Skip to main content

Q&A: ASU's O'Donnell explains new library system

April 23, 2015

Jim O’Donnell is leading ASU’s libraries into a transformative time. He has been called upon by ASU President Michael Crow to advance the university’s complementary goals of learning and discovery by creating a new library for the New American University.

The prestigious scholar and author spoke to ASU News to discuss exactly what the New American University library will look like, the new role of the librarian and what will happen to all of those precious books.

Q: What are the biggest challenges and obstacles a university library faces today?

A: That we work wonders and get taken for granted. We curate the print and digital collections and then hear people say, “Isn’t everything on the Internet now?” It isn’t – we still have the good stuff. Lastly, what we do is much more valuable than ever, but resources are inevitably limited.

Q: What will the New American University library look like?

A: It will assume that all of our users start as online users. That is, they will begin and do much of their library work remotely and we will focus our services on making sure that they – emphatically – get the best service we can deliver.

Q: What will these changes mean in students’ day-to-day lives, and how will it change how they study and do research?

A: They will be incredibly empowered by access to sophisticated, high-quality resources and by our helping them learn to use those resources with the most advanced tools. The focus for all will be on learning and making knowledge, not just having access to packaged representations of knowledge.

Q: Are the books going to go away? What will happen to them?

A: The book is here to stay, but the way we use the book changes and is changing rapidly around us. Our students and our faculty are depending more and more on online resources. When they use the physical materials from the library, they are pre-ordering them. They’re coming in to grab-and-go. Some of that has to do with the fact that we have a tired old building that needs fixing up and could make it a nice place to work, but we’re a faster-paced society and always in a hurry to make things more efficient.

Q: What’s prompting this change?

A: The forcing drive in all of this is that the building is 50 years old and needs help, so we’ve got to do something that pushes decision-making in a way that if this were a big shiny new building that opened 10 years ago, we would probably be thinking in a different way. So this pushes the thinking, even literally, how do we take books out of the building for the duration of renovation, and which ones do we bring back and for what purpose? When we get to the end state where everything is available online if you’re willing to go that way, that would change the dynamics of what you do in the building dramatically.

Q: You’ve spoken in the past about the library becoming a “showroom.” What exactly do you have in mind?

A: Showroom, showplace. There’s a joke I’ve been quoting too often about how Best Buy has become Amazon’s showroom. You go to Best Buy, you shop, you compare prices and then you go home and order from Amazon. The good thing about the library is that we are both Best Buy and Amazon. It’s a showroom, but it’s a showroom for our stuff and we’ve really still got the good stuff.

Q: It would appear that the students will make the transition to this change easily, but what about faculty and staff where technology might not be as second nature to them?

A: This is a good overall principle: Do not underestimate the faculty and staff of this university. I have gone around talking to faculty and staff and asked them how long it’s been since they’ve come in the building to find whatever it is that they need. Very consistently the answer has been “not recently.” Many of them were heavily dependent on journal publishing 20 years ago, which has essentially gone 100 percent online in those fields.

Q: What doesn’t change with the new library?

A: Our commitment to make it as easy as possible for every member of the university to get whatever information they need as easily as possible and make the best use of it they can. We will calibrate their contacts to best effect and embed them as close to their users as we can. It will be the great age of the librarian.

Q: Let’s talk timelines. When will the renovation take place, how long will it take and how much will it cost?

A: The president and provost have made clear that they want to accelerate this as quickly as possible. We had a plan three years ago that talked about tens of millions of dollars; surely that’s what it will take to make Hayden Library a showplace for this campus. I’d love to see that first sledgehammer in the next 12 to 18 months, and I’m working with the assumption that that’s possible. But we live in the real world, so we’ll see what we can do and we’ll try and do it as fast as we can.