By Allison Campbell-Jensen
Passion, spark, verve, energy — those are some of the characteristics that define Betsy Friesen, Director of Data Management & Access. And “she has the ability to put all that energy into action,” adds her recently retired colleague Connie Hendrick.
Betsy Friesen was one of the 12 U of M employees to recently receive the President’s Award for Outstanding Service for 2020. The award recognizes exceptional service, going “well beyond the regular duties of a faculty or staff member, and demonstrat[ing] unusual commitment to the University community.”
For Friesen, going beyond the regular duties includes costume changes for Libraries meetings (she was decked out as Yoda from Star Wars for the May the Fourth Be With You virtual daily check-in) and other gatherings. She began the dress-up habit when her now-adult children were in elementary school and, in her off-hours, has been known to show up as Star Wizard to tell multicultural constellation stories at schools.
A couple of years ago, she persuaded a much more reserved co-worker to join her in taking the stage as the Blues Brothers, lip-syncing and dancing at a staff recognition event. She reports him telling her: “I wouldn’t do it for anybody but you.” Friesen and he performed for then-Libraries’ Dean Wendy Pradt Lougee on her birthday and afterwards presented her with an autographed photo.
Lougee placed “The Blues Brothers” photo prominently in her office.
“I used to enjoy interviewing candidates for positions and watch their expression when they saw the photo, probably wondering if it was the real deal,” says Lougee, who retired recently. “It now adorns my home office.”
Another perhaps unexpected face of Friesen is her involvement with a Weisman Art Museum exhibit on books banned in prisons, highlighted in a 2018 continuum story. She earned her U of M bachelor’s degree in psychology with a focus on criminal justice and continues to be concerned with the rights of those incarcerated.
Full of good-WOO
Friesen has a not-so-secret weapon called WOO — i.e., Winning Others Over. This characteristic, revealed by taking the CliftonStrengths personality test, means she doesn’t see strangers as intimidating but rather as friends she hasn’t met yet.
“I really like people,” she says. Sensing when others might need a lift, Friesen is quick with a quip or, as Lougee calls it, “clever commentary.” With colleagues across the U of M system, says Matt Rosendahl, Library Director, University of Minnesota Duluth Campus, she excels as a collaborator who by reaching out both professionally and informally has become a “trusted and reliable partner.”
And Friesen says she seeks to cultivate the skills and understanding of those who report to her, for their well-being and for the benefit of the Libraries. Lougee writes: “She has developed her professional staff . . . , with catalogers extending their skills to programming techniques to manipulate data for improved access.”
Citing Friesen’s influence on her personally as a mentor, colleague, and friend, Laura Morse, Harvard University’s Director of Library Systems & Support, adds: “There are hundreds of library colleagues around the world who will miss her guidance, humor, and effective leadership for years to come.”
Among them is Allen Jones of The New School in New York City, who has worked with her on an international library organization committee. “Betsy has taught me the value of providing opportunities for others over trying to be an expert in everything,” writes Jones.
Friesen sums up her approach: “It all works better when we all work together.”
Leading the migration to Alma
Friesen’s greatest contribution to the University and beyond, however, according to her supervisor John Butler, Associate University Librarian for Data and Technology, is leading the transition to the library system known as Alma.
“Through years of visioning, planning, and dedicated effort,” Butler writes, “she implemented one of the most highly functional and contemporary library systems enjoyed by a major research library anywhere in North America.”
The U of M Libraries was asked to be early adopters of a system that would become known as Alma. During development, Friesen says it was important for her and her colleagues in other libraries to be able to articulate their point of view as library staff users and as surrogates for library patrons.
An effective negotiator with Alma vendor
Negotiations were not easy. The vendor, she says, “put pressure on us to make sure that we understand how the system works, how much it costs, and resources to develop a system that works as best as it can.
“And we put a lot of pressure on the vendor,” Friesen says, “to make sure that they see the user perspective.” Friesen was an effective advocate, and received compliments from colleagues at other libraries in their nomination letters for her direct yet friendly communication style.
Among those who praise her work is a colleague from the International Group of Ex Libris Users (IGeLU), François Renaville, Head of Library Systems, University of Liège, in Belgium.
“Betsy was the soul of that exceptional group,” Renaville says. She demonstrated expertise with the library system’s products and details, he says, which combined with her big-picture point of view led to “shaping a holistic approach for the benefit of all.”
Adds Morse: “Betsy’s leadership roles in these types of library organizations has ensured that UMN is well-represented in conversations and processes that impact libraries worldwide in terms of policy, services, and technology products.”
Connecting staff across the U of M system
Closer to home, Rosendahl cites Friesen’s key role in connecting 65 staff across all the U of M campuses’ libraries into collaborative groups implementing Alma. “The ability to debate and dialogue where we have differentiation and where we needed to be similar to serve our users” was something that Friesen facilitated. “She was dealing with a landslide of questions,” he adds, yet was always available and flexible and collegial.
“The Alma groups really brought the campuses close together,” Rosendahl says, “and that is a strength going forward,” particularly in dealing with circumstances caused by dealing with the coronavirus.
In the migration to the Alma system, and in all her work, Butler notes, “At every turn, Betsy’s values, professional ethos, and passion drive her to get information into the hands of those who need it, as friction-free and equitably as possible.”
Betsy is a ‘one-of-a-kind treasure’
Although it was huge, the Alma project was not “glitzy,” Friesen says, and her department is “not the face of the library.” That may have contributed to her surprise when she learned about receiving this award after Butler prompted her to check her email during a Libraries’ meeting on Zoom.
“I opened it up. I read it,” says Friesen. “And I had to go off video because I was crying.” Mostly tears of happiness but also, this being the year she will retire, with regret that because of social distancing, she couldn’t hug those congratulating her.
Butler, who orchestrated the nomination, said in his letter: “In her impactful work at the University, local community, and global information profession, Betsy Friesen is a huge-hearted, one-of-a-kind treasure that makes an extraordinary difference for us all.”
Friesen has consistently followed a path, during her 42 years at the Libraries, that confounds typical expectations that nice guys — nice people — finish last. Never one to shy away from the spotlight — and always willing to share it with other people — Friesen says: “I like it when the people who work with me have success.”