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2009-10-08

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

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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

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. “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.”

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.”

RE-THINKING NEW TECHNOLOGIES

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. “We want sociologists 50 years from now to understand how people were spending their time communicating with each other.”

Copyright issues and questions about legal ownership make it difficult to create this kind of preservation today. But the possibility of a Facebook record is not completely out of the picture.

Courant is a member of a panel working for the National Science Foundation to preserve web content.

In addition to the U.S. government, national and international libraries have expressed strong interest in supporting the project and finding a way to prevent the information published on websites, including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, from being forever lost in the abyss of cyberspace.

Courant is no stranger to the ever-changing world of Internet publishing. Aside from the number of academic communities to which he claims membership, Courant is a part of a more expansive, less exclusive society: the blogosphere.

His blog — called “Au Courant” — discusses everything from his endeavors as dean of libraries to field trips with his wife to Yankee Stadium, though Courant admits he finds little time for blogging.

“I haven’t blogged much of anything in the last six months, which is bad practice,” he said. “Good bloggers blog regularly.”

Despite Courant’s sporadic posting tendencies, the blog has developed a following from publishers who are eager to learn about new developments in the Google Books Project and other anonymous readers.

BEHIND THE LIBRARIAN

Despite all that is on his plate, libraries and Internet databases are not all that occupy Courant’s life. If the classic portrait of a librarian suggests someone slightly mousy, with glasses and his or her nose deep in a book, Courant shatters that image.

While he does wear glasses, his outgoing disposition and the stud in his left ear leave little evidence of his profession.

Courant rides his BMW R1150R motorcycle around campus — if not to work. In his free time, he takes yoga classes with his wife.

Ann Arbor residents of 36 years, the empty nesters — with three sons in their 20s and 30s — are never short of a desire for something new. The two often come to the rescue of kayakers who tip over or get stuck in the Huron River, which runs along the west side of their backyard.

Courant said the current was “awfully fast” this summer, leading to quite a few rescue efforts.

Besides rescuing kayakers, Courant enjoys watching the Detroit Tigers, skiing, fishing and playing with his dogs Bear and Moose, despite their small stature.

More than anything, Courant loves to teach. He currently teaches a 200-level public policy class.

“I don’t have to teach in this job,” he said. “I do it because I like it.”

While he enjoys seeing academic progress when he teaches, Courant said the best part is watching students discover themselves.

“I very much enjoy watching students go from being just out of high school into life,” he said, with a smile.

— Michele Narov contributed to this report.


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