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Living: Sunday, April 09, 2000

Making sense of the info nation

Seattle Times staff reporter

A meeting of what the world once lumped together as bunheads in sensible shoes is called to order with a classic "Yoo hoo!"

These branch managers for the King County Library System are about to meet Mike Eisenberg, an energetic New York native who directs the University of Washington's new Information School as if he hopes to take it to the Super Bowl.

Eisenberg paces as he talks. He punches the air with his finger and peppers his speech with words such as "Right?" and "OK?"

Librarians are the original information specialists, he tells them, OK? Northwest librarians are in the center of the information universe, right? You've never been more valuable! Work even harder, think even more creatively about managing information.

And then, though he's more restrained than when he jumped on a table in the Tri-Cities last year and shouted his enthusiasm to a state library group, he ends with a twinkle in his eye and this:

"So, suck it up!"

My, my, what's happened to library science?

What's happened in Seattle is Mike Eisenberg. In two years, he's turned the UW's School of Library and Information Science into one of the most important departments on campus. Almost shelved from neglect, this program - and its new umbrella, The Information School - someday could be the best in the world.

The UW is going all out - not only in plucking Eisenberg from Syracuse, one of the best information-management schools, but also in providing top faculty and the best facilities.

Why not? The Seattle campus sits in the heart of deep-pocketed technology heaven, surrounded by noted public and private libraries. Eisenberg bridges it all, bringing in new money and teaching what's called "information literacy" to students all over campus.

For years, colleges cranked out the people who create information or create machines that spew it. But where are the guides? Who can weed through this stuff to decide what's valuable?

Eisenberg has this vision of Lucy and Ethel in a famous "I Love Lucy" episode. But instead of chocolate candy coming at them faster and faster on the conveyor belt, it's information.

Web sites double every year. Once they seemed like a godsend. Now the words, the numbers, the ideas are slowwwwwwwwing us down.

Eisenberg trains his students to see information as soon as they open their eyes. Traffic. Weather. News. Instead of being overwhelmed, they think: How can I organize it? How does the information flow? How can I pull out what's valuable and leave the rest behind?

Some of The Information School's graduates will be librarians. The need is growing and the prestige rising.

But others will go into business with titles such as "information architect" and "business intelligence manager." They'll tackle Web site content and complex database systems.

They won't all be librarians, but they will all have a librarian's "helper-sharer gene."

Keeping library skills in the forefront of information management makes the UW's program different from many of its peers.

All good librarians know that information is only as valuable as it is usable by people. That hasn't been a priority for the Internet. People can't find content. Browsers don't have standardized terms.

Most companies could use a good information professional to systemize and humanize their data dumps. That's why high-tech companies are pumping money into the school's research and why some students have their pick of jobs even before they graduate.

Keeping the path clear

Eisenberg, 50, is an example of the new academician. No ivory towers here. He is Dr. Eisenberg only when he calls to make a dinner reservation; otherwise everyone knows him as Mike.

His philosophy as an administrator is to keep the path cleared so students and staff can come up with new ideas.

For instance, student Sean Squires is specializing in something called Information Commerce Testbed Facility, which is designing cutting-edge information-retrieval technology.

Is Eisenberg an expert at that? No. But he knows when to let students explore, and if that means taking a chance on new equipment, he signs the checks.

"Mike's been receptive to us doing all these crazy things, and that's been very beneficial," said Squires, a lanky young man who looks like a Great Dane next to Eisenberg's compact bulldog physique.

Eisenberg didn't get to the top of his profession by being a pushover. He's aggressive and driven, and now and then he has to apologize to his faculty for losing his temper.

But he brings two traits that serve him well in this world of new-style eggheads:

He's practical. And he can handle multiple input faster than a 14-year-old at Gameworks. He's so good at multitasking that his wife, Carol, a Wallingford pediatric nurse, is only half jesting when she says he has attention deficit disorder.

"I like to do a lot of things at once," said Eisenberg, who keeps his gray hair cropped short. "It's exciting. With technology, we almost live simultaneous lives."

Eisenberg, who grew up on Long Island, met his wife in 1968 when he was a history major at State University of New York in Albany.

