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ASU names scholar, innovator O'Donnell as university librarian

James J. O'Donnell, university librarian
October 27, 2014

Libraries have always bridged past and present, preserving and innovating. To lead ASU’s libraries in a transformative time, Arizona State University has today named James J. O’Donnell, former Georgetown provost, classicist and pioneer in emerging digital technologies, to the post of university librarian.

O’Donnell will fill the position vacated by Sherrie Schmidt, who retired as university librarian on June 30, after 20 years of leadership. O’Donnell will also be a professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. His appointment takes effect Feb. 3, 2015.

The digital age has radically altered the world of libraries. O’Donnell has written that the librarian of the future will combine the skills of James Fenimore Cooper’s “pathfinder” with those of a Jedi knight. Under O’Donnell’s leadership, ASU will build collections and manage dynamic spaces, focusing especially on connecting students and scholars with the best information resources in the most effective way.

“Our university librarian is a key to advancing ASU’s complementary goals of learning and discovery,” said Robert E. Page, Jr., university provost. “Our libraries, a critical repository of archival knowledge, are a means through which students learn how they can find information, discern quality sources and engage with information to build new ideas. Dr. O’Donnell will be central in developing our libraries’ services and collections for the rapidly changing world of information.”

ASU’s libraries include Hayden Library, Noble Science and Engineering Library, the Architecture and Environmental Design Library and Music Library on the Tempe campus, the Fletcher Library on West campus, as well as libraries on the Polytechnic and downtown Phoenix campuses – but their digital front door can be found anywhere, 24/7.

“Institutions whose libraries see beyond themselves will be immensely the stronger for it,” O’Donnell said. “We need to cherish, care for and make alive and accessible all that we've inherited, as well as stimulate, animate and support the adventures of students, researchers and faculty working to add to or transcend that inheritance.”

O’Donnell received his bachelor of arts degree at Princeton and doctorate from Yale. He served as provost and professor of classics at Georgetown University for a decade, after a career at Bryn Mawr, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America and served as president of the American Philological Association. He now chairs the board of directors of the American Council of Learned Societies. He was a pioneer in the scholarly study of late antiquity, including “Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace” (1998), “Augustine: A New Biography” (2005), and “The Ruin of the Roman Empire” (2008). His new book, “Pagans,” will be published by HarperCollins in 2015.

O’Donnell has also been engaged in digital innovation for almost 25 years, starting with the establishment of the oldest online open access journal in the humanities, “Bryn Mawr Classical Review.” He taught the first MOOC in 1994, introducing 500 students around the world to the work and thought of St. Augustine. He served from 1996-2002 as the chief information officer of the University of Pennsylvania.

While at Georgetown, O’Donnell led planning for new buildings for the business school and the natural sciences, and advanced faculty excellence while leading establishment of two new campuses: one in Doha in the state of Qatar, the other called "Georgetown Downtown," a new home for Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies for a rapidly growing population of D.C. non-traditional learners. In 2001, O'Donnell led a National Academy expert study about Library of Congress futures, and in 2009 he served on a national committee charged to make recommendations to the House of Representatives Science Committee about expanding public access to federally funded research.

“Jim O'Donnell is both a brilliant scholar and a visionary about the future of information. He knows how to put together leadership teams, even as he thinks creatively about the nature of knowledge for students, researchers and the community,” said George Justice, dean of humanities in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and chair of the search committee. “We are fortunate to have such an exceptional individual, one who understands books, including the old and rare in our special collections, but also the changing nature of information in the present day and in our digital future.”

“The future of libraries is now ours for the making,” agreed O’Donnell. “ASU is a place where exciting futures are made all the time, and I’m delighted to be joining this extraordinary community.”