‘Go the extra mile’: Distinguished Librarian Award winner Elliott Smith on empowering patrons and an underappreciated 18th-century singer

Elliott Smith
“I’m motivated by wanting to have a positive impact on people’s lives,” says Elliott Smith, the emerging technologies and bioinformatics librarian. (Photo by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

Elliott Smith discovered his vocation as a librarian while helping a friend through a difficult time. 

In the late 1990s, his friend’s wife was diagnosed with late-stage breast cancer. Smith volunteered to find the latest medical research, and scoured databases at the UC Berkeley and UCSF libraries. The studies he tracked down were used to develop a treatment program that gave the friend’s wife several more precious years with her family.

“In searching the literature, I received crucial help from expert librarians,” Smith recalled. “It was an experience that made me want to help others in a similar way.”

For the past 12 years, Smith has done just that. As the emerging technologies and bioinformatics librarian at UC Berkeley, he supports students and scholars as they access research that can impact their own lives, and the lives of others. 

This week, Smith will be recognized for his excellence in service as he receives a Distinguished Librarian Award (DLA). Smith joins an impressive list of past recipients honored for their commitment to facilitating the university’s teaching and research mission. David Eifler, the environmental design librarian at UC Berkeley, is the other DLA winner this year.   

Since 1990, the biennial award from the Librarians Association of the University of California’s Berkeley chapter has celebrated excellence in librarianship. Honorees are selected by a committee of peers and faculty members. 

2022 Distinguished Librarian Award ceremony

Where: Morrison Library (in Doe Library)

When: Friday, Dec. 9, 4-6 p.m.

Speakers: Senior Associate University Librarian Elizabeth Dupuis, Chancellor Carol T. Christ, LAUC-B Chair Jesse Silva, and more.

Ramona Collins, law librarian and chair of the selection committee for 2022, said this year’s winners rose to the top because of their innovative work and dedication to diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and justice. She lauded Smith as “a major force behind the transformation of library instruction.”   

We caught up with Smith to learn more about what motivates him and his passions outside of work. (Hint: A singer may be mentioned, but not the one with whom he shares a name.) 

What do you like most about your job?

I look forward every day to the opportunity to work with my exceptional colleagues.

What motivates you in your work?

I’m motivated by wanting to have a positive impact on people’s lives. It’s very satisfying to help someone find the information they need, but even more so, to help them develop the skills to do it on their own. It’s about empowering the patrons we serve.

What accomplishment at the Library makes you proudest?

In 2015, I was selected for an intensive course on bioinformatics for librarians, which involved six weeks of online instruction and a weeklong class at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) in Washington, D.C. Out of that experience, I developed a workshop and an online guide to NCBI bioinformatics tools. To date, the guide has been viewed over 200,000 times, and it has been shared with and adapted by the national community of librarians who provide bioinformatics support.

What do you do for fun? Is there a fact about you that might surprise people?

I’m passionate about 18th-century literature and music. I recently wrote a program note for the Baroque opera company Ars Minerva about Vittoria Tesi, who was the first Black prima donna (lead female singer in an opera). Born a servant, she became one of the greatest (and highest-paid) opera singers of the 18th century. Gluck, Hasse, and Vinci composed for her; Farinelli sang with her; royalty across Europe honored her; and the 6-year-old Mozart was taken to meet her. She should be much better known, as should the wonderful music that was written for her to perform.

How does it feel to be honored with a Distinguished Librarian Award?

I was completely stunned when I learned that I had been selected. The Distinguished Librarian Award is especially meaningful to me because it’s granted by my peers. I’m hugely honored and deeply humbled to think that my name will join those of the previous recipients, who are among the librarians I most admire. But my award should really be shared with the many colleagues in and beyond the Library who have so generously offered their guidance, support, and collaboration.

Several of your colleagues described your commitment to service, going above and beyond to help others. Where does that commitment come from?

I was fortunate in my first years at the Bioscience Library to have had the late Norma Kobzina (former head of the Bioscience & Natural Resources Library) as a supervisor and mentor. Whenever I’m faced with a patron needing help, I ask myself, “What would Norma do?” And the answer is always, “Go the extra mile.” Her example of extraordinary service remains a constant inspiration.

Your colleagues also called you a “major force behind the transformation of library instruction.” Tell us more about your work in that area.

Library instruction is not limited to formal classes or workshops. Almost every encounter we have with patrons can be a step toward the goal of helping them develop the skills to find, evaluate, organize, and share information effectively.
To help biology undergraduates achieve that goal, I developed a research skills assignment that is given to the 1,500 students who take Biology 1B each year. It’s an example of flipped instruction and problem-based learning. We provide the assignment and support materials focused on finding, evaluating, and citing information on a biology topic. The students work through the problems at their own pace, and librarians are available to answer questions. 

I inherited the original version of the assignment when I was hired, and a few semesters later, I moved it entirely online. I redesigned the questions and learned to code, so that the free-text answers can be accurately and flexibly autograded. Because the students get immediate feedback on their answers, the assignment isn’t just an assessment of what they’ve learned, but a learning experience itself. And it’s been great to have students contact us later, and tell us that they still remember the research skills they learned — that’s really what we hope for.

This Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.