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Library Winter 2013 Paul Courant’s appointment at the Library concludes in August 2013. In a wide-ranging discussion, he looks back at his time as University Librarian and Dean of Libraries, and continues to ruminate on the library of the future. It’s difficult to imagine a more tumultuous era than this for what Paul Courant calls “the abstract problem of knowledge transfer.” The digital revolution and its implications for the ways in which we share academic resources, teach, learn, and preserve the record of human knowledge has dominated Courant’s time at the Library. And he wouldn’t have it any other way. That abstract problem—which is embodied by libraries—was a beautiful one to present to an economist and former provost who focuses on public goods. “I knew I would find it fulfilling and entertaining; and I think I even made important progress on the configuration of the information landscape in academe.” The hallmark of that progress is HathiTrust, a shared repository of digitized library collections whose community now boasts almost 80 institutional partners. HathiTrust began as a U-M initiative, a mechanism for managing the locally scanned and Google-digitized volumes from our collection. “And then John Wilkin* had the insight that if we made such a repository available to everyone on reasonable terms, we could build one great library instead of many separate ones.” The implications of library sharing on this massive scale— HathiTrust today holds more than 10.5 million volumes—are profound, not just for libraries, but for academia in general. But: Before he even begins to talk about the impact electrons have had on the research library, or about this Library’s leadership in that realm, Courant wants to air a less prominent aspect to his role as University Librarian and Dean of Libraries. “I like books, I grew up around libraries, I still read books”—some of them even printed on paper, bound between covers. Even so, he was surprised by what quickly became a deep sense of obligation to the print collection, one that he likens, in terms unapologetically spiritual, to the duty that a cleric might have to a congregation. “I didn’t expect that,” he says, “Nor did I know I was going to be the guy who likes to wander around in Special Collections, swept away by the magical physical powers of those old books, with a dawning awareness that I owe them to the future.” This revelation spurred some of the notable local achievements under Courant’s leadership, in particular the establishment of the Library Gallery, the Audubon Room, and the Stephen S. Clark Library, public spaces intended to stir a similar awe and intellectual excitement in Library visitors; and the procurement of a $1.25 million matching grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for an endowed library conservator (see inside). Talk of these initiatives, all of which are toward preserving and exposing the collection to as broad an audience as possible, leads, inevitably, to digitization. “All of it is about preserving and University of Michigan Library illuminating the collection. The Audubon Room and the Clark Library allow us to share what we have in a way that’s frankly meant to inspire further exploration of our collections and services.” In other words, analog and digital modes of using literature and print materials are complementary, not competitive. Of course, illumination of the physical collection through digitization is especially powerful because of its global reach— Courant calls the Library’s 2012 holiday greeting video (lib.umich. edu/annual-greeting) “a beautiful illustration of this power.” “What are we doing? We’re shining light on works that the Library has uncovered and made findable, searchable, and readable. So in the making of that video, I had the pleasure of reading from mathematical work that my grandfather and his graduate students produced the year I was born. I have no idea how I would have found a copy of it before digitization.” Asked where the Library is headed next, Courant mentions a number of issues that will confront Library leadership in the coming years: the illumination of the literature of the 20th century, which requires a legal framework among libraries, publishers, and authors; the need to transform Library space to meet student needs, along the lines of Bert’s Study Lounge and the Digital Media Commons; the management and mediation of emerging modes of scholarly communication; the pedagogical challenge of inculcating in students the amiable skepticism required to appropriately evaluate an information source. “And I don’t have a crystal ball to tell me now whether any of that is going to be easy or hard.” But even without that crystal ball, he is certain that the Library will remain the metaphorical as well as the physical center of the University—the place on campus you look to, or look from, across the Diag and the big block M embedded in the bricks. Why? “The Library is an amazing resource. It allows you to excavate everything that has ever been known or seriously thought about on any given topic; it is essentially the history of the human mind and human interests—of what people care about and why.” What surprises him is that so many people within the University don’t understand that you really can’t do anything without the Library. But perhaps that’s as it should be—most people don’t notice such fundamental infrastructure unless it fails them in some way. Confronted with that notion, Courant laughs. “Here’s the thing about me: I always ask, ‘How does it work?’ So I can’t imagine not thinking about the infrastructure.” *Now Associate University Librarian for Publishing and Library Information Technology

U-M Library Winter 2013 Newsletter

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