Librarians Help Students ‘Separate the Wheat from the Chaff’

David Ettinger, one of just 10 winners of the American Library Association’s top honor, prefers to keep the spotlight on what his fellow librarians contribute.

February 13, 2023

Out of 1,500 nominees, David Ettinger was one of just 10 librarians nationwide to win the American Library Association’s I Love My Librarian Award. (William Atkins/GW Today)

Of 1,500 nominees, David Ettinger was one of just 10 librarians nationwide to win the American Library Association’s I Love My Librarian Award. (William Atkins/GW Today)

David Ettinger doesn’t exactly crave the spotlight. Left to his own devices, the international affairs and political science librarian at the George Washington University would rather facilitate others’ work than promote his own.

A soft-spoken former foreign service officer, Ettinger consults with researchers in the Elliott School of International Affairs and elsewhere at GW as they try to get from light-bulb idea to finished book or paper. And whether those researchers are professional academics or frazzled undergraduates the night before a deadline, Ettinger affords their needs his full attention. Accolades are not his priority.

Unfortunately for Ettinger, his GW colleagues and clients are less reticent about his work than he is. Thanks to a nomination joined by dozens of students, faculty, staff and alumni, this year Ettinger was selected from a pool of 1,500 as one of just 10 librarians nationwide to win the American Library Association’s I Love My Librarian Award. Sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York with additional support from the New York Public Library, the award honors librarians who have gone above and beyond to promote literacy, expand access to technology and support diversity and inclusion in their communities.

Ettinger’s win left him “incredulous,” he said. Accepting the award in New Orleans last month at the ALA’s LibLearnX Conference, he made a point of sharing it with his colleagues at the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library, “an incredibly talented and dedicated group of people whose commitment to their work has never ceased to amaze me. Each and every one of them deserves this kind of recognition.”

“Librarians, like David, are key to student success at GW, providing students with invaluable resources and inspiring a passion for research,” said Geneva Henry, vice provost for libraries and information technology. “This award is a well-deserved recognition of his exceptional contributions and the contributions of his colleagues.”

Arturo Sotomayor, an associate professor and director of the M.A. in Security Policy Studies Program at the Elliott School who championed Ettinger’s nomination, wrote in a congratulatory LinkedIn post that he thinks of Ettinger as “as a magician, with unique skills.”

“He finds resources, information, indexes, sources of wisdom and ideas for knowledge from known and sometimes mysterious places,” Sotomayor said.

Ettinger is a regular guest in Sotomayor’s classroom. Like his colleagues—GW boasts specialist librarians in science and engineering, arts and design, social sciences and the rest of the academic spectrum—Ettinger leads instructional classes to give students in his particular field a rundown on basic research skills and to remind them how much help librarians have to offer.

“The stereotype still prevails, unfortunately, that librarians just shelve books,” Ettinger said. “People don’t know, until they’re exposed to it, what the added value of the librarian can be.”

That value includes not only pointing researchers to databases or resources they may not know about, but also teaching them how to search those sources most effectively—an art that’s not as straightforward as slotting a phrase into a search engine. (Indeed, the world of search engines is evolving so quickly that there’s nothing straightforward about it.) While the internet affords invaluable access to today’s researchers, it can also be a firehose of undifferentiated content.

“There’s an embarrassment of riches out there—an incredible amount of information, and students are hard put to separate the wheat from the chaff,” Ettinger said. “The role of the librarian is to help them distinguish between good information and bad, to help them develop critical thinking skills so they can make judicious choices.”

Ettinger believes deeply in the importance of information and critical thought. Both of his parents survived the Holocaust, one of history’s ugliest manifestations of weaponized disinformation and ignorance. He spent the first half of his career as a diplomat, but the peripatetic life began to wear on him. While posted in New York City with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Ettinger made the acquaintance of some librarians at the U.N.’s Dag Hammarskjöld Library and “became sort of intrigued.”

“I was enticed by the fact that they knew so much,” he said. For the next several years, he commuted from New York to Rutgers University while earning his Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree. (It was his fourth advanced degree; he earned his B.A. with honors from Princeton University, a master's degree in international law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a Ph.D. from Columbia University.) Ettinger landed at GW shortly after finishing school and has been here since 1995.

For Ettinger, the greatest privilege of his work is helping students feel knowledgeable and comfortable in the library—helping them unlock doors they may not even have known were there. After giving a class, he always asks students to raise their right hand and repeat an oath he wrote: From this day forward, I will not hesitate to consult with a librarian if I need help with my research. They laugh, he says, but some always take him up on it. He’d be happy if everyone did.

“I want this place to be a second home,” Ettinger said of the library. “I want students to feel comfortable here. I love doing research, and I love helping people do research. So it’s a perfect mix.” And now that the interview is over, he can get back to doing it.