TMCC Voices: John Fitzsimmons

TMCC Reference Librarian John Fitzsimmons next to the library on the Dandini Campus.
Rebecca A. Eckland

At the center of every student’s college experience is a library: it’s the place you go to study, to hang out with friends, or where you search for information to fill in the missing gaps in your writing assignments. Today, much of that kind of information is accessed through digital, online sources. However, not too long ago, this was also the information that could be found in “the stacks”, a.k.a., the shelves of books that comprised the heart and soul of a library, and where a library kept its stories. 

Although advances in technology have changed the ways information is stored and how we can find it, as TMCC Reference Librarian John Fitzsimmons points out, these advances don’t necessarily mean that something was lost in the process of turning a library into a Learning Commons. 

For over 27 years, Fitzsimmons has worked to demonstrate how technology can help students make the most out of their research and source material. These days, a virtual shelf of sources can do exactly the same thing a physical shelf of books has always done: provide us with real answers to our research questions.

Becoming a Reference Librarian

Working as a full-time Reference Librarian is a career that Fitzsimmons fell into. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in Geography, he found himself working part-time in public libraries in Southern California. Eventually, he returned to the East coast where a family member encouraged Fitzsimmons to pursue an advanced degree in Library Science, since he had spent so much of his time in libraries already.

Fitzsimmons came to TMCC as a Reference Librarian in 1997, a year in which libraries teetered between card catalogs and digital databases, and the evolution of his role would run parallel with advances in technology. Granted, the core of Fitzsimmons’ work has remained unchanged: as a Reference Librarian, he helps students find the information they need to be successful in their classes, certificate and degree programs.

Yet, offering library instruction to entire classes was something Fitzsimmons initially found challenging. “It scared me to death at first–but that became something that I really developed and that I now enjoy doing,” he said, before revealing something of his unique sense of humor. “At first, the secret of succeeding at doing something unpleasant is to think of something more unpleasant. For me, that would have been working on a public library in Central California.” 

Yet, beyond showing students how to navigate stacks, shelves of magazines and other print source materials, Fitzsimmons’ responsibilities would evolve to include learning HTML (which he taught himself) in order to administer the TMCC library system and webpage, to build library Research Guides, and other digital resources that are accessible to anyone with an internet connection. 

“I do a lot more now than I used to,” Fitzsimmons admits. “But essentially my job is to help students.” 

Getting to the Source

Fitzsimmons’ areas of research specialties include anthropology, business/logistics, culinary arts, environmental science, geography, law and political science. Although some of these topics grew from Fitzsimmons’ academic background, others came into being based on the needs of students and faculty. 

“I liked anthropology because there are lots of crossovers between that and cultural geography and so I volunteered to help students in that subject area. Honestly, I just hit it off with the culinary arts department. And political science… that’s a hobby, although it’s getting more painful these days. I admire our political science faculty… sometimes I wonder how on earth they can teach that subject,” he said.

No matter the subject, however, Fitzsimmons welcomes the task of helping a student find the information they need.  He remembers facing unique research challenges when students from Nursing 212, Cultural Aspects of Nursing Care, sought out his expertise.

“It was tough to find articles on the information they needed… [for example], about Filipino teenagers and their healthcare beliefs. I mean, Nursing 212 kind of scares me—it’s a tough course. It’s tough on the students,” he said. “Yet, the course has been a part of the curriculum for fifteen years, and it helps the nursing students to appreciate diversity in the different aspects of healthcare.”

The ongoing pandemic has certainly impacted the way students interact with not only academic faculty, but also how they access academic supports like reference librarians and even the Learning Commons itself. “Students were really impacted by COVID-19 and their ability to attend face-to-face classes and other interactions. What was especially difficult is that we were implementing the corequisite model. It’s hard enough to learn English and math, but when it’s all moved online… students may not have the technology we do [on campus] or they may not know how to use it, so that was a major challenge,” he said. 