He was insecure in those days, he says, almost neurotic. He fussed about such things as whether the car was running right: "Well, to some extent, I still do."

But he recognized when something was important to him, and he'd grow passionate about it.

He was that way with baseball, though he couldn't hit a thing. He's that way with skiing, "even though I'm terrible." And he's that way about his wife.

"She's the best thing that ever happened to me," said Eisenberg, who says she helps him keep balance in his life.

It was his dream to be able to say he made a difference in life, and he saw that potential in leading people to knowledge.

Bells went off when, as a high-school social studies teacher looking for a graduate degree, he heard about library science. He thought, "That's me!"

"It's not because I love books. I love libraries and I love information."

It was the future of libraries, the next generation of ideas, that drew him.

When he began in the field, using a Polaroid camera to copy a book page for the card catalog was cutting-edge library technology.

But unlike some librarians who cling to print, Eisenberg, an avid book reader, never had a problem embracing the online world.

"To me it's like which do you need for living, air or water," Eisenberg said. "We don't have to make a choice. Books are a technology."

After earning his Ph.D. at Syracuse University, Eisenberg helped add intelligence to the Internet through AskERIC, the largest educational Q&A in the world with 1,500 questions a week from K-12 educators.

He co-developed an information problem-solving system called The Big6 Skills that has taken him around the world as a consultant.

He was doing all that as a full professor and directing the huge Information Institute of Syracuse when the UW came calling.

An all-out challenge

In the 1980s, library schools closed all over the country. They had small numbers of graduates, primarily women, who were poorly paid.

Even the UW's library science program, vigorous and forward-thinking for decades, declined in recent years from what one faculty member described as "benign neglect."

By 1996, it had reached such a sad state that a Futures Committee, including an outside consultant from Microsoft, convened to decide its fate.

The verdict: Don't shut it down and don't shuck library science in favor of more business-oriented information studies, as some schools had done. Go all out with both.

That was good because Eisenberg, happy at Syracuse, would come for nothing less. He had to leave behind his daughter, Laura, a special-education teacher, although he joined his son, Brian, a Microsoft worker now finishing his master's degree at Eisenberg's school.

"I don't mean to sound arrogant," said Eisenberg, whose salary is above $140,000 a year, according to state papers. "But I had nothing to lose. It had to be perfect or I wasn't coming."

The UW offered him the one thing he couldn't turn down: "The challenge to do something incredible."

He pulled the school out of its hiding place in Suzzallo Library. Then he plastered the name in window-size purple letters at a temporary home.

"I guess that epitomizes me, right?" he asks. "Some people were taken aback. But when it's dark out and the lights are on in the room, it really shows up."

The next move, this fall, will be into a new wing of the prestigious Mary Gates Hall, the most technically forward building on campus.

There, the students will be elbow-to-elbow with technology whizzes, perfect for Eisenberg's interest in collaboration.

Part of Eisenberg's value to the UW is how The Information School teaches students in other departments to be more efficient about managing information.

For instance, computer science and engineering students are not information experts, said the head of that department, Ed Lazowska.

"Don't believe it?" Lazowska asks. "Try to find something on the Web!"

Now his department is teamed with The Information School for a core course on information fluency.

"Mike has been the perfect leader to seize on these advantages," Lazowska said. "He's fast-moving, decisive, smart and a bridge builder."

Eisenberg has extended bridges outside of campus, too.

Local companies, including Microsoft and Boeing, are putting money into research. In just a year, one of Eisenberg's hires, Harry Bruce from Sydney, Australia, has increased research funding from $80,000 to $1 million.

Eisenberg is working with Seattle Public School students and with the Seattle and King County libraries.

Seattle's head librarian, Deborah Jacobs, is teaching UW students practical skills and encouraging them to choose a "soul-satisfying career."

But with Eisenberg around, the students don't need much encouragement.

Last year, Jacobs' administrative assistant was wavering whether to become a librarian. Then she heard Eisenberg speak at the Tri-Cities meeting where he leaped on the table.

"She became absolutely on fire," Jacobs said.

