When Chandra Prabha arrived in Madison fifty years ago, she did not know what her future would hold. A chance encounter with a library staff and a sense of ease at a south side branch of the Madison Public Library led Prabha to choose a career in Library Science. Her professional journey in library science began in 1973 when she was tasked with setting up a library for the UW-Madison School of Occupational Therapy. In the years that followed her work included positions in public, academic, and special libraries as well as a long career in research at the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC).
“When I first moved to Madison, I lived on Park Street. There was a one-room Madison Public Library branch in the strip mall across from my apartment,” said Prabha. “I spent many afternoons there as I was trying to figure out what I might do for a living. I liked the ambience of the library, and I met Mrs. Williams who worked there as an aide and seemed to enjoy her work. The impact of being in this library with somebody who enjoyed their work led me to choose librarianship as a career.” Prabha minored in Library Science as part of her undergraduate degree earning both a BS in Elementary Education and a MS in Library Science in 1972.
After a stint in the UW-Madison library system, Prabha moved to Milwaukee to work as a children’s librarian at the Atkinson Branch of the Milwaukee Public Library System. “The neighborhood children this branch served came from distressed homes. To motivate the children, I focused on preparing attractive displays based on illustrations from children’s books and programming events such as making butter and drawing cartoons. I wanted to draw the children into the library,” she said. In the seventies, only children’s clothing fit Prabha’s small frame and her clothes were often printed with bunnies or teddy bears. This turned out to be an advantage since her very young patrons were made comfortable by her slight stature and youthful outfits. The children sometimes asked her if she was a child or adult. “Some children even invited me to their slumber parties and others wanted to know if I had someone to cook for me,” said Prabha.
Family took Prabha back to India in the mid-70s. While in India, she worked in the newly established Sorghum and Millet Information Centre at International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), the newly founded University of Hyderabad, and the American Studies Research Center. The experiences of setting up a documentation center at ICRISAT and building a library from scratch for a major university prompted Prabha to broaden and deepen her knowledge of library science. She returned to the US to pursue a research degree and earned her PhD in Library Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1984. While pursuing her doctoral study, Prabha played a key role in setting up the Agricultural Communications Documentation Center at the University of Illinois. This Documentation Center is about to celebrate its 40th anniversary.
Prabha joined the OCLC Office of Research in 1985 as post-doctoral fellow. Her first research project, How Public Library Patrons Use Nonfiction Books, was inspired by Fred Kilgour, the founder of OCLC. “As part of that project I had to learn to interview people. At first, I was hesitant to ask questions, but Kilgour taught me how to do it. Over time, I became good at prompting users with open ended questions. I could ask questions and probe without interrupting the flow of thought. When users are seeking sensitive information, they tend not to reveal what they are looking for.” she said.
Prabha’s research interests included: understanding information seeking behavior by end-users at public and academic libraries; observing workflows in technical services including cataloging workflows. In 1993, she was a visiting researcher in Cataloging at the Library of Congress. OCLC gave me an opportunity to visit more than 100 libraries where I interviewed staff in many areas of technical services.” Through her research, Prabha sought to articulate the gap between what end-users want and what libraries offered, and help libraries design services in ways that were aligned with how end-users sought information.
Reflecting on her career Praba said, “The work did not seem like work because I enjoyed it so much. When I visit libraries, to my amusement, users often ask me for help. Perhaps they see me as library staff because I am so comfortable there,” said Prabha.
When Prabha looks back at her time at UW-Madison Library School she said, “I took my courses, I did my assignments, and I worked in the School library. I virtually lived there. I was a student worker when the Library School moved from the Sterling Hall building to the newly built Helen C. White Hall on the fourth floor. The faculty—Boll, Bunge, Clarke, Krikelas, Walker—and many students made me feel at home. Karen, a fellow student arranged even a surprise party for me in honor my graduation. There were more than 40 signatures on the card which said, “You bring us a ray of sunshine…” Surely, I can say home is where I feel at home.”