SILS mission: Connecting people to content they seek
Evelyn Daniel started out as a page in the New Rochelle, N.Y., public library and ended up serving as a dean of Carolina’s School of Library Science.
During her tenure as dean from 1985 to 1990, Daniel changed the school’s name to the School of Information and Library Science (SILS) and added a master’s degree in information science.
Thirty years later, Daniel is still here. She recently joined three other deans – current dean Gary Marchionini (who became dean April 1, 2010); Barbara Moran (1990–98); and Joanne Marshall (1999–2004) – in an interview with the Gazette to mark the school’s 80th anniversary and to discuss the school’s leadership role in this ever-changing field.
Information – in whatever form, from whatever source and in whatever setting – always has been and always will be what the field is about, they agreed.
In a sense, they said, the field is a science of service, providing information to people in a way that heightens its value, meaning and enjoyment.
‘Sort of like electricity’
“You could say information is a substance that is central to everything we do and everything we know, and even how we act,” Daniel said. “It is sort of like electricity in some ways. It lights up our minds.”
Marchionini, in his 2010 book “Information Concepts: From Books to Cyberspace Identities,” wrote that information serves to sustain our mental activity just as food and drink sustain our bodies. The major difference, he said, is that people consume information almost continuously and from almost anywhere.
SILS now offers a course called “User Experience Design” that explores the altered state of mind people experience as they consume different kinds of information.
“The course examines what the user experience is when they read a book or when they watch television,” Marchionini said. “What state of mind is produced when they interact with a fairly passive medium like The New York Times, and how is that different when they are in a highly interactive environment like ‘World of Warcraft,’ a highly popular multiplayer, online role-playing game?
“We are now part of an information flow that is complex and extremely fast and persistent,” Marchionini said. “As the professionals who understand that whole process, we need to be engaged in all those levels.”
Library and information professionals increasingly will think about how people experience information, he added.
“Our task, both now and in the future, is how to help people find and manage those experiences,” Marchionini said. “We want those experiences to be pleasant, of course, but the biggest challenge is to figure out how to make them more meaningful and useful.”
Moran said at one time information always had only physical form – as book, magazine or newspaper – and libraries were warehouses of those objects. But not any more.
“The major difference between the SILS of today and the school as it was in ’31 is more about form than substance,” Moran said. “When you look at the task of librarians 80 years ago, they were in the business of acquiring and containing materials – the finite amount of things they could buy with a limited amount of money to put on a fixed number of shelves.
“Well, we do not have containers anymore, which means we are not as limited to what information we can make available to people as we once were. Some of the information we share will be information we own, but much of it will be available on data-bases in the Ethernet.”
As a result, there has been a dramatic shift of focus away from organizing the materials in a physical library to thinking in a more holistic way about the information and how to put more of it within users’ reach, she said.
Another mounting challenge is managing the sheer volume of information that is available.
Marshall, who worked in health sciences libraries for 16 years before completing her Ph.D. in public health at the University of Toronto, said she has always been fascinated by the impact that the right information at the right time can make in people’s personal and professional lives.
“Whereas the problem used to be finding and accessing scarce information resources, we face a very different challenge today – information overload,” Marshall said. “Today’s library and information professional faces an equally daunting problem of filtering the vast amounts of information and creating collections and services that meet specific needs in the most effective ways.”
The range of professional opportunities available to SILS graduates has continually expanded as well, Marshall added.
When she was dean, Marshall focused on building partnerships with other programs on campus and increasing the visibility of the school at the campus, state, national and international levels.
Today, SILS has dual master’s programs with departments and schools ranging from art history to public health and the School of Government. SILS is now taking the lead on a new interdisciplinary clinical information management certificate.
“Many of our graduates still go to work in academic, public and special libraries in both nonprofit and for-profit sectors, but increasingly they are finding themselves in charge of building digital collections and services,” Marshall said.
“While more technical skills are required, our mission remains the same – to bring people together with the content they need to enrich their day-to-day work and personal lives.”
The school, which has maintained a No. 1 ranking by U.S. News & World Report since 1999, is celebrating its 80th anniversary. That ranking, Marchionini said, rests on the foundational values on which the school was built.
The core value has always been service, but thanks to ubiquitous search engines like Google, he said, the nature of service already has changed.
“We want people in the profession who are well-rounded, intelligent and care about people, just as we always have, but the reference function that existed in 1931 has become much more complex,” Marchionini said.
“Today, people don’t come to us with the simple questions. If they have a simple question, they just go to Google. What they are bringing to the reference desk are much more complex questions that involve deeper interpretation or whose answers are more obscure. That is what makes what we do a profession rather than a clerkship.”
Moran said the profession also rests on the values of equality and access to information. In the past 80 years, the school has continually extended its reach from the South to the world.
Moran’s reach includes the association she began with Charles University in Prague shortly after Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Revolution” of 1989. More recently, she has worked with universities in Morocco and Egypt to help them establish library science education.
Daniel said the one constant in all the years she has taught in the field is the responsibility to decide what to collect based on the needs and interests of the population being served.
That is as true in Cairo as it is in Carrboro, she said.
“How to pick what materials to provide is always the question,” Daniel said. “In this age of information overload, the choices have become almost infinite, but the process of selection still begins and ends with knowing the needs of the people you are serving.”
Eighty years from now, she predicts, that will still be the case.
For information about 80th anniversary events, see sils.unc.edu/news/2011/80th-anniversary-kick-off.