Finding only what you need

Before he told the King County librarians to suck it up and work harder, Eisenberg praised them for their agenda, which included the new state database and caring for "unattended children."

Who else has always championed the rights of the have-nots to get the same access to information as the haves?

"If we are successful, we change lives," Eisenberg said. "Right?"

Just a few years ago, as people discovered the joy of the Internet, they asked: "Who needs librarians?"

But now they're learning how much time they waste. Anybody can bring up 10,000 hits on an Internet search. But how do you bring up 10 hits of only what you need?

Eisenberg's doctors of information overload will teach us to separate the wheat from the chaff. They'll show us how to organize information so people can find it.

Remember when you first mastered e-mail? asks Eisenberg, who deals with 140 substantial e-mails a day.

"It was terrific fun. It was liberating. It helped you with your work."

And then slowly it became oppressive. Not only from the volume, but from the expectation that you would answer it immediately.

"That's just impossible," Eisenberg said. "To the world, it's a real problem. But to an information professional, it's a tremendous possibility."

Filter your spam mail. Make sent-mail go automatically into folders. Flag e-mail from your boss and have your family's e-mail arrive in colors.

"Whatever it takes, that's what information people do," Eisenberg said.

The UW came to Eisenberg with a 10-year plan. Add an undergraduate program, broaden the master's degree, add more technology, add doctorate and research programs.

Eisenberg said no. He wanted to do it all at once. Most of the new programs will be in place by fall.

Betty Bengtson, who directed the Futures Committee as head of University Libraries, says she is very pleased.

"My only concern is whether or not he can sustain his brutal pace."

Brutal pace? Why, to Eisenberg it's nothing: "I wish we could create a 36-hour day."

Sherry Stripling can be reached at 206-464-2520. Her e-mail address is


UW experts' tips for working efficiently with information

Filtering: Narrow your interests or concerns; set rules; filter out all else.

Twigging: Narrow your scope as you learn more about your topic.

Chunking: Organize or think about information in categories; use no more than nine categories.

Queuing: Prioritize. Which information do you need first?

Delegating: Hand off parts of search or data sorting.

Searching the Web:

-- Try a directory first: Yahoo! (, Looksmart (, (, AskJeeves (

-- Understand your topic.

-- Extract important concepts.

-- Learn "lingo" used by your search engine.

-- Choose your search engine wisely. Try: Altavista (, Northern Light (, HotBot (


A sustem for solving problems

The UW's Mike Eisenberg says every information-gathering problem can be approached with his Big6 Skills system. Here's how the six skills could be used to buy a car.

The six skills ....applied to buying a car

1. Task definition You need to:

"What do I want to do?"

Define the problem Decide on the type of a new car to buy

(make, model, color, features) and the price you are willing to pay.

Identify the information needed Find up-to-date facts, opinions, comparisons, pictures observations.


2. Information-seeking strategies: Consider:

"How am I going to find

information to help me do

what I want to do?"

Determine all possible Consumer reports and other magazines,

sources people (friends, experts, car dealer).

Web sites (automakers, car-buying

sites, comparisons), firthand



3. Locations and access: Get your hands on:

Where can I find and how can

I get the information, which

need to do what I want to do?

Locate sources. Sources at the newsstand, in person, on

the telephone, or access of the World

Wide Web.

Find information within sources The right place in print sources

or Web sites; ask experts key


------------------------------------------------------------------------- 4. Use of information: Take a look at:

How am I going to use

information I have found

to help me do what I want

to do?

Engage (e.g, read, hear, view) Browse magazines/Web sites, have lunch

with a friend who recently bought a


Extract relevant information


5. Synthesis: At this point:

Doing what I need to do with

information I have found

Organize information from Make decision - create a summary

multiple sources. chart, discuss your thoughts with

a friend.

Present information.


6. Evaluation: Ask yourself:

"How do I know that I did

a good job?

Judge the result (effectiveness) Did I make a good decision?

Judge the process (efficiency). "How could I save time and

money next time?"

Source: Michael Eisenberg and Robert Berkowitz, co-developers of the

Big6 Skills Curriculum.

--------------------------------------------------------------- Graphic by James McFarlane / The Seattle Times


Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.





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