Meet Our Staff: Laura McEnaney

Following a national search, Dr. Laura McEnaney was selected as the Newberry Library’s new Vice President for Research and Academic Programs. McEnaney's scholarship focuses on the United States in the twentieth century, war and society, and gender.

In her role, McEnaney oversees the Newberry Institute for Research and Education, which includes the Department of Public Engagement, the Newberry’s fellowship programs, and the library’s four research centers. She joined the library’s staff in August 2021, and we are thrilled to have her as part of the team.

What brought you to the Newberry?

I’ve been a college professor most of my career, which means I’ve been a teacher, a scholar, an administrator, a mentor, and an academic advisor. I’ve been lucky to think about teaching outside of higher education through collaborations with elementary and high school teachers, public libraries, and museums. I think what led me to the Newberry was the hybrid nature of the Vice President for Research and Academic Programs position. The Newberry allows me to merge the worlds I’ve worked in during my time in higher education.

Another thing that attracted me to this position was that I am a Chicagoan, born and raised here, a product of its public schools, and someone who continued to be curious about the city even while I was living in another city. My second book is about Chicago in World War II’s aftermath, so the city is both a home and a research project for me. But I was raised in working-class Chicago, and growing up, I saw the Newberry as a place for the learned, not the learners. I thought you could enter the Newberry only if you had credentials. What I learned in my interviews and now in my first few months here is that I was totally wrong about the Newberry! I wanted to join the Newberry as a project; I wanted to be a part of what people were building here.

What is special about the way the Newberry approaches its collection and programming?

The Newberry is demystifying and thus democratizing the humanities. By that, I mean it’s making the humanities accessible. The Newberry understands that the city has many learners and many potential classrooms, and is working to find those learners and create those classrooms, onsite and offsite. And I am so impressed with what it has done, especially in a really hard time during the pandemic.

I’ve had one foot in the traditional world of academic scholarship, but I’ve also always had a presence in the K-12 world, working with social studies and history teachers to understand how they teach. I’ve been in a long conversation—a fifteen-year conversation—with the educators who teach students before they ever get to my college classroom, trying to understand history as not just a higher education conversation, but as something that students have been engaging in since grade-school and can engage in throughout their lives. The Newberry has been in that conversation, too, and I’m excited to figure out how I can join it and then lead it in some new directions.

What has been top of mind for you as you’ve stepped into the role of Vice President for Research and Academic Programs?

I’ve only been at the Newberry for a few months, so what I have is a collection of stories, hopes, wishes, and aspirations from the amazing people who do the work here. What I hear them saying is that they want to keep thinking about these diverse learners and serving them with intention, with the guiding idea that the Newberry can be a distinctive access point to the humanities, a meeting ground that can be like no other in this city.

I am also thinking about the collections we have, about our collection strengths, and about walking across the hallway to a different part of the library to learn from an archivist, a curator, or an exhibition designer. Members of the Newberry’s staff come with different training and different professional languages, but I love the idea of meeting in the middle and saying, “What should I know about what you do? What should I know about what excites you and brings you joy? And how do I translate that, bring it into my world, and then share it out again?”

What I’m engaged in right now is the practice of listening and trying to translate what I’m hearing into planning, process, and implementation. That means group work, and I am delighted to be back in a space where human beings are running around a building and planning, thinking, and dreaming together. I would like to see how the Newberry can be known as “the go-to place for ____.” How we fill in that blank is an institution-wide conversation.

What makes you most excited for the coming months?

I have been really excited to see Newberry staff at work. I love watching and learning from passionate professionals with a sense of mission. It is so energizing to witness “the humanities” in motion here! Each day, I am learning from my colleagues about why the humanities matter. I think about the humanities in terms of freedom and connection. The Newberry creates this free space to ask a bold question, to research it, and to connect with others while looking for answers to that question. “Community” here is not a slogan. We are doing the work.

I get energy from listening and engaging, and from learning how to work collectively. My students used to say they hated group work, but life is a group project. I want to keep practicing! As I make my way through my first months here, I think about: “How do I elevate and amplify the good work already being done.” And then: “How do I connect with people who I know should be sitting at the same table but aren’t – yet."

This story is part of the Newberry's Donor Digest, Fall 2021. In this newsletter we share with donors exciting stories of the work made possible by their generosity. Learn more about supporting the library and its programs.