New University Librarian At UM Is Not A Librarian

On Monday, January 15 the University of Michigan officially announced they had appointed a new University Librarian and Dean of University Libraries. Their choice for the position is an academic well known to many academic librarians because of his valuable research and publication in the area of scholarly communication, but he comes not from the traditional ranks of MLS-degreed librarians, but rather the professoriate and ranks of academic administrators. Paul Courant is UM’s new university librarian. He was UM provost from 2002-2005, currently is the Harold T. Shapiro Collegiate Professor of Public Policy in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, professor of economics in LSA and professor of information in the School of Information. He also is a Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Library and Information Resources in Washington, D.C. A recent Courant publication garnered some recognition in academic library circles with an interesting discussion about scholarship in the Google world.

I suppose academic librarians may ponder the implications of a top leadership position at one of the top academic libraries going to a non-librarian. Might this be the start of a trend in which non-librarian faculty and administrators are perceived by university presidents as the best academic library leaders, supported by professional librarians who tend to the nuts and bolts of the operation? After all, if a significant institution makes this move why wouldn’t others follow the lead. Courant may be a special case because he has a record of involvement with academic librarianship, has a deep understanding of scholarly communications issues and has demonstrated collaboration with academic librarians and their associations. It would be quite different if the new university librarian appeared to have little or no connection with the world of academic libraries.

Still, this sort of thing might tend to create some unease within the profession for it always has the possibility to signal to top academic administrators that a large, complex research university can be run by someone who has no traditional library professional education. I think Courant’s appointment has the potential to benefit academic librarianship by futhering opportunties for collaboration between faculty, non-library administrators, and academic librarians. It may signal that those who come from the professoriate can blend well as academic library leaders. In times of radical change in academic librarianship, when it’s clear that doing things as we always have done them may prove an unwise course of action, it’s important to keep an open mind about this type of development. But it is a development that deserves our attention in order to determine its impact on the future of academic libraries and those who work in them.

Posted by StevenB

4 thoughts on “New University Librarian At UM Is Not A Librarian”

  1. Steven — this indeed interesting news, but hardly the only example “of a top leadership position at one of the top academic libraries going to a non-librarian.” Regard, for example, Harvard (Sid Verba, for many years) and Berkeley (Tom Leonard, for about 5 years).

  2. That’s true, and I was aware it was not a unique first-time event, but I thought it was worth writing about because it’s something that we don’t see happening all that often and it should cause us to take pause and give it some thought. Can we immediately conclude, as we sometimes do, that a non-librarian at the helm is immediately a negative. I did want to think of some ways in which this might be a positive. Mostly though, I just thought it was something newsworthy and worth writing about. Maybe I was wrong.

  3. I think this topic is worth considering, even if it has already become a trend among some of the major univeristies. It seems that Steven is not using this story as a “news flash,” but rather as a way to make us think about the implications of non-MLS adminstrators running libraries.

    In this case, the story from UM made the librarian in me feel apprehensive… at least initially. As I thought about it further, Courant seems to have a good background for running an academic library. It’s not like UM arrogantly hired someone who knew nothing about (and who cared little for) academic librarianship and all that it entails. By its very nature, librarianship attracts those who have a catholic range of interests, and who can see things from a broader perspective (as Courant seems to do). Why can’t someone who has such sensibilities lead a library, regardless of degree? As long as they understand and appreciate the role of libraries, there should be few problems.

    Of course, to anyone who wants to keep librarianship in the family, the most ambitious members of our profession need to study the stories of people like Courant. That way, in case the judicious choosing of non-librarians to run academic libraries degenatres into a widespread fad, we can prevent grossly unqualified candidates from stepping into library leadership roles.

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