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In this era of Google, Wi-Fi, and instant everything, libraries stuffed with books and journals seem almost quaint. To remain relevant, top libraries have changed with the times—something Rush Miller, Pitt’s director of the University Library System, knows well. Every day, he’s creating the library of the future..

Library of the Future

Cindy Gill

Rush Miller with digital scanners at the Thomas Boulevard Library Resource Facility (Ric Evans photo)

In the late 1830s, a Pennsylvania lawyer and amateur historian named William McCullough Darlington (1815-1889) began collecting materials from colonial America and its Western frontier. Guided by his personal interests and curiosity, Darlington patiently gathered descriptive records of early American life. He acquired hand-drawn frontier maps, the journals of pioneer traders, newspapers and periodicals, political pamphlets, sermons, business ledgers, and Native Indian accounts. He even obtained private letters written by the nation’s first president, George Washington, dating to his days as a surveyor in the mid-1700s. He was joined in this pursuit by his wife, Mary Carson Darlington, and later their children.

Beyond a distinctive collection of Americana, the black walnut bookshelves of the family’s study held first editions of favorite novels, old world atlases, biographies, travel stories, and assorted Victorian literature. At the time, it was believed to be the largest private library west of the Alleghenies. Now it’s part of Pitt’s University Library System (ULS).

The entire contents of the Darlingtons’ original library is tucked into several period-style rooms on the Cathedral of Learning’s sixth floor. The Darlington Memorial Library contains some paintings and furniture from the home, including the bookshelves. The library was created through the generosity of the family’s two daughters, Mary O’Hara Darlington and Edith Darlington Ammon, who donated the contents—in 1918 and the remainder in 1925—in memory of their parents.

What’s more unusual, though, is that this rare Pittsburgh library—with materials spanning three centuries—is part of a leap into the future by Pitt’s ULS.

ULS intends to place the entire Darlington Library collection online, available to anyone with access to the World Wide Web: 11,000 volumes, newspapers, maps, journals, letters—everything. Already, Web visitors can take a virtual tour of several rooms and browse the library’s George Washington Manuscripts Digital Collection.

The Darlington project is just one of many transformations under way. “The last 10 years have brought radical changes. The library system is dramatically different than when I arrived in 1994,” says Rush Miller, director of ULS.

Most of the future-driven strategies stem from Miller’s focus on anticipating the evolving needs of library users. A Medieval historian like Miller may seem an unlikely candidate for the role of entrepreneurial futurist. But he has proven to be adept at culling lessons about innovation from trends in business, information technology, and other fields. Along with his master’s degree and doctorate in history from Mississippi State University, he has a graduate degree in library science from Florida State University and spent eight years as a professor and dean of libraries and learning resources at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University. Before that, he taught history and library science and directed library services at universities in Texas and his native Mississippi.

When he arrived at Pitt, ULS had a national reputation for its cataloging expertise. But the status quo didn’t interest Miller—he wanted to know what library users were doing and thinking.

He began to incorporate user surveys, focus groups, and other tools from industry’s then-popular Total Quality Management movement, where the emphasis is on customer satisfaction and consistent quality. He worked with staff and various campus representatives to develop a multiyear strategic plan. As part of that plan, Pitt became the first research library in the nation to outsource the cataloging function, using off-campus business vendors to manage, label, and inventory library material.

“We began to adapt modern business principles,” he says. “When you do that, customer quality is more important than other things. We redefined the word ‘quality.’ It no longer meant perfect cataloging.”

Essentially, he began to reshape library services and functions around the way people work, study, teach, and live—saving $1 million in the process by shifting money out of cataloging and into technology services. This laid the groundwork for future innovation. In the years since, ULS has acquired an arsenal of equipment and expertise to create a library environment built for new-century endeavors. This new technological backbone gives Pitt the capability to digitize an abundant library using only in-house resources. And that’s exactly what’s happening.

Several years ago, ULS launched its Digital Research Library initiative, which converts traditional print materials into digital formats that can be used—anywhere with Internet access—to enrich course studies, teaching, and research. Already, the ULS has created a number of online digital collections. The largest, Historic Pittsburgh, includes the contents of roughly 600 books, holds more than 1,000 original maps from the city’s past, and offers 10,000 photo images from about 40 different collections. The site attracts more than 5,000 digital visitors a month at computers in more than 100 countries. “I think we have the world’s most thorough project related to the history of a city,” reflects Miller, who is also the Hillman University Librarian and a professor of library science in the School of Information Sciences.

Other digital image and text collections include the Chartres Cathedral site, containing several thousand architectural photographs, each with a detailed description, of France’s historic Medieval structure; the Dick Thornburgh Papers, reflecting the decision-making process at the top levels of government; and the Parallax Project, a 10-volume set of data and reports about astronomical observations from the Allegheny Observatory of the University of Pittsburgh. ULS also is a partner in producing online digital archives, with thousands of published papers and documents clustered around specific topics, such as European integration, minority health, and more. All of these online collections—along with others—support classroom learning, individual study, and worldwide research and scholarship.

ULS is breaking new ground, too, with its Digital Publishing Program. Miller, who oversaw university press operations at Bowling Green, believes a primary role of academic libraries in the future will be as digital publishers. “When you digitize a book that is 150 years old, it is the same work, but it is also fundamentally different,” he says. “It becomes searchable. It becomes almost a database. You can bore into digital text in a way you can’t with print. It really amounts to republishing the work, and the library owns the intellectual property rights to that digital product.”

He’s in discussion with Pitt’s University Press about a possible e-publishing venture involving some of the press’s previously published Latin American series. He also encourages faculty editors of academic journals to publish exclusively online, in partnership with ULS. There’s high incentive to go digital—no paper costs, no printing costs, no mailing costs, yet the capacity for worldwide readership.

