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Paula Kaufman – an insight into the world of an academic librarian

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Article Sections

  1. Managing with respect
  2. Managing resources
  3. Special collections
  4. The future of libraries

Photo: Paula Kaufman - copyright Illini Studio 2008.By Margaret Adolphus

Paula Kaufman is university librarian and dean of libraries at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the 3rd largest academic library in the USA, composed of a network of 47 individual libraries.

Any large research institution prioritizes its library, but over a century ago, the University administration calculated that it needed a bait to attract world-class scholars to the corn and soy-bean fields of the American Midwest, and they made that the Library.

Currently the Library's holdings are over 21 million items, which includes over 11 million volumes, over 12 million non-print items and over 90,000 periodicals and journals. There are 400 staff, of whom 100 hold faculty positions, and the budget is over US$35 million.

Paula herself possesses a formidable CV: in her four decades as a librarian, she has managed three large university libraries. She is now in her 10th year in her position at Urbana-Champaign. Previously she was university librarian for the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and acting university librarian (for one year) at Columbia University.

However, there is certainly nothing formidable or unapproachable about her, and the impression you are left with is one of a great people person, able to soothe ruffled feathers and take colleagues with her in the sometimes unpopular choices she has to make in difficult financial circumstances.

Managing with respect

It takes an exceptional manager to handle situations of straightened financial circumstances well. It is therefore much to Paula's credit, that faced with cutbacks she made it sound like an opportunity for her staff.

She sent out an e-mail saying,

"... if you've ever thought about wanting to do something else [in the Library], this is the time to tell me. You can come to me directly, you don't have to talk to your supervisor."

On another occasion, when she saw that a particular specialist library was being little used, and recommended its closure, she talked to the staff member concerned and managed to transfer her to the technical services team. There she feels productive and wanted, and enjoys being part of a bigger team instead of working on her own.

This is an indication of Paula's management style: based on respect for people, and a belief that they will do their best. Equally, she expects her staff to respect one another, and is intolerant of incivility and negativity, which she believes dampens creativity.

Trust is a major value:

"I think that one of the most important things about being a human being is that you are trustworthy, you do what you say you are going to do, that your intentions are good and that you try to follow through on them as much as you can."

She is comfortable with trusting her staff, and is a good delegator.

When asked about the achievements she is most proud of, she talks about the people she has mentored:

"helping people move into positions they want to, enabling them to perform different roles, that's very important to keep our profession fresh".

Standing up to the FBI

Another achievement she mentions is her role in exposing the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) during its library awareness programme in the 1980s. This was intended as a counter-intelligence initiative, trying to seek out people with links to countries hostile to the USA by obtaining evidence of what they read. Known as the "Mosaic Theory", the idea was that people could piece together pits of information found in various