Meet Commonwealth Staff: Jake MacDonnell, Librarian and Registrar

“For as long as I can remember,” says Jake MacDonnell, “libraries have always been an important part of my life.” Unsurprisingly, this bookworm found his calling in library science and came to Commonwealth in the summer of 2021 with a wealth of professional experience at the college and university level. Now, he can relive those heady high school days when books like Things Fall Apart and Frankenstein “challenged [his] conceptions of belonging and caring for others,” all while sharing the joys of literature and scholarly research with Commonwealth students.  

Getting to Know You

What's bringing you joy right now? 

When the sun peeks out from behind the clouds. Seeing friends and loved ones. Going to the movie theater and getting a big bag of popcorn. Talking with my parents about what they’re reading and watching.

What is your favorite book (or a book you’ve re-read)? 

It’s so hard to pick only one favorite book, but I LOVE Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (p. 1985). I had one of the most immersive reading experiences of my life with this book a couple years ago. I’m a big fan of western movies but generally have not read many western novels. What a pleasure this one is! Set in the 1870s, this 900-page book covers an expansive tale of two Texas rangers turned cattle ranchers as they make their way from a southern Texas border town up to Montana in hopes of starting a ranch. I included this book as one of my recommendations for Winter Break pleasure reading, and I recently brought in a copy for the library. I’m hoping students will check it out soon so I have someone to nerd-out over the book with. I’ve been steadily working my way through the subsequently published sequels and prequels by McMurtry. 

What are your favorite comfort foods? 

Mac and cheese, fried pickles, pizza, pasta, and so much more! There’s also a wonderful Polish deli, DJ’s Market, around the corner from my house that sells amazing sandwiches (my go-to order has been their bacon, egg, and cheese on a bagel). 

What was your favorite class in high school? 

My favorite high school classes were always English! In my humble opinion, reading novels is the best type of homework imaginable. Not only did my high school English courses expose me to exciting and fun books, but they often encouraged me to expand my senses of empathy and understanding. I still think of how reading classic high school curriculum books, such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, challenged my conceptions of belonging and caring for others. Great experiences in high school English courses motivated me to major in English Lit in college. 

What is your motto?

Some of my family members are Quakers and I always found their saying “way will open” to be a calming reminder to take the long view in life. 

Working at Commonwealth

What do you love most about working at Commonwealth?

It is such a joy sharing books and scholarly resources with our students. They all have such interesting taste in literature, and their research projects are so well crafted and thought out. I love the moments when I hear from a student that they liked a book I recommended, and I get a real burst of energy when I’m able to help students navigate the complexities of the research process. I feel so lucky to have such an incredible patron base of high-level readers and thinkers in our students. Not to mention that if I’m ever struggling to find a recommendation for a student, my colleagues are so incredibly willing to share their knowledge with me. As an information professional, it makes my life so much easier having well-educated and engaged teachers so ready to help in students’ intellectual and academic pursuits. 

As the librarian and registrar, I am committed to sharing library resources and accurate school-related information with members of our community in a prompt fashion. It is of the utmost importance to me to create a welcoming and healthy study environment for students of all grades and backgrounds."

What led you to library science and to Commonwealth in particular? 

Libraries have always been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. From checking out books and VHS tapes at the Rockbridge Regional Library in my Virginia hometown to helping patrons at the front desk of my college library, I have so many positive experiences and memories of working, reading, studying, and learning in libraries. While varied in the resources and subject areas that they cover, I greatly admire that libraries are physical locations where you can unabashedly search for information, stories, humor, or knowledge in an increasingly digital and remote world. 

As far as my actual professional journey to librarianship, it started with small internships and part-time jobs in college libraries. I often worked on digital humanities projects and in archives and special collections. With each experience I felt more at home in libraries, and I have always been amazed at the camaraderie between librarians. I started working at Oberlin College Libraries my sophomore year of college and stayed there for three years. In the summers I worked at Washington and Lee University Libraries, Union Presbyterian Seminary Libraries, Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries, and the National Archives and Records Administration II in College Park, Maryland. After graduating from Oberlin, I spent two separate stints working in Washington and Lee University Archives and Special Collections, and I went on to attend University of North Carolina’s Master of Library Science program. I enjoyed working as a research liaison for a local history author, as well as interning at the Forest History Society, a research library dedicated to the history of forestry in America, during my time at UNC before completing my degree. 

During my final semester of graduate school, I took an incredible course on School Librarianship and Library Instruction from Dr. Casey Rawson. Her readings, lectures, and assignments showed me how deep of an impact information literacy and library instruction can have on young people. After taking that course, I decided to apply to school librarian jobs. I was so pleased and happy to see an opening at Commonwealth. The clear dedication to academic excellence here immediately struck me, and I was confident that this would be a good fit. So many family members and friends of mine are up in the Boston area, so I sprang at the opportunity to work at a wonderful school library in Back Bay. 

What do students (and families) need to know about you and what you do?

Students and families need to know that I am always happy to answer questions about research, library holdings, magazine subscriptions, databases, summer reading, study halls, transcripts, GPAs, academic schedules for students, AP exams, PSATs, and other issues related to the College Board. As the librarian and registrar, I am committed to sharing library resources and accurate school-related information with members of our community in a prompt fashion. It is of the utmost importance to me to create a welcoming and healthy study environment for students of all grades and backgrounds in the library. I also help curate our library collection with the guidance and input of our faculty and staff, whose wide range of topics studied influences the scope of our collection’s content. I am always open to discussing the expectations of students in the library. 

When and how can students expect to meet you?

New students will formally meet me during their orientation sessions at the beginning of the school year, where I provide a quick tour of the library and an overview of our services offered. After that, they can expect to see me behind the desk in the library. I am available most periods during the school day with the exception of a few meetings. I regularly meet and talk with students about registrar-related tasks, such as changing courses or generating transcripts, and library services (e.g., research appointments for papers in history courses, conducting readers advisory). 

As one of the few faculty members who does not teach year-long courses, students can approach me during most free periods with their questions and concerns. 

What's the best way for students to connect with you during the school year?

Students can connect with me in the library for any quick questions or requests. If they are looking to schedule a more structured meeting time to discuss research tactics and strategies, or simply get a better understanding of Commonwealth library resources, they should reach out to me via email: jmacdonnell@commschool.org

What does a typical day look like for you?

The time of year seems to dictate what the typical workday is for me! I see the two sides of my job—registrar and librarian—as rather separate responsibilities. Naturally, the beginning of the year requires more time spent on registrar-related tasks, such as adding and dropping courses or generating transcripts. Following the first semester, I am working with students on their research projects much more often than on registrar tasks. What is always a constant for me is that I physically work in the library and get to see students every day. I love this part of the job, and enjoy that students almost always know where to find me. 

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