Most of us, if we’re honest, go to college without knowing what we want to do when we grow up. Jennifer Borderud was no different when she went to Baylor University in 1996. In the meantime, she majored in English because she liked it. When she reached graduate school and received an assistantship with the Armstrong Browning Library, she knew she had found her calling: She wanted to be a librarian. And not just any librarian — the kind that works with rare books and manuscripts. After 10 years in the Baylor library system, including three of those at Armstrong Browning, she became the director in March.
Armstrong Browning Library was dedicated in 1951 after a three-year building process, which cost $1.75 million. A major renovation occurred in 1995 at a cost of $1.5 million. It is estimated that if the building were to be constructed today, in all its glory, the cost would be around $50 million. That figure does not count the collection of rare books, manuscripts and memorabilia belonging to poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as works by other 19th century writers. (Some works in the collection are even older.) The collection was begun by Dr. A.J. Armstrong, who was chair of the Baylor English department from 1912-1952. Armstrong’s wife, Mary Maxwell Armstrong, played a key part of the development of the collection and the library, especially of its aesthetic beauty, something Borderud says visitors need to see for themselves.
She recommends the McLean Foyer of Meditation: “The room itself is stunning. It is a 40-foot cube with a 5-foot recessed dome. The dome is covered in gold leaf that workmen applied with their thumbs while the plaster was still wet. It looks like velvet, but what you’re really seeing are thousands of thumbprints. The room will take your breath away,” Borderud said.
Borderud and her husband not only met at Baylor as undergraduates, but they now both work at the university. Josh Borderud is the director of the Veterans Clinic at Baylor Law School. They have a son and a daughter, ages 6 and 4. Without any family in town, their church, Calvary Baptist, has become an extended family — providing friendships, babysitters, opportunities for service and even tailgating options for football games. Borderud told Wacoan writer Megan Willome that her church family helps her keep balanced, along with “calendering” with her husband.
WACOAN: Even though this is a print interview, I have to ask you how to pronounce your last name.
Borderud: It’s ‘Bor-de-rude,’ as if there was an ‘e’ on the end. It’s a Norwegian name. The ‘ud’ is common in Norwegian names. I think my husband’s family are the only Borderuds in the United States.
WACOAN: Do you know your husband nominated you to be interviewed for this feature?
WACOAN: Do you know what he said?
Borderud: I know the gist of it.
WACOAN: Well, let me read it to you: ‘My wife is beautiful, successful, and down to earth (of course, I’m a little biased), so I thought she might make a good fit for the magazine.’
Borderud: [Laughs.] That was very sweet of him. He’s very encouraging. He’s probably my biggest encourager.
I actually was very shocked when he told me what he had done. I said, ‘You did what?’ But then I thought, ‘They probably won’t call.’ When I got your email, I thought, ‘Oh, no!’
WACOAN: How long have you been married?
Borderud: We have been married since 2005, so 11 years. Almost 12 years, actually. In July.
WACOAN: We got married in July.
WACOAN: Austin. Where did you get married?
Borderud: In Austin. We lived there for three years. We thought it would be a fun place for our family to come for the wedding, and it was great.
WACOAN: In looking you up, I saw something about Harlingen. Are you from the Valley?
Borderud: I’m actually from Corpus Christi. I do have grandparents from the Valley.
WACOAN: How did you get to Waco? Was it through Baylor?
Borderud: It was through Baylor. I moved to Waco in ’96 to attend Baylor.
WACOAN: And you got both a bachelor’s and a master’s there, correct?
Borderud: I got a bachelor’s and a master’s in English at Baylor. It was while I was getting my master’s that I really decided what to be when I grew up. I majored in English because I always liked it throughout school. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to be, so I majored in something I enjoyed. While getting my master’s, I thought, ‘Do I want to teach?’
Then I received an assistantship, a research assistantship, with Dr. Mairi Rennie, who was the Armstrong Browning [Library] director at that time. So I came over to Armstrong Browning to work with her. That was my real first exposure to the world of rare books and manuscripts and letters and the kind of work that goes on at the Armstrong Browning Library.
I just became really fascinated with it and thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ I’d been exposed to libraries and librarians my entire life, but it never occurred to me that I might want to be one.
WACOAN: What role did libraries have in your life when you were growing up?
