Transcript: Libraries in the Age of Wikipedia
The following is an unverified rush transcript of the conversation with Bill Mayer, recorded on January 13, 2008.
Chip Griffin: My guest today is Bill Mayer. He is the
university librarian for American University, a post he has held since
May of 2007. Prior to that, he was across town at a university that I
guess we can mention on this broadcast. Although when Bill and I get
together in American University events, we never really mention the
name of this university – George Washington University, where he was
the associate university librarian for information technology and
He has been involved in university libraries
up and down the East Coast, including MIT, Harvard Business School, the
Washington Research Library Consortium, and, he has also taught at
Catholic University. A wide range of experience that hopefully will
help shed some light on the role of the university library in today’s
environment. Welcome to the show, Bill.
Bill Mayer: Thank you, Chip, glad to be here.
We live in an age where students of all ages have access to things like
Google and Wikipedia, things that 20 years ago, when I was in school
and you were in school, weren’t in use. They didn’t exist. How does a
university library change over time in order to accommodate the
changing needs of the students?
Bill: That is actually
a fantastic question. I was just speaking about strategic planning a
few moments before this show and trying to address the same problem.
The question really isn’t so much of how the students are using the
resources. It is more in how are we, as librarians, helping them.
Access to information has always been the case, whether you had to go
to the monastery and get it through the dusty tomes, whether you went
to the reference librarian who would turn to their reference
collection, or find your way going through the stacks. People, now, are
still doing that same investigative process. They are just doing it
Where are they finding the shepherds to help them get to
the right information that they need? More and more, we see this
happening online. Students today will change their research topics
based on the availability of online resources. It calls into question a
lot of our traditional thinking about libraries.
As we move from
a place of study to a place of community and collaboration, what sort
of assumptions do the libraries need to do to be ready for that, to
bring those students in?
Chip: When I think of a
library then, I should discard the notion of my youth of stacks and
stacks of simply books, but really think of it more in broad research
terms and all of the resources that are available.
I think that is quite appropriate. In fact, many libraries are facing
the same problems all over the world. We have space constraints, so we
are not able to contain all of the volumes of print that we once had.
We have funding constraints, so we need to figure out how to change our
practices to be able to buy more electronic materials that more people
are demanding online. And we need to change where we are connecting
with our user. An easy way to think of it is we need to change our
process to be more efficient to save more money so we can buy more
stuff. That is a very simple strategy, but it is very hard to execute
Chip: How are the perceptions of students today different then they were when you got started in your career?
I think that actually they haven’t really changed that much. They are
still pretty much focused on – is this going to be on the test? What do
I need to do to get the paper written? How do I go find the right
information? It is all in the manner and facility by which they do
that. Information literacy and information fluency of the students have
changed to a degree, but they have always been at the cutting edge in
where is the line of engagement? Is it inside the library? Or is it out
in the dorms? Or is it out on the networks?
I told a group of
freshman, last fall, that I actually didn’t want them to come into the
library. They didn’t need to come into the library. Wherever they had
network, they could reach library resources.
Then I asked the
group, “How many of you are in triples?” You know, three students to
one dorm room. A large number of them raised their hands. I said,
“Well, you folks may find out that you want to come into the library
because you need a place to be.”
Chip: You know, one
of the things that I think probably a lot of people struggle with is
actually something that again, that we didn’t experience 20 years ago,
and that is, there is much easier access to more information. One of
the challenges that strikes me today is trying to sort through the vast
volume of information that you can get because it is no longer just in
the library stacks and a few databases. You really do have access to a
lot more primary sources through the use of the Internet and that sort
How does the library environment help to separate the
signal from the noise, if you will, to try to sort through this data
and really produce the most valuable information for the student?
Authenticity is the key. I think that is really the main question of
value for libraries today. Everything we do comes down to the essential
element of trust. I think that trust is our most important asset. If
you are going online and you are looking at a blog post about a
celebrity who has just done some shenanigans, how do you know if that
is true or not? If you are looking at medical research that has
ground-breaking implications for the treatment of cancer, you would
want to make sure your sources are trustworthy and accountable and
Those are two very wide extremes, in terms of
information access, but it happens every day. The library, particularly
the university library, traffics in that trust every day. You can come
and engage with a human being, online or in person.
that we have been putting a lot of our professional effort towards
evaluating resources and providing those that we believe are the most
important, the most effective and the most useful to the educational
enterprise. My job, as university librarian helping the library change
in this changing world of technology, is that focus on trust.
