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2009-10-08

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The evolution of Paul Courant reshapes the concept of a library

Sam Wolson/Daily
Paul Courant, with his wife Marta, in their home near North Campus.

By Stephanie Steinberg, Daily Staff Reporter
Published October 6, 2009

Eight floors up in the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, above the stacks, rows of computers and groups of students buried in books, you’ll find a door with a “Library Administration” sign hanging above its frame.

Chris Dzombak/Daily
As dean of libraries, Courant has transformed how information is collected.
Sam Wolson/Daily
Courant sits in an armchair in his living room at his house near North Campus.

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If the maps of Constantinople, bookshelves and rocking chair don’t make it clear, the sign on the desk that says “hush” reveals that this office belongs to a librarian. But the man behind this particular door has revolutionized the meaning of that job.

During the last four years, Dean of Libraries Paul Courant has played a key role in the library revolution — helping to convert disintegrating, musty texts scattered in locations throughout the world into a digitized form that will forever be accessible in one central hub online.

A veteran of University administrations long past, Courant has held some of the University’s loftiest positions. From 2002 to 2005, he served as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs — meaning that he wore the dueling hats of the chief academic officer and the chief budget officer.

When University Librarian Bill Gosling retired in 2005, Courant was asked to lead the search committee for a new librarian to fill the position.

During the process though, Courant said he became increasingly curious with the role of libraries in collegiate life and society more broadly. His colleagues on the committee took note, and Provost Teresa Sullivan asked Courant to step down as chair of the search committee so he could be considered as a candidate.

He accepted and several months later was tapped for the position.

Courant said the transition from provost to dean of libraries was “sort of like jumping off a train.”

“I used to say as provost, when you hear a dish breaking, it’s your dish,” he said, referencing the responsibility placed on whomever fills that job. “And if you’re librarian, it’s only if a book falls on somebody’s toe, it’s your book.”

He explained that the job is less demanding — with his workweek shortened from 80 to 60 hours and no longer having 19 deans and multiple administrators reporting to him on a daily basis.

It’s a change that Courant’s wife, Marta Manildi, said has changed her husband's life.

In an interview at the family’s artsy, welcoming house near North Campus Tuesday evening, Manildi said she enjoys being able to spend more time with her husband than when he was provost.

“I certainly see more of Paul now,” she said, sitting cross-legged in one of the overstuffed, red-velvet armchairs that furnish their living room. “He does travel a lot, but I will say that I think he’s more relaxed.”

She added that the anxiety and tension that marked her husband’s time as provost — for example, getting up at 4 a.m. on some sleepless nights to go and check his e-mail — has now dissipated. He seems less stressed, she said.

“My impression is that having him working on library issues, he’s having fun,” Manildi said.

Paul Courant’s idea of fun differs from most.

A KNOWLEDGE REVOLUTION

The age-old notion of a library has fallen by the wayside as an Internet-driven technology transformation has turned the collegiate libraries of today into information warehouses — stocking and preserving the world’s collection of books, audio, video, images and data into a one-stop shop for knowledge.

Recognizing this shift, Courant has dived in head first to lead the University’s progression — the offshoots of which have revamped the state of information for society.

Sullivan wrote in an e-mail interview that with Courant at the helm, the University’s library has been at the vanguard of dynamic technological times.

"Academic libraries around the world face a host of new opportunities as scholarly communication moves into the digital age," Sullivan wrote.

“Professor Courant has been engaged with these issues for many years,” she continued.