Borderud: I remember my [elementary] school librarian, Mrs. Moseley, taught us about how to take care of our books. There were books in the library she’d highlight that she’d think we’d like.
As far as influencing me in my career, I’d have to say that one of the former librarians here [at Armstrong Browning] had a lot to do with me going to library school.[Former director] Rita Patteson, she was here [as curator of manuscripts] when I was a graduate student. I got really interested in her and in her work. I was fascinated with everything she knew about Robert and Elizabeth Browning, for whom this library is dedicated.
I was interested in what she did to build this collection and preserve it and take care of it and connect researchers with it. I asked her, ‘How did you become a librarian?’ She’s the one who told me about library school, which I did not know was a thing. I’m embarrassed to admit that now.
After I finished my master’s in English, I took a little break from school and then applied to library schools, and I got a second master’s in information studies at the University of Texas.
WACOAN: Were you commuting to Austin?
Borderud: Let me back up. After I finished my master’s at Baylor, I moved to Austin with a group of friends. I wanted to take a break from school, so I got a job at a law firm as I was applying [to library schools].
I applied to the University of Texas and the University of North Texas, in Denton, and the University of [Wisconsin-Milwaukee] because my husband, who I was dating at the time, had started a Ph.D. in history. I got into UT-Austin and was really interested in their program.
WACOAN: Where did you and Josh meet?
Borderud: We met at Baylor. He was a freshman, and I was a sophomore. He was friends with one of my roommates, so that’s how I initially met him. It wasn’t until maybe a year later that we ended up in the same circle of friends, so we spent a lot of time together with this group of friends.
We didn’t start dating until we were both in graduate school. He was working on a master’s in history while I was working on a master’s in English.
WACOAN: When did he go to law school?
Borderud: He did pursue a Ph.D. in history for about a year, and he liked it, but he started thinking, ‘A career in academia will be difficult. We can’t choose where we live.’ Also he wanted to come back to Texas.
He did move back, and he started working at a law firm as well. We were just thinking that some of his skills and strengths would be fitting for a job as a lawyer, so he applied to law school and started right after I graduated from library school. He got into law school at Baylor, and that’s what brought us back to Waco.
WACOAN: And now he’s on the faculty of Baylor Law School.
Borderud: He’s the director of the Veterans Clinic at the law school. It provides legal services and advice for veterans who can’t afford an attorney, so he recruits some students to help with that so they get some experience listening to clients with legal issues. He also recruits other attorneys in town to take on complicated issues on a pro bono basis.
WACOAN: Let’s get back to you. Before you worked at Armstrong Browning, you worked in a different part of the Baylor library system. Is that right?
Borderud: I have been here for 10 years. When I first started working in libraries, I started as rare books catalog librarian in Central Libraries [Moody Memorial Library and Jesse H. Jones Library]. I also catalogued rare books and other special collections materials that are in Baylor’s special libraries, like Armstrong Browning or the Texas Collection, which has major Texana holdings. Cataloguers describe those materials for the online catalogs so people can find them and discover that the libraries have them for them to use.
I did that for about seven years, then had the opportunity to move over to Armstrong Browning Library. I was very excited about getting to return to the place where I initially became interested in working in libraries. I was the access and outreach librarian. What I was responsible for in that position was to promote the collection to faculty, students and the general public — [letting them know] that we’re here, that sort of thing.
One of my major initiatives has to do with teaching using special collections.
One of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had while I’ve been a librarian at Baylor is connecting students with these primary source materials and seeing [students] use them in their coursework.
In 2015, I initiated a program called the Teaching Fellows Program. It was to encourage faculty and graduate teaching assistants to apply to be a teaching fellow, and if they received the teaching fellowship, they’d spend a week at the library and really learn about the collection and the services we provide and then work on lesson plans for their classes. We’ve had some interesting outcomes, I think.
That first year, we had a faculty member from the department of computer science who brought two students doing a capstone [senior] project. They had to design a video game, and Armstrong Browning Library, we were their client. They learned about our materials, the Brownings, the history of this library, and they created a video game about the courtship of the Brownings [called ‘Time Historian Adventure Game.’] It was great! It was not something I had expected. It’s on the website.
