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
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
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
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
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Deans Barbara Moran, Evelyn Daniel, Gary Marchionini
and Joanne Marshall pose outside Manning Hall.
‘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.
Above, SILS deans meet at the Carolina
Inn during the 1950s while Lucile Kelling Henderson, left, is dean
(1954–60). She is joined by Louis Round Wilson, SILS founder and director
(1931–32), and Susan Grey Akers (1932–54).
Below, students play in the stacks at Wilson Library in the
mid-20th century. Photos courtesy of the North Carolina Collection.
“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
“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
“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
“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
The core value has always been service, but thanks to
ubiquitous search engines like Google, he said, the nature of service already
“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
For information about 80th anniversary events, see