A love of books—and people

John Gallagher started at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library putting books on the shelves. This year he was named its director.
John Gallagher started at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library putting books on the shelves. This year he was named its director.
Melanie Stengel

The love John Gallagher, M.L.S., has for his job is obvious. His eyes twinkle more brightly than usual when he talks about the rare book stacks in the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library. “I never thought I would ever have the opportunity to pick up and hold in my hand a treatise by Copernicus on heliocentricity from 1543,” he said. “To work that closely with something so unique … what’s not to love?”

Sixteen years before he was holding historical manuscripts and transcripts, he had an entry-level job placing books on the library shelves. In May, Gallagher became director of the medical library after serving as interim director since 2014, when his predecessor, Regina (Kenny) Marone, retired. As director he oversees 38 staff members who manage a collection of more than 400,000 physical volumes, 22,000 electronic journals, and 36,000 electronic books.

“My story is not a particularly traditional one for libraries,” Gallagher said. His work life began in an assortment of settings far from libraries—like going door to door to sell radio advertising for businesses. He was spending 70-80 hours a week as a building manager for RPS, now FedEx Ground, and had three young daughters when he decided that he needed a change from a hectic lifestyle that kept him away from his family. Not long after he joined the staff at the Library Shelving Facility in 1999, his managerial experience caught the attention of the library’s staff.

In April 2000, Gallagher became the medical library’s evening and weekend supervisor. Three months later he was promoted to head of circulation. “It was a no-brainer,” said librarian Jan Glover, M.L.S., who was then acting head of circulation.

As Gallagher garnered more responsibility, Marone encouraged him to pursue a master of library science degree. He took night classes and graduated from Southern Connecticut State University in 2005. He continued to move up, advancing from access and delivery services librarian to associate director. When Marone retired in 2014, Gallagher was appointed interim director.

Melissa Grafe, Ph.D., the John R. Bumstead Librarian for Medical History, said that Gallagher is perhaps best known for his people skills. “He’s good at bringing people together to generate ideas that move the library forward,” she said. “He knows the strengths of his staff, and he uses those strengths to create programs that best serve the patrons of the library.”

A year and a half ago, for example, he established weekly staff meetings and once a month invited guest speakers from the schools of medicine and public health or Yale New Haven Hospital to discuss their work. “It really puts all the paperwork and day-to-day stuff into perspective,” said Katie Hart, senior administrative assistant in the library. “Working at a medical school, you know you have some bearing on the clinical practice, but to have people come in and tell us how they’ve used the library for their own research—that’s really meaningful.”

Gallagher’s unforeseen career path is a message he has tried to pass along to his daughters as they consider college. His second-youngest is interested in psychology, but she also loves music. His advice: “Keep your options open, because you never know just how much you might enjoy something. Connect what you do for work with something you love.”

Gallagher’s flexibility in his work life has helped him think innovatively about the trajectory of libraries in a modern digital world. While many people see libraries as old-fashioned, Gallagher looks at them differently. “I’m not worried about the future of libraries. We evolve,” he said. “We have a really talented staff who constantly look for opportunities and novel ways to best assist our users.” While information has gone from print to digital, Gallagher said that librarians are still needed to organize, preserve, curate, and disseminate information.

Even the physical space of the library holds a sense of magic to Gallagher. He sees the library as a place of refuge for users from the often hectic and overwhelming world of medicine. “As amazing as the Yale University Library is, it’s wonderful to be connected with something as special as the Yale medical center,” he said. “With health care, you’re engaged in something fundamental, and librarians have so much to contribute to the medical center’s missions.”

When you ask the people Gallagher works with to describe him, words like “focused,” “motivated,” and “vision” come up frequently. But perhaps the best description of what makes Gallagher such a great leader comes from Grafe: “Sheer charisma,” she said with a chuckle.

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