Then we had a faculty member from the English department. They were learning about literary networks — that writers knew each other, they were influenced by each other, they didn’t live in isolation. The students had to find items in the library that proved that point. So a student who was interested in [poet William] Wordsworth found that we had a copy of Elizabeth Browning’s copy of Wordsworth, and she had underlined text and made marks in the margins.
They created an exhibition, and we’ve had that on display in the Hankamer Treasure Room all year. [Editor’s note: The exhibition, located on the main floor of the Armstrong Browning Library, is titled ‘Making Connections: Literary Networks in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries.’]
WACOAN: Since you’re both an English major and someone with a master’s in English, what was your experience with the Brownings through your prior coursework?
Borderud: I had read some of the Brownings’ works in some of my classes. I was generally familiar with them. It wasn’t until I worked here as a research assistant that I started getting into their biographies. That really helped me because you read novels and you read poems and you know the authors are real people, but then you see their handwriting or read a letter that they wrote, and you realize they were people who lived regular lives, did day-to-day things. They got upset about stuff, they laughed about stuff, they became real people to me.
They have a very interesting love story; there’s some drama in their story. That helped me to see them in a different way. It made them much more fascinating. That opened all kinds of doors.
WACOAN: Before you became the director you were an associate director at Armstrong Browning?
Borderud: In 2015, I had associate director added to my title. Basically, that meant I was continuing my work in outreach and added to that was assisting the director with day-to-day operations.
That’s what I was doing when [former director] Rita Patteson retired in 2016. At that point, I became interim director of the library and had to take on a lot of administrative functions: being responsible for the budget and personnel and the overall direction of the library, planning events and keeping up with some of those older duties as well.
On March 23, 2017, I was made the permanent director.
WACOAN: That was three weeks ago!
Borderud: Yes, it’s very new.
WACOAN: Since you gradually moved from position to position within the library, you weren’t thrown into the deep end of the pool.
Borderud: It was very gradual. Having that interim time period was very helpful. It gave me time to learn, and I still have a lot to learn. It gave me some time to work with the administrative coordinator here, Christi Klempnauer. She’s been a wonderful help. She makes sure I know due dates, how operations work. She’s been invaluable.
The staff here is wonderful. They do their jobs very well. They have made this transition easier for me.
WACOAN: Do you have a favorite part of the library? Or maybe a special piece of artwork or an artifact?
Borderud: One of the real treasures we like to pull out and show people is a notebook that belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. It has drafts of a lot of her poetry in it. It’s amazing.
On the last page there is the working draft of one of her ‘Sonnets from the Portuguese,’ and it’s the only working draft of one of the sonnets that we are aware of.
WACOAN: I’ve heard that Armstrong Browning is often used for receptions and other events.
Borderud: Yes, the library serves as a venue for many Baylor-related events, such as lectures, conferences and musical concerts. The McLean Foyer of Meditation is a popular place for marriage proposals, bridal portraits and weddings. In that room you will find a bronze casting of the Brownings’ clasped hands, which adds to the romance.
We have wonderful things for people to come in and see. We have 62 stained glass windows, most of which illustrate either Robert Browning’s or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems. The building is stunningly beautiful. Come to see a beautiful place!
We have paintings that date back to the Italian Renaissance. We have Robert Browning’s desk that he owned in the later part of his life, so he may have done some of his best work at that desk. We have a desk that Elizabeth Barrett Browning owned before she married Robert Browning, so she may have written some of her famous love letters while sitting at that desk.
WACOAN: I have always found it odd that Baylor, a Baptist university, has the largest collection of secular stained glass in the world at Armstrong Browning.
Borderud: We do. Or, at least, no one’s ever challenged that claim.
I did have a woman during a tour who said, ‘I’ve been looking at these windows, and I don’t think they’re secular.’ I said that the Brownings had a lot of religious themes in their poetry.
It’s amazing that almost every window in this building is a stained glass window.
WACOAN: As director, what is your vision for the library? What would you like to grow or expand?
Borderud: I mentioned the Teaching Fellows Program. I really want to increase the number of Baylor students we have working with our collection in meaningful ways. We have lots of classes that come for tours, and that’s great. But I like to have students check in as a researcher and work in the [Belew] Scholars Room and call for materials. I think that’s important, and I want to do more of that.
