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The evolution of Paul Courant reshapes the concept of a library

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

“As an economist with considerable budgetary experience, he brings important expertise to our libraries as they are transformed to meet the needs of the 21st century.”

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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While the job typically involves daily meetings and conference calls, during the last few years, Courant’s career has revolved around the Google Books Library Project — a joint venture between the tech juggernaut and a catalogue of the world’s most advanced libraries. Through the project, the University Library has become the first in the world to have the majority of its collection digitized.

Even before he became dean of libraries, Courant took the first step in negotiating the original version of the arrangement with Google in 2004, a move that got him “very excited.”

“This was going to transform the way in which we did research and teaching and transform the way in which libraries would work and provide opportunities to our students and faculty of a kind that actually never existed before,” he said.

By 2011, more than 7 million of the University’s books will be available online at no cost to students, faculty and staff. Outside universities will have to pay a fee to access the digitized collection.

The University will not make any money from the deal, but Courant said it’s getting “something of great value.”

He explained that free access to the works allows the library to reprint books that are deteriorating whether it is because they are printed on acid paper or a plethora of other reasons.

“You know how if you look at an old paperback, you open it up and it all turns into cornflakes?” he asked. “That was high acid paper.”

With the Google Book Project, the University won’t have to worry about losing books to normal wear and tear.

The repercussions of the project for the long-standing notion of a wood-lined, whispers-only library are many.

Despite the advantages of having tangible books on hand, Courant said the University Library’s books will be uselessly sitting on shelves while students browse them on their laptops.

“This is blasphemous,” he said. “But it’s true. We don’t need to have 3 million books in the middle of campus.”

Courant said he predicts the University Library will use converted files to make materials even more digitally accessible in the future.

“In a few years, most of what I expect will be in the library (will be) in a form where you’ll be able to load it into something that looks like a Kindle or a Sony Reader and read it very easily,” he said.

He added that the stacks will eventually disappear.

With this shift, Courant said the role of universities and libraries will become increasingly important as society moves into the “information age,” where loads of information are available at people’s fingertips.

“The problem of converting information into knowledge and knowledge into wisdom is every bit as important as it always was,” he said. “The University is the place that’s going to figure out how to do that, and within it, the library is going to be the place in the University that figures that out.”


Halfway through a renewable five-year term as dean of libraries, Courant said that in addition to the Google Books Project, he hopes to focus on other interests as well.

Between negotiations with Google and back-to-back faculty meetings, Courant said he admits he finds social networking tools like Facebook extremely interesting. Though Courant uses Facebook to keep track of a cluster of relatives, his fascination with the site is more than one-dimensional.

Courant has spent some time seriously considering the possibility of a Facebook archive that could be used for research purposes in the future.

“On Facebook we could have this extraordinary archive of how people communicated,” he said.