However, Fitzsimmons and other reference librarians converted their available hours to Zoom meetings that students and instructors could schedule. While Fitzsimmons notes that he saw fewer appointments with entire classes than in pre-COVID-19 times, he saw an increase in the quality of interactions he had with one-on-one appointments with students. “Working one-on-one with the students was great because they were able to really focus,” he said.

Why Research (and Resources) Matter

Even if the information students need doesn’t literally rest on bookshelves anymore, the research process can deliver more than material to fill up a page count requirement. Instead, vetting quality source material can contribute to the development of skills that are relevant across the curriculum. 

“Research can really help students to develop their critical thinking skills,” said Fitzsimmons. “When you analyze texts or sources, it helps students hone their thought processes to discern between fake and valid information.”  

Luckily these days, students can access research regardless of where they are; in 2020 (when TMCC locations closed during the first year of the pandemic) Fitzsimmons remembers returning to find a considerable amount of dust on top of the physical books. Yet, students were still able to learn and research thanks to the availability of digital collections, online databases and librarians, with whom they could connect with via Zoom.

Of course, it wasn’t always that way. When Fitzsimmons started his career at TMCC, he remembers the library containing mostly books, shelves of paper magazines, “dumb terminals,” computer screens attached to the UNR library so students could look up books in the university’s collection, and a single research database called ProQuest.

“With ProQuest, you could look up a topic and it would give you a number for a CD that you would have to plug in to find the article you were looking for,”  Fitzsimmons explained. “That was 1997-1998. By 1999, computers had Netscape browsers so students could get online, and that’s when we really started collecting databases… and as we got more databases, that was really the turning point.”

The newly constructed Sierra Building, too, was evidence of the rapidly changing role of technology in education, especially in regards to its place in classroom spaces as well as in the library. “The Sierra Building used to be called the Advanced Technology Center, or ATC, because it was the first building on campus to have this revolutionary concept of putting computers in classrooms,” he said.

Assisting students to adapt to the rapidly evolving technology, while helping to develop new ways of accessing information, Fitzsimmons was a part of the original team that built the foundation of policy and procedure that continues to guide the Learning Commons today. 

Fitzsimmons also developed one of many unique assets of the TMCC Learning Commons: its Library Research Guides. “This resource didn’t exist before cloud computing; twenty years ago this kind of thing wasn’t possible. And it’s a fantastic resource because we can highlight library resources that are appropriate for a particular class or discipline. I think that’s actually my favorite resource that we have to offer,” he said. 

Whether it’s anthropology or culinary arts, Fitzsimmons insists that there’s a lib guide for that (or could be.) His other words of wisdom? The breadth of knowledge and resources at TMCC is a lot larger than you might think.

“What people don’t realize is that they go upstairs [in the Learning Commons] and they only see a small amount–maybe 50,000—books [and they think that our collection isn’t that impressive.] But if you count our online collections, we have over a quarter million. These are e-books… and we also have thousands of documentary films and journals. That’s really what saved our students during the pandemic.”

Changing the World, One Library at a Time

While the imprint that learning makes on students unfolds in each of their lives in vastly different ways, the role of a library—and the value of knowing where to find information—can also follow students into their separate futures. One student stands out for Fitzsimmons, who graduated from the TMCC Nursing program fifteen years ago.

“She called me last semester and asked me how to build a library from scratch,” Fitzsimmons said. The student explained she had returned to Nigeria and wanted to build a library in her home community. When she thought of the first place to start her search, she did what she had always done: she asked a Research Librarian. 

Fitzsimmons remembered the rest of the conversation that day as he helped the former student to build a list of supplies she would need. “I explained that she needed furniture, computers, books, shelves…” The student thanked him and they hung up, and that, he thought, was that.

Several months later, though, the alumna again reached out to Fitzsimmons with the news that she managed to secure a grant, which enabled her to build the library she’d envisioned. “I think that was one of the best student success stories I’ve heard,” he said. 

For more information about the TMCC Elizabeth Sturm Library, contact them at 775-674-7600.