I want to make sure faculty know we want students here. Faculty members have said to me, ‘You don’t want an undergrad touching your letters, do you?’ Yes, we do! That concerned me a little bit. We want to make sure the university knows everyone is welcome here.
I’d like to increase outreach for K-12 students. For many years, the library had Pied Piper tours, students from Waco and surrounding areas would come for Pied Piper of Hamelin tours and watch a cartoon video of the poem. That has dropped off with fewer field trip funds. [Editor’s note: Robert Browning wrote the poem ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin.’] We’d like to get them coming back for tours, but we’re also really happy with increasing our digitization output so materials are available online and teachers can use them in the classroom if they can’t come here.
I’d like the number of general visitors to grow. I want to get the word out.
WACOAN: Let’s talk about your family. You have two kids?
Borderud: I have two kids. My son, R.C., is 6, and my daughter, Lillie, is 4.
WACOAN: Where do they go to school and day care?
Borderud: R.C. is at Hillcrest PDS [Elementary Magnet School]. He’s in kindergarten. And Lillie is at First Baptist Waco [Preschool Ministries & Development Center].
WACOAN: That’s nice and close to your work.
Borderud: We have really enjoyed it. My son went through First Baptist as well, from 3 months old until he went off to kindergarten. We have been so happy with First Baptist.
WACOAN: Your kids are close in age.
Borderud: R.C. was born in 2011, so I was working at Baylor. I’d been at Baylor for a few years. We actually wanted to wait until [Josh] was done with law school, until he was working full time, before R.C. was born.
When Lillie was born, I was working in the cataloging department. When I came back from maternity leave is when I found out there was this opportunity to go to Armstrong Browning. That was kind of a surprise. That was a big year, transitioning to a new job. My husband had just transitioned into a new job. That was a big year of change for us.
Because she was our second child, we were comfortable and confident about First Baptist’s preschool, so dropping her off the first day was not quite as hard as when I dropped my son off that first day. I knew it would be OK because he had enjoyed it so much. That was a big help with all the craziness of that year, knowing it’s going to be OK with day care.
WACOAN: You said you’re from Corpus. Do either you or your husband have family in town?
Borderud: My parents are in Corpus Christi, about six hours away. They are great about coming up whenever they can. They were just here this weekend. They try to come up if there are times we really need them, if I’m going to a conference.
My mother-in-law does as well. My in-laws live in Georgia, but my mother-in-law has come and flown in before. Both sets of our parents do whatever they can to help us.
We tease my parents all the time about moving up here. I know they would love to be closer to the kids. They’ve been in Corpus their whole lives. It would be a hard move for me because that connection with Corpus would be gone.
My husband and I have been good about sharing our calendars with one another. If something at work is a can’t-miss kind of thing, he knows he’s on call that day. We’ve tried to make those kinds of days easier. It doesn’t always work, especially when our kids get sick, when things come up at the last minute and we can’t plan ahead to have [our parents] here for things like that.
WACOAN: You said something about conferences. What professional conferences do you attend?
Borderud: There are a number of professional organizations for librarians. The big one is the American Library Association, a weeklong conference every summer. I don’t go every summer. The conference that I try to attend is called RBMS, Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (of the American Library Association). It’s tailored to librarians that work with rare books and archival materials. It’s a great place to learn about best practices and trends in special collections fields. It’s a week every summer.
That can be tough because we usually have to call in a parent to provide some support. It’s always hard to leave my kids for an entire week, but now that they’re older they get excited about their grandparents coming.
We’re thinking of dropping them off for a week this summer with my parents. It might make them feel independent. They’re old enough now. The potty training is done, they can dress themselves. Although my kids are full of energy, and they wear us out.
I feel like we’re coming into good ages with our kids. They love going to Corpus Christi to see the beach, the Texas State Aquarium.
WACOAN: Have you done the USS Lexington? My kids loved it at about those ages.
Borderud: That’s good to know! That will have to be our next trip.
WACOAN: I saw that you go to Calvary Baptist Church.
Borderud: We do. We’ve been going since 2009. My husband is a deacon, and I am chair of Calvary’s coordinating council, our church’s governing body.
There are a lot of Baylor folks that go to Calvary, and a number of them are faculty that we didn’t know because they’re from different departments or disciplines. It’s been nice to connect with different folks at Calvary that we’ll be friends with for a very long time.
