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New director leads Library school into
Information Age

The Information School of the University of Washington. A distinguished school with a core faculty of 27 and another dozen affiliate faculty, serving a population of nearly 1,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Widely regarded as the best information school in the country.

A pipe dream? No, this in essence is Mike Eisenberg’s 10-year plan for what is now known as the Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences (GSLIS). Eisenberg, who recently became the school’s director, was selected after a nationwide search and was the unanimous choice of the search committee, chaired by Elizabeth Feetham, associate dean of the Graduate School, and the school’s faculty.

“I’m a builder,” says Eisenberg, who was lured here from a senior faculty position at Syracuse University by the prospect “of being part of something big.”

“This school is one of the best kept secrets on campus. It has a solid tradition in the library community and throughout the Northwest upon which we’re going to build. It has a strong faculty and excellent students.

“But what we’re going to do is more than just a gentle evolution. Much as the Information Age has been called an explosion, it is also an apt metaphor for the transformation that this school will be undergoing, as it more accurately and completely responds to society’s information needs.”

Eisenberg emphasizes that this will be a school of the university and not merely at the university. “I want to bring together many of the best things that are going on at the UW, as well as introducing some new things. Information science is a discipline that studies the organization, management, processing and use of information by people in every possible environment. We also plan to take advantage of the leading role that Northwest companies are playing in this transformation. Our students will be trained to make important contributions to society. And our discipline also will be working closely with other campus departments. I believe there is a void in information technology—the ability to apply technology to various fields, as it can be done by an information professional.”

Eisenberg plans to take the school down many paths at the same time. “I’m not a linear person, but more of a parallel processor,” he says. The school will be undertaking a revision of its core master’s degree curriculum (“we’ll be upping the technological infrastracture”), while at the same time it will begin moving toward both a bachelor’s degree (probably beginning with service courses to undergraduates) and a doctoral program. Eisenberg also doesn’t want to overlook distance education as an option for many potential students. “I know distance education has been somewhat controversial in this state. I have experience and background in distance learning; I think it encourages us to think about education in different ways. In the future, our school should see itself as a school for the entire Northwest, and as a national center for education.”

Having a bachelor’s degree program by 2001 is one of Eisenberg’s goals. “Just as biologists offer a system through which to view knowledge, and chemists offer a system from their point of view, information technology offers its own view, its own system. Undergraduates, whether they major in information technology or another field, will benefit from a deeper understanding of how information can be organized, processed, synthesized and analyzed.

“The UW has already done some of these things through the offerings of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, through Computing and Communications, and the Libraries. What our school can bring to this is the perspective of the user of information—which is a real strength of the faculty here.”

Eisenberg sees links being created in two directions—with academic departments on the one hand, and with what he calls the “clinical side,” with Computing and Communications and University Libraries, on the other. “We’re in a service field, training professionals, but we also are an academic discipline. We need to stay in touch with the professionals, and we also need to further research in our discipline.”

Eisenberg characterized the Ph.D. program as “the other missing link” in developing an excellent school. “It’s hard to attract faculty and to do great research without having doctoral students as colleagues.” One of Eisenberg’s first moves was to offer a faculty position to an outstanding scholar from Australia, Harry Bruce, whose mission is to help transform the school and lay the groundwork for a doctoral program.

The time appears right for a dramatic change in the school. A 1996 “Futures Committee,” chaired by Betty Bengtson, director of University Libraries, found that the school was uniquely positioned “to build a new and outstanding library and information science program that will rapidly achieve national and international prominence and will have enormous impact across the campus and throughout the region.” The report calls for a reformulated school with a broader, more interdisciplinary focus on information. 

Moreover, seven faculty positions in the school are open, and the school has recently received a University Initiatives Fund award from the Provost’s Office, which will aid in the school’s transformation. (As intended from the original design of the UIF, some of the available funds were not allocated as part of the competitive proposal process. The intention was to enable the Provost to spot initiatives that emerged outside the UIF cycle and consider funding those that are well suited to the goals of the UIF program. With the concurrence of President McCormick, Provost Huntsman has decided to use the balance of UIF funds to support the transformation of Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences.) (See related story.)

Eisenberg was a full professor at Syracuse and also director of the Syracuse Information Institute, a research and service organization with a staff of 35 and over $2 million a year in sponsored research. “I wasn’t looking to leave Syracuse. I was happy there.” What drew him to the UW, he says, “was the enthusiasm of every single person I met here—on the search committee, among the school’s faculty, in the Graduate School, in the provost and the president. They all talked to me about the desire for collaboration across disciplines. Then I talked to faculty and found that it was really happening.”

While some information schools are dropping their connection with traditional libraries, Eisenberg finds this approach short-sighted. “There are new libraries going up all over, in major cities and now on the Internet, and we need to keep those connections. But we will also help the profession transform itself. You don’t need to be a librarian to be an information professional, however librarians are the original information professionals. Librarians are key players in our global information society. The future of schools like ours is in being broad-based, in building connections with other schools and developing strong collaborative relationships.”

Students will have an important role to play in this new structure, which in Eisenberg’s view positions them more as partners than simply as clients. “For example, we need to build up our internships and placements. A traditional way to do this would be to hire a director to perform this function. But my model is to incorporate students into a unit that keeps track of internship opportunities and needs—have the students develop and maintain a database. Then the staff position will become one of coordinator, with students integrated into that unit’s operation. The same should also be true of research. Students should be involved in the field, helping to identify and shape research problems.”

Eisenberg’s interests and ambitions go beyond research and education and into policy. “There are lots of provocative questions about information policy, about balancing the desire that we have to customize the information that we seek and receive, versus legitimate privacy concerns. Given the local corporate community, this subject should be of great interest. And we can help organize discussions of these issues, in cooperation with other schools and departments.”

One issue Eisenberg already has addressed is the school’s physical location. While its facilities are now hidden in the recesses of Suzzallo Library, they will be moved to the third floor of Mary Gates Hall once construction there is completed.

It’s a good location from which to achieve one of Eisenberg’s other goals: “To become the information school that transforms the way people think about information and society.” ¶

Bob Roseth, News and Information

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University Week
The faculty and staff publication of the University of Washington
October 8, 1998









Last Updated: 05/27/09

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