You mentioned evaluating resources and also trust and authenticity.
What is your opinion of Wikipedia? Obviously, it is something that has
generated a fair bit of controversy as far as what role it should play
in academic research. Where do you come down on that?
I think Wikipedia is a fantastic example of human organization. If you
look at Wikipedia, that, in a way, is exactly how I would like my
organization to function. I want to provide an environment that allows
for total freedom of expression but also requires that absolute
engagement with responsibility. There is no free pass. You have to come
to Wikipedia with an active, engaged mind, questioning what is the
value proposition of this statement? How deep are the links? How full
is the picture?
The fuller the Wikipedia entry may not mean that
it is that is the best Wikipedia entry. But, when you have a student
who is online in their course and they are monitoring a collaborative
Wikipedia entry from Portugal, what does that mean in terms of the
So, I have no issues with Wikipedia. Also,
if you’ve looked at the news, Wikipedia just did an amazing job of
fundraising. Again, they are doing something correct. We should be as
successful in libraries. It is not Wikipedia that is the problem. It is
the notion of what information responsibility means to the user.
Chip: It’s not the tool, it is how you use it, essentially?
Bill: Exactly. That’s my view.
As I recall, back when I was in school, most professors, teachers, et
cetera, weren’t real wild about you citing encyclopedias, either. They
really wanted you to go back as close to the primary source, if not the
primary source, as you could. Right? So, things really haven’t changed
in that regard.
Bill: I agree completely with that. In
fact, we’ve been able to improve the research process, because people
have much quicker access to those initial pathways, to ideas. I can go
to Wikipedia and get a general sense of an idea or issue and get some
really accessible ideas that I want to look into that drive me to, “OK,
how do I find out more?” That is really the case. How do I find more in
what we are doing and where do I get the support to do that? That is
where you move from the online world of the Internet and Google and
simplicity of access to – all right, let’s go deep. Where are my guides
to go deep?
Chip: What is the role of other Internet
tools in going deep, in getting that additional information? I know
that you are involved, for example, with Twitter. Is there a role for
Twitter in research? Is there a role for other social tools like that,
say LinkedIn or Facebook or those sorts of things?
Yeah. I think it is a come one, come all, type of environment because
what works will rise to the top, and what doesn’t will fall away. We
don’t have time to be all-inclusive. In a way, you get a lot of signal,
but if you keep at it long enough, the purity of the signal will come
through. Twitter is a good example. I still haven’t quite figured out
whether it is a very useful tool, but I find that it does provide me
with insight into some things that I never would know if I weren’t
using it. It’s up to me to orient myself to the amazing amount of
information that comes across.
I haven’t inflicted Twitter on
all my staff. I am looking at a different application called Yammer to
do that. But I have a very active Facebook page. But, even that, is not
necessarily providing a regimented stream of information.
to think of the information tools that are out on the Internet as more
of a very active and moving quilt, and I use what works. I actively
engage with what works. If it doesn’t work for me, I don’t use it. But,
I have to keep trying.
It’s that level of experimentation and
risk-taking that I think our students have a very high level of comfort
with. Older generations might be less so, and there is the digital
native divide right there.
Chip: What drew you to the
university library environment? Obviously, you’ve made quite a career
of it. What is it that spurred you to say this is how I want to
dedicate my life?
Bill: That is a longer question to
answer than we have here. Let me give you a quick snapshot of it. I
grew up in an academic family. My father is a materials scientist, and
my mother has been a lifelong K-12 educator. I grew up, essentially, on
the campus of Caltech, back in the ’60s and ’70s, before there were
mental health services for students. Caltech being quite the pressure
cooker, my father, who cared deeply for students, would have students
in our house all of the time.
It was not uncommon to have 20
students over for dinner every other day. Or on a Wednesday morning,
come down for breakfast and find a group of students who’d been up all
night studying and my father had them come over so they could have
breakfast with me or things like that.