It’s hard to make new friends as an adult, so church was a great place for us to do that, to make meaningful friendships and to really spend time with people there. Some of them are in similar places in their lives. They have kids the same age as our kids. In others, their kids are older, so we can learn from their experiences.
It was a great community to tap into. It’s meant a lot to us. We even have a very vibrant football tailgating group that was born out of our church. That’s been a fun thing to come out of those friendships. Very long Saturdays!
WACOAN: Outside of work and church, where do you like to spend time as a family, on weekends or in the evenings?
Borderud: We have spent quite a lot of time at the Mayborn Museum and the Cameron Park Zoo. That’s great for us too. We’ve gone on some hikes in Cameron Park as our kids have gotten a little bit older. I’m amazed at how far they can go on these hikes.
My husband and I, we’ve tried to make sure that we go on as many date nights as we can. We can’t do that every weekend, but we’ve tried to get a great roster of babysitters going. Sometimes we go out with friends, other couples from church. We like to go out to eat. Sometimes we go to Baylor Theatre. We went to Baylor Opera at the [Waco] Hippodrome.
We went to the Mavis Staples performance at Brazos Nights [April 7]. The weather was so beautiful. My kids made it till 9:30 [p.m.], and then we decided we needed to get home. We look for things like that, that are going on in the community that we can go to as a family or a couple. It’s amazing what all is out there to do now. Waco really has more to offer now than when I was a student. Also a lot to offer families.
WACOAN: That’s something we hear over and over in interviews, what a great place Waco is for families.
Borderud: When we moved back from Austin, initially, I was like, ‘I don’t know how this is going to go.’ I was back in town for about two days, and I was so happy we’d moved back. I just enjoy the pace of life. It’s not too crowded. We can afford to go do things in Waco, and in Austin that was getting more and more difficult.
Downtown is so beautiful. I always thought the buildings downtown were interesting and pretty, but they were pretty rundown when I was a student. It’s been neat to see downtown come to life. We can go out for a whole weekend and just be downtown. It’s wonderful.
WACOAN: So let me ask you the question that is the point of this article: How do you stay balanced? How do you approach the whole idea of balance?
Borderud: It’s probably a constant battle, but I think what helps me feel like I have balance is to feel like I’m somewhat in control of my schedule and my time. I know I mentioned my husband and I sharing our calendars, so calendaring is a big thing. Child care is always important to figure out.
I think being able to have date nights, spend time with friends — that makes me feel more in control, that I can do these fun things every once in a while.
Spending time with our kids on the weekends and going out to a couple of places or just spending time at home, that makes me feel balanced. We’re very active and involved with our church, and that can be very time consuming, but we also get a lot of great support with the people we go to church with. We’ve got great friends.
When our children were born, I was blown away by all the help that we got, the meals that they brought us. With my son, we were in the hospital for a few days, and the pastor came and visited us. A family came and brought us a meal from a restaurant along with cupcakes. And we’ve been able to do that for others as well.
That makes me feel balanced, to have relationships at church.
WACOAN: I’m not a librarian, but I am a fan of libraries. Sometimes when I tell someone that, they’ll say, ‘Do we even need libraries anymore? Everything’s online.’ Now, I know Armstrong Browning isn’t a regular library, but I’d love to hear how you would answer that question.
Borderud: There is a lot of information online, but that information may not necessarily be well-researched and factual. Libraries and librarians can help navigate and evaluate information. There is also a lot that isn’t online or at least not freely available online. In a university setting, for example, libraries purchase and make available a wide range of scholarly resources in print and electronic formats.
In a special collections library, like the Armstrong Browning Library, where we have many items in our collection that are unique and irreplaceable, we are responsible for preserving those materials for future generations. We have all of our letters and manuscripts and rare books in closed stacks that are temperature- and humidity-controlled so we can preserve the life of the paper. We also offer public programming and exhibitions to interpret and provide context for the items in our collection.
And more and more libraries are becoming social spaces for group study and the exchange of ideas.
WACOAN: Anything else?
Borderud: I’d just like to put in a plug for Armstrong Browning Library, for people to come and check it out if they haven’t. We’re open to the general public. We’re free admission. I hope that people will come because it’s a unique place. Often people walk in, and they’re completely surprised by what they find.