Miller admits that all of this transition in the library system hasn’t always been easy. “I am not averse to risk,” he says. “If you are always going to play it safe and not make mistakes, you also won’t have many accomplishments.”

He knows quite a lot about risk. He’s the son of a Methodist minister, Rush Glenn Miller, who was an outspoken advocate for social justice during the Civil Rights era in the family’s Mississippi hometown. The younger Miller saw firsthand his father’s commitment to a larger cause, despite threats and attacks on his church by the Ku Klux Klan and segregationists. Reverend Miller stood his ground, and his son learned a powerful lesson about the tides of history and the courage of conviction.

Now, he uses his perspective on history—gained from life and his studies—to help guide his instincts about what may be on the horizon. “Usually, history is not made by individual people, but by movements—the Industrial Revolution, for instance, or social movements like Women’s Rights. If you can understand the movements that are part of your generation, you can better understand the future. I look to the past and to the present and ask, ‘what is the trend?’”

Right now, Pitt’s library system is at the forefront of a growing trend in exclusively digital publishing—the born-electronic movement, which involves creating repositories of digital-only, never-before-published content. Miller worked with faculty in Pitt’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science—ranked in the top five worldwide—to establish the PhilSci Archive, a global repository for emerging thinking in this exclusive field. Philosopher-scholars post their research findings here before the work appears in print, spurring new work and advancing novel theories. “It is safe to say,” says Miller, “that we are one of the leading libraries in terms of creating content on the Web.”

He’s convinced that, where libraries and lifestyles converge, the movement is relentlessly toward full-blown digital content in a global environment. “There is no way to stop it,” he says. “Ultimately, we will be buying our books the way kids are now buying their music. People will be carrying a working library in their pockets.”

The ULS participates in the international Open Access Movement, which advocates widespread availability of free and open digital content. “The more information that is available, that is thrown out there on the Web in open access, the better we all are,” says Miller. He emphasizes, though, that the library system’s mission is to serve the needs of the University of Pittsburgh first and foremost. “We want our technology developments to coincide with partnerships here involving faculty, departments, programs, and professional groups.”

In fact, it’s this combination of a partnering spirit, full-scale digital access, and Miller’s eye toward the future that brought about one of the library’s biggest successes during the past 10 years—the China Gateway Project. In 1998, ULS set up an online system that allows scholars at Pitt and elsewhere to retrieve the contents of research articles and other documents from Chinese libraries. The requests are fielded by staff in Pitt’s East Asian Library who work with staff at more than 10 libraries in China to transmit digital copies via the Internet to requesters. The system “opens” more than 10,000 Chinese academic journals to U.S. researchers. Likewise, a reciprocal system is in place to give Chinese scholars access to American journals and scholarly output. When the Gateway Project was launched, Miller described it in The Chronicle of Higher Education as “a first step toward a global virtual library, a longtime dream of research libraries everywhere.” Since then, the China Gateway Project has become a model nationally, leading to a vibrant exchange program, where Pitt and Chinese library staff also travel between the two countries to share expertise and training.

Other innovations have resulted from Miller’s ongoing “culture of assessment.” One example is the patented search engine called Zoom—with a single mouse click, Zoom searches all 400 databases in the library’s system. And Pitt faculty, staff, and students have complete access to all library materials through a Virtual Private Network via the Internet. The library system’s vast repositories of licensed materials—including tens of thousands of periodicals—are part of this online package.

Meanwhile, unprecedented digital access has decreased the use of traditional materials and redirected even more resources to the library’s 21st-century evolution. When Miller first arrived on campus, he proposed the development of an offsite facility for high-density storage of less-used volumes and traditional archival materials. Today, the Thomas Boulevard Library Resource Facility—a completely refurbished warehouse site located several miles from the Oakland campus—holds roughly a quarter of the library’s nearly five million volumes. The move, says Miller, likely saved the University $100 million in construction costs, and the facility also contains state-of-the-art space for technical services, the preservation department, digital information systems, and the archives service center. In fact, all of the University’s 20 libraries—including the four regional campuses—now share resources and expertise.

These kinds of efficiencies have made it possible to increase services, too, such as offering wireless laptop computers to students in Hillman, taking librarians with laptops beyond the walls of the library to students studying in the Commons Room and Posvar Hall, and providing a professionally staffed Ask-A-Librarian service.

Miller believes that libraries must evolve in step with people’s lives. As usual, he is thinking ahead. He sees librarians and information specialists becoming even more directly involved in undergraduate learning. ULS is working with campus partners to incorporate information-literacy content into classroom learning. While today’s students may be routinely familiar with sites like Google, Yahoo, iTunes, and YouTube, they usually aren’t well versed in retrieving the kind of information useful for class and research projects. Says Miller: “They need to understand how to structure information so that they get back an efficient, relevant result and not 50,000 Web pages on a subject.” He also predicts that distance learning will become a dominant form of education, eventually fulfilling its long-touted potential.

In The History of the Darlington Library, published in 1938 and written by Agnes Starrett Lynch, then director of Pitt’s University Press, the author mused about the library’s future: “A student at the University of Pittsburgh may one day hold ... an ancient map, a faded manuscript, a pamphlet yellow with years, and read a truth our eyes are too blind to recognize. Out of a library of great deeds and hopes can come a greater poetry or philosophy by which to realize more capacious living.”

Today’s students may no longer need to hold the maps, manuscripts, and pamphlets in their hands—increasingly, they have unprecedented online access to these materials and much more. Yet, the library’s purpose really hasn’t changed.

“We have to realize,” says Miller, “that it was never about books. It’s about people—connecting people to the information they need to learn, to do research, and to grow. That is why we are in business.”

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