The academic community
has always been a part of my life. I think that, through everything
I’ve done, had some profound importance to how it’s taught me
It’s taught me the impact of thinking on the world
and the impact of thinking on the human element. It’s given me a sense
of service and a way to be able to contribute meaningfully. Libraries
are a place where not any one thought matters. It is the multitude of
thought that’s important.
Being a part of a library means that
I’m part of everything. I get to support the school of public affairs
here at AU, one of our best schools. I get to support the school of
international service. I get to support the college of arts and
sciences. I get to support the athletic department.
from my perspective, are really exciting, because you get to see it all
and have a chance to have some role in everything that is going on. How
incredibly vibrant! How incredibly lucky to be able to be part of that.
Chip: As a young person, it must have been quite an
experience to have that much interaction with probably very bright
college students in that sort of informal setting but still talking
about academic issues.
Bill: Absolutely. I can
honestly say it fundamentally changed my life and made me the person I
am. When I was eight years old, I was skateboarding up and down the
hallways of my fathers’ laboratory at Steele Avenue over at Caltech and
experimenting with liquid nitrogen. A great trick was pouring it under
the closed office doors of people. Nothing that would be dangerous but
a lot of fun.
It really brought me involved with people in a
different way of thinking. My best friends were graduate students 15
years my age. It really, I think, sensitized me to the need to be open.
had a Facebook post the other day. I was at a learning conference here
at AU, and our speaker was Ken Bain, who was talking about what college
professors do best or what the best college professors do. He used the
term “expectation failure” as being a condition for true learning.
I’m not sure that I necessarily agree with it, but what I can tell you
from my own experience is that I very much believe in open
expectations. I don’t want to ascribe value. I want to be open, so I
can be as fully on and receiving as possible. I think that is what my
academic upbringing has brought me.
Chip: As I was
getting ready for this interview, and I’ve gotten to know you a little
bit over the last year or so through my involvement with American
University from an alumni perspective, but I looked at your bio, and I
noticed a couple of things in there that I didn’t know about you. I
noted that you had worked in vineyard management and cattle ranching at
Chip: Tell me
about that. Those are not exactly the sort of things that you picture a
university librarian doing, particularly the cattle ranching.
[laughs]. Well, I was just visiting one of my brothers who lives in
northern Colorado over the holiday break. And, in fact, I had to end a
conference call with the provost, because we were off to feed some
cattle. I really think I’d go back to my father, who brought us up the
expectation of engagement in all types of different activities. I grew
up in California, and we went to Colorado. And, back in the ’60s, we
got involved in the valley north of Steamboat and started doing things,
like my brothers would build a barn for one rancher.
One of my
brothers stayed in the valley and got very involved in horseshoeing. He
got to know all of the cattle ranches and the dude ranches. I spent
summers working in a couple of guest ranches and doing work for the
cattle ranches there, too. It was really just looking for work and
doing different things.
In the early ’80s, I ended up working
for a vineyard in upstate New York for my father. Even though he is a
scientist, he was interested – as many scientists are – in good wine.
So, that was really another experience that I was able to make use of,
just by proximity.
I think the issue isn’t so much having a plan
that I followed step by step, but being open to the experience. That
has made me, I think, a better librarian today.
You know, I
would encourage any information professional or person who wants to be
an information professional, to consider that everything they do in
their life can contribute to that profession. They shouldn’t rule out
Chip: Yeah. It makes sense. You are part of a learning community. It would be natural to learn different things.
Right. As an example, when I was managing the vineyard, my crew was a
group of middle-aged farmers’ wives. They were the ones who were
available to work. Their husbands were out running their farms and
vineyards. So here I was, a 21 year old kid running a crew of people
who, at the time, were old enough to be my mother and, in some cases,
my grandmother. We had a miserable time getting along in the beginning,
because they weren’t going to listen to some snot-nosed little
I finally figured out that the way we could work
better together was for me to find out what they could do to help me.
So I came in one morning, and I said, “Ladies, I’ve got to cook dinner
tonight to impress a young lady that I want to be with. Can you help
Cooking was a topic that they thought, well, we could spend
all day on, out pruning the vineyards. So, that established our rapport
for the next two years. Every day started up with a discussion of how
did dinner go last night. We’d get through the day and, towards the
end, someone would start off, “So, who’s cooking tonight?” It was
making that connection.
Chip: That is great.
That is really what it is about, regardless of where you are working,
is making that connection and find how you can be valuable to the other
Chip: Yeah. What is the biggest change that
you have seen in the university library environment since you got
started back at MIT a few years ago, shall we say?
The proliferation of technology, I think is the biggest change. I was
at MIT when the first web page was actually launched. Cell phones
didn’t even exist. Or, they were very, very high-end, expensive
satellite phones that no one ever saw, except for the defense guys.
Just the total ubiquity of access is the biggest change. We have people
now who have moved entirely away from the large screen experience to
the small screen – the little hand-held mobile.
I think that has
changed the boundaries of learning so dramatically that we would never
have even imagined it. That has really changed the notion of how print,
in many cases, weighs us down and holds us back. I think that is the
best thing I’ve seen.
Chip: If you reach out onto your shelf there, in your office, and you take down the crystal ball
put it in front of you, as I’m sure you are asked to do from time to
time in various strategic planning-type meetings, where is the
university library environment headed, over the next five or ten years?
I imagine technology will only continue to increase. But do you see
specific trends that will change how things work?
Yes. I think, actually, the new term for the university library that
I’d like to start fomenting out there in the world is the term
“collab-atory.” We are no longer going to be a warehouse of materials
that you can come in and find out one piece of information. We are
going to be a totally open and engaged environment for collaboration.
Students are going to gather because that is where the action is. But
there won’t be any stacks. They will actually be group study. There
will be environments that enable students to connect, whether they are
in the library or in the dorms.
The notion of stacks will sort
of go away, and instead, we will be dealing with creation, knowledge
creation and knowledge dissemination. That is what it is really going
to be about.
The next ten years, since we still have the
physical constraints of concrete to deal with, is all about how do we
transform our physical space to provide that wonderfully dynamic
Chip: How is the role of the
university transforming – if it is – as far as how it serves
undergraduates versus graduates versus the faculty? You have so many
different constituencies as a librarian. Have you seen changes over
time as to who you are servicing more or how you service them, that
sort of thing?
Bill: Well, not really so much. There
is still… I think the lines are blurring a little bit with the
undergraduates in that they are doing more and more higher levels of
research. The undergraduates at AU, at least, are some of the most
dynamic and engaged young people that I have ever had the pleasure of
dealing with. It’s funny. I’ve never really thought of myself using the
term “young people” before, but I guess I have to recognize that.
Chip: [laughs] I feel your pain on that point.
[laughs] Graduates are becoming all the more focused. But they are also
an ever-widening cadre of users. I was talking with a 70-year-old grad
student the other day, so learning is truly lifelong in that regard. I
think that more what’s changing isn’t so much the users as how we
approach the users from the library. I think that we are really getting
comfortable, now, with the notion of not requiring people to come to us.
want to be where the action is, so the library and the librarians need
to be out there, where the students are engaging with the faculty,
where faculty is doing their work in the classroom.
the ’90s were all about the notion that you were giving to libraries
that might not have books. I think the 2000s furthered that. Looking
ahead, we may be in a case where we will be having libraries without
librarians because they are actually out in the classroom or they are
in the faculty departments.
Chip: It’s no longer the
image of the massive, monolithic library building where everything
takes place. It’s really across the campus and perhaps even in the
dorms and apartments and wherever it is that the students may be, at
any given time – the coffee shop even, potentially.
Bill: Exactly. That is it. The academic library of the future is everywhere you want to be.
You know, it sounds like I wish that existed back when I was a student.
The library was always the boring place to be. But it sounds like you
are going to turn it into the exciting coffee shop that we can all have
fun at. [laughter]
Bill: Well, good feeling always
breeds good thinking. And we are just one place where learning happens
on campus. Everywhere learning happens, you can bet that there is some
library resource or some information asset that is there with you. You
see? In a number of ways, my goal is to break us free of that physical
constraint of “the library” and actually be everywhere.
I think that good feeling is a perfect note to end on. My guest today
has been Bill Mayer, the university librarian for American University
in Washington, DC. Thanks for joining us.
Bill: Thank you, Chip.