ILS Innovators: Liana Zhou, Director of the Kinsey Institute Library and Archives

Liana Zhou

It’s difficult to overstate how much of an impact technology has made on the world in the past 25 years.

Organizations, no matter if they were companies, non-profits, or part of academia, had to adjust or be left behind.

It’s a good thing the Kinsey Institute had Liana Zhou.

Zhou, the Director of the Kinsey Institute Library and Archives, came to IU to pursue her Master’s in Library Science for the then-School of Library and Information Science in 1990. She first landed a job at the Kinsey Institute as a library assistant, and following graduation, she was hired to a tenure-track position.

Zhou may be the same. The job is drastically different.

“I think at different times there are different challenges,” Zhou says. “When I first started, the challenge was that we didn’t have a functional catalog. In the 1980s, the Kinsey staff had to build a database, which was called Acrobat, but it was an in-house system. That system could no longer sustain itself. When you have a database built in-house, it requires an extraordinary amount of resources to maintain it. You want to make it compatible with other information systems in some way. That was our first challenge when we were faced with a system that no longer worked. We reached out to IU libraries, we collaborated starting in 1995, and we have been using IU CAT for more than 20 years.”

The rise of the Internet in the 1990s presented challenges, as well. The Kinsey Institute wanted to make its materials available to researchers around the world, and offering some of its collection online would be critical to furthering its mission. But the nature of Kinsey’s work—advancing human sexual health and knowledge—posed its own set of issues.

“We have the responsibility to responsibly deliver information to the right person and not to an unintended audience,” Zhou says. “That has been an interesting challenge. We’re dealing with the very nature of sexuality research, and that is a very controversial topic.”

Zhou’s career has led to her involvement in a number of areas, from dealing with technical and public services to working with acquisition and development. Her versatility has made her valuable to both the Institute and the researchers it supports.

The assessment of potential acquisitions can also lead to delicate situations. Individuals who don’t have a prior relationship with the Kinsey Institute offer their collection of items for donation, and Zhou has to decide what, if anything, would be an asset to her library.

“My work is really trying to recognize the individual’s needs but also recognize the limitations,” Zhou says. “The needs for an institution may not mesh with an individual’s needs 100 percent. Knowing that a collection is coming out of love and passion, and knowing that in some ways it’s a rejection if we decline a donation, that can be a challenge. It has to be handled properly. I’ve learned over the years to negotiate and realize the needs of the donor and of the institute.”

Zhou is heavily involved in IU’s Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative (MDPI), which aims to digitize and preserve time-based media, and she wants to ensure that the Kinsey Institute’s collection is protected. She also hopes to continue to nurture the opening of the Institute’s collection to a wider audience.

“The future for me is that I see I’ll probably be engaging with donors and with collaborators, really taking our programs, activities, and accessibility to a new level,” Zhou says. “I want to open the collection not only as a research center, but also as a teaching center. We have more than a half-million materials here. There are so many stories here, and they’re just waiting for individual and collective inquiries.”

That includes catering to a younger generation that is more willing to engage with the Institute.

“The Kinsey Collection was always treated with respect, but I’ve noticed that the younger generation seems to be more inquisitive than it used to be,” Zhou says. “The generation has seen an expansion. In the beginning, I worked with people who were more mature in terms of age.”

Her long career at the Kinsey Institute has seen her appreciation for the work and what it represents continue to grow.

“The collective effort of wanting others to know, understand, and learn something is strong,” Zhou says. “It’s about the continuation of information and knowledge throughout the generations. I enjoy knowing that we are the passage of that part of that. I’m in a privileged position where people can share with us their stories and collections. It takes courage. It doesn’t matter if you’re giving or making an inquiry, it takes extraordinary courage to say, ‘I need to know something about sexuality.’ That first step, it’s hard.

“I appreciate the challenges and sometimes discomfort that goes along with it.”

Also see other stories in the ILS Innovators Newsletter.

Media Contact

Ken Bikoff
Communications Specialist
Phone: (812) 856-6908