LEXINGTON, Ky. (May 10, 2022) — From working with books to writing her own, one University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information alumna is proving her degree can be taken down untraditional paths.
Jill Grunenwald, who earned her master’s degree in library science in 2008 from the School of Information Science, has published three books since graduating from UK. From captioning photos of her hometown to writing about placing last in races and working in a prison library, she has no shortage of stories to tell just as there is no shortage of stories to read in her line of work. Her stories also happen to be award finalists.
Grunenwald embarked on her journey to librarianship before even starting college. In high school, she started working for the Hudson Library and Historical Society, in her hometown library of Hudson, Ohio. She fell in love with librarianship while there, which effectively set the tone for her future education and career.
As a librarian, Grunenwald has not just a love of reading but a love of writing as well. As a self-proclaimed “antisocial introvert” who has always gravitated to books, her affinity for the written word has been ingrained in her since she was a child. She’s written plays, poetry, fiction and memoirs, even going so far as to get a Bachelor of Fine Arts in creative writing.
“I just love writing in any form,” Grunenwald said. “In whatever avenue I can, I’ll write whatever.”
It was her combined interest in writing and her experience with her hometown library that helped Grunenwald complete her first book in 2015, “Images of Modern America: Hudson.” The pictorial history book highlights the last 50 years of Hudson, Ohio. While she mostly wrote the captions for the photos she collected from residents, she also conducted a lot of archival research at the library to fully and accurately encapsulate the town’s changes, and what had remained largely the same.
In 2017, Grunenwald published her second book, “Running with a Police Escort.” The memoir recounts her experiences as a runner, one who often placed last in races. She wanted to bring the lesser told story of a slow runner to contrast the plethora of fast runner narratives. By highlighting an often-underrepresented perspective, her book celebrates all the voices in the running community.
Championing the underdogs was also a theme in Grunenwald’s 2019 memoir, “Reading Behind Bars.” The book details her time working as a librarian in a men’s minimum-security prison. While the story’s focus is primarily her experience on the job, it also shines a humanizing light on incarcerated people — something Grunenwald learned first-hand working so closely with them. She knew on her last day of work at the prison that this story needed to be told — although it took her 10 years — to combat the inaccurate portrayals of prison life that pop culture had cemented in the media.
“It was never a job I ever would’ve ever expected to get myself hired for and wasn’t even on my radar, but it was really meaningful for me, and I hope for them too,” Grunenwald said.
“Reading Behind Bars” has become Grunenwald’s most successful book yet. It was a Wall Street Journal bestseller and a finalist for the 2020 Ohioana Book Awards and the 2020 In the Margins Social Justice and Advocacy Book Award. Although the accolades are flattering, she’s more pleased to know her writing has a reading base.
“It’s such a solitary activity,” Grunenwald said. “You put it out in the world, and you don’t know how anyone is going to respond. So, when you get positive responses, especially from readers, organizations or awards that have meaning to you personally, that just means a lot.”
Although Grunenwald is making headway as an accomplished writer, she hasn’t given up on librarianship. For nearly seven years, she has worked at OverDrive, an app for libraries that digitally distributes eBooks, audiobooks, online magazines and streaming video titles. She serves on the marketing team, creating marketing materials for a variety of libraries.
Along with being a staff librarian for the company, she is also the creator and a co-host of OverDrive’s “Professional Book Nerds Podcast.” Episodes are posted weekly, every Monday and Thursday. On Mondays, she and two co-workers interview authors, whether they’re emerging, Pulitzer Prize winners or otherwise. On Thursdays, they have a book chat of differing themes, from things they’ve read to future releases.
“I get paid to talk about books,” Grunenwald said. “There’s really not much to not love about it.”
While Grunenwald’s career path hasn’t been what most library science graduates would traditionally strive toward, she doesn’t believe a straight and narrow path is for everyone. Her experience in UK’s program taught her that her education can be used wherever life takes her — and that’s exactly what she plans to continue doing.
The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity, and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion four years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety. UK has been judged a “Great College to Work for" three years in a row, and UK is among only 22 universities in the country on Forbes' list of "America's Best Employers." We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for five straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.