Q&A with Kristen Eshleman

Trinity’s new vice president for Library and Information Technology Services

Photos by Nick Caito

Kristen Eshleman
Kristen Eshleman, vice president for Library and Information Technology Services, outside Trinity’s Raether Library and Information Technology Center

Kristen Eshleman came to Trinity College in July 2021 as vice president for Library and Information Technology Services (LITS) after nearly two decades at Davidson College in North Carolina, where she most recently served as director of innovation initiatives. Previously, she served as director of digital learning and innovation, director of instructional technology, and instructional technologist in the humanities. Prior to her tenure at Davidson, she worked in two start-ups.

Eshleman holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master’s degree in social anthropology from the London School of Economics. She is a co-author, with Joe Eshleman, Richard Moniz, and Karen Mann, of the 2016 book Librarians and Instructional Designers: Collaboration and Innovation.

She recently took a moment to respond to questions from The Trinity Reporter.

What attracted you to Trinity College? There are so many great reasons to come to Trinity. First and foremost, I am passionate about the liberal arts and about the role institutions play in fostering a thriving society. The habits of mind, moral grounding, and enduring skills students gain at Trinity are arguably more important than ever. At the same time, however, the broader public is increasingly skeptical about institutions, particularly the value and relevance of a private, four-year residential liberal arts degree. 

I’m excited to be here because Trinity is navigating these challenges in the most forward-thinking ways, and I want to contribute to these ideas. Our urban setting is unique among our peers. It provides a distinctive advantage for integrated learning that engages our students in the most pressing and timely social challenges. While most liberal arts colleges provide an inward retreat from the world, Trinity is bridging outward. We are responding to skepticism by actively connecting the core value of the liberal arts to a rapidly changing context.

Honestly, you had me at the mission statement—“where the liberal arts meet the real world.” 

What do you consider to be your immediate priorities in your new role as vice president for LITS? The immediate priority is building relationships within the team and across campus. I am learning the campus culture and gaining an understanding of the needs and opportunities where the library and technology can contribute. Starting this year, we will explore what digital transformation means for Trinity. This includes developing our three-year plan for next-generation technology, strengthening the library as Trinity’s intellectual hub, building a culture of data and analytics, and adopting agile ways of working. Technology and information are key enablers of opportunity for the college. We are excited to be strategic institutional partners in this process.

LITS has played a key role in getting the college through the pandemic. How do you plan to keep your division poised to meet any challenges it may face in the future? We are fortunate to have a very talented LITS team. Trinity’s prior investments in digital learning, along with the merger of the library and IT, made this transition possible. We are not designed to be a fully online college, whether that is in the classroom or beyond. Nor would we choose to be fully online. That said, technology continues to be a change pressure in higher ed. We can expect more churn and changes in the future. Students have new expectations around learning and research. They expect technology to work for them in ways that lower their burdens and improve their outcomes. We must be poised to meet those expectations by modernizing our technology infrastructure and preparing everyone on campus for a digital future. If our people, processes, and technologies are not flexible, user-friendly, and adaptable, we might survive future challenges, but we won’t thrive.

What do you feel are your division’s greatest strengths? The people, hands down. The LITS staff are some of the most dedicated, talented, and collaborative team members I’ve had the pleasure to work with. The college saw that dedication in action during COVID. But in addition to our professional training, we are a wonderful mix of writers, musicians, athletes, entrepreneurs, artists, and more. 

I’d be remiss if I did not also mention the strength of our library collection—both the main library and the Watkinson. Trinity’s collections are unique for a college our size. That sets us apart from our peers in ways not often recognized. We are excited to explore how we plan to maintain and grow that distinction as a differentiator for Trinity students and faculty.

Where do you see opportunities for your division’s growth? What we are seeking is transformation—in the service of the student experience, faculty research, and operational efficiency. We grow by focusing staff time and institutional investments on the work that will maintain and advance Trinity’s position of strength in the higher ed ecosystem. We are looking at transformation in four buckets:

  • The library: In the library, we want to work closely with faculty to answer the bigger question of what the Trinity collection is for and to rethink our space, collections, and programs to establish the library as an inclusive intellectual hub.
  • Digital liberal arts: In partnership with faculty and students, we want to explore what the digital liberal arts means for Trinity. In many ways, we just went through a form of digital transformation that was thrust upon us during COVID. What did we learn from that experience? How do we use those learnings to answer a key question of what technology enables us to do that we could not do otherwise and then to focus time and resources exploring mission-aligned possibilities?
  • Next-generation technology: A portion of our campus technology is too complex and fractured to deliver a modern experience. We need to invest in student-facing technologies, greater integration, and data insights across all of our systems. And because this always is a moving target, redesigning to center the student experience also means redesigning our technology ecosystem to support ongoing innovation—we must make it easier for us to deploy tech to solve new challenges.
  • A culture of data: Much of what happens at Trinity is captured in our technology. We aren’t fully harnessing that data to inform strategy and decision-making. But we can if we develop a discipline of analytics across campus. To continuously improve, we need to build a culture of data, where everyone sees themselves as data producers and consumers.

Now for something a bit lighter: Since your area includes the library, we’d like some book recommendations. What three titles would you recommend to the magazine’s readers? So, this might not feel “lighter,” but this is where my interests lie recently. The Inequality Machine: How College Divides Us, by Paul Tough: The book is about how the structure and processes of elite colleges perpetuate inequality. The example of admissions processes at Trinity is cited as an example of the challenges we face trying to rectify this problem. It’s a great book that calls attention to the change pressures we need to navigate in higher ed.

The Promise of Access: Technology, Inequality, and the Political Economy of Hope, by Daniel Greene: Technology is often given too much credit for solving problems that are inherently human. I am drawn to scholarly books that debunk the popular myth of technology as progressive. There are times when it is regressive—when we digitize bad practice and inadvertently contribute to existing inequities. This book illustrates how this happens in popular narratives that, frankly, don’t play out. It’s an important cautionary tale and reminder that we must remain critical of technology if we want to use it well.

Thick (And Other Essays), by Tressie McMillan Cottom: I’ve never read a sociologist who is better at explaining who we are and what makes us tick as a society. In this book, she explains it through personal experience. She is one of the best thinkers who consistently tweaks my own thinking. Check out her new column in The New York Times.