Ask Helen C.


Bryce Richter

Even in today’s era of selfies and Snapchat, a bulletin board in the corner of the College Library lobby has turned into a must-see spot for the library’s thousands of visitors.

Dozens of comment cards make their way into the suggestion box under the bulletin board every semester. Many are then showcased on the board, along with responses that are whimsical yet informative, irreverent yet respectful, infused with character, and delivered in a handwriting so neat that one commenter said it should be turned into a computer font.

The building may have noted UW English professor Helen C. White’s name on the facade, but its voice these days comes from Pamela O’Donnell MA’02, MA’03, a senior academic librarian for College Library, whose distinctive hand dispenses the witty and enlightening replies to the comments, criticisms, and ideas from the library’s patrons.

Since 2005, O’Donnell has responded to comments about topics ranging from the need for more electrical outlets (sorry, the library is adding them as fast as it can) to recommendations for book selections and equipment, shout-outs to library staff, and complaints about the thickness of the toilet paper (get used to one-ply). Someone once asked, “Do you know how strong a monkey is?” The reply? “Wicked strong.”

“We’ve established a real identity of Helen C. as someone who’s caring, but she doesn’t take any guff, and she’s willing to be a little bit snarky when the occasion calls for it,” O’Donnell says. “We have enough personality as a place that we can be a little irreverent.”

The quirkiness of the board and O’Donnell’s tone are fitting for the library, which is open round the clock. But she also strikes a more somber tone when students ask anonymous questions about such serious subjects as the transgender bathroom policy and rules about who can use the library overnight.

Most of all, the board offers a bit of levity for patrons pulling all-nighters and doing the serious work of being college students — even when they’re taking breaks to play board games.

“If you look over and see someone reading, and you see a chuckle, it definitely brightens the day,” O’Donnell says.

Published in the Fall 2016 issue


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