accomplishments manageable is to narrow the focus. Here are three areas in which she has had a considerable effect, as told by students, staff, and faculty:

Graduate students and staff

Pamela Yee (managing editor, METS; postdoctoral associate, English department): During the pandemic, when student staff could not engage with patrons, she collaborated with each staff member to develop new projects that could be completed remotely. In my case, Anna saw a gap in the Koller-Collins’ collection and leveraged a new research interest of mine—Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) literature. Because the Koller-Collins collection focused mostly on canonical white authors, she tapped me to create a purchase list of AAPI resources. I got to indulge a budding interest, and she got a list of new texts to enhance the collection.

Katie Papas (section supervisor, Robbins Library): She mentors students through academic and career goals on a daily basis, from reading dissertation chapters to conducting mock interviews. She doesn’t boast about or advertise this part of her work, nor is it part of her job description. She does it because she knows it needs to be done.

Steffi Delcourt ʼ14 (MA): She is always willing to talk with graduate students about her experience in graduate school, advocates for our work, and teaches us how to advocate for ourselves. These conversations are few and far between for graduate students in departments that primarily focus on tenure-track job opportunities.

Papas: In a competitive academic environment, I find it rare to work with someone so clearly on top of every part of their profession who is also so dedicated to her staff. There is very little Anna would not do for her staff, but the feeling is entirely mutual.

Workshops and events

Hahn: She has been especially successful in setting up workshops and reading groups on topics such as paleography (both the pragmatic and scholarly study of medieval handwriting) or Arthurian literary topics. She has also increasingly drawn large mixed audiences (faculty, grad students, undergrads, and the occasional curious community member) to presentations of different kinds.

This past fall, Anna brought Bridget Whearty (SUNY Binghamton) to Robbins for a discussion of “Digital Manuscripts for LGBTQ+ History: Curation, Accessibility, and Metadata Ethics” and arranged for Dot Porter (University of Pennsylvania), one of the best-known and most influential of all archivists working on the digitization of pre-modern manuscripts to present a talk, conduct a workshop, and then participate in a NY Humanities Corridor event in Syracuse.

She also staged an event in which one of our own graduate students, Steffi Delcourt, launched the newest Robbins digital project, “Mapping Movement in the Alliterative Morte Arthure.” In November, she again attracted a large and mixed crowd to “Manuscripts by Candlelight.”

Papas: Having started work in Robbins just a few months after Anna began, I immediately understood that her priority was our community of users, student employees, and faculty. Anna has seemingly boundless energy when it comes to her vision for making our quirky, sometimes misunderstood space one of the most open and accessible (both figuratively and literally) spots in the River Campus Libraries.

Middle English Text Series (METS)

Hahn: Anna has fostered deep engagement with the Middle English Texts Series. Her involvement has included daily interaction and oversight of graduate and undergraduate editorial employees and the digital redesign of the more than one hundred volumes available online (which have drawn more than 600,000 hits each year for the last several years. She is currently working to set up a cutting-edge certificate program with METS, the Blake Archive, the Lazarus Project, and the Department of English.

Yee: When Anna assumed the responsibilities of executive director at METS, it was in danger of dying out. Starting in 1995, METS reliably won funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) at three-year intervals, but in late 2018, the grant was not renewed. The NEH cited a woefully outdated website—where METS’ open access editions are presented—as the cause of its rejection. Without funding, METS could have died then and there, depriving the field of medieval studies of the largest corpus of Middle English texts available in open-access, student-friendly editions.

But Anna rolled up her sleeves and met the challenge.

She immediately began addressing the digital editions by consulting the library’s Digital Initiatives team, which introduced new publishing software and recommended that the staff mark up digital editions in TEI-XML (the gold standard of encoding languages for digital editions). In the summer of 2019, Anna helped secure a year’s worth of internal bridge funding.

In 2020, METS regained NEH funding and won more money than ever before; moreover, this funding was renewed in 2023. METS largely owes its survival to Anna. Thanks to her vision, labor, and collaborative spirit, METS is on track to launch a new website in 2024. Her contributions will make METS’ offerings more broadly accessible, sustainable, and responsive to the needs of our users. ∎

If you want to learn more about the Rossell Hope Robbins Library and Koller-Collins Center for English Studies, contact Anna Siebach-Larsen. Contact Robert Vickers for more on the Messinger Award and its honorees. 

Enjoy reading about the University of Rochester Libraries? Subscribe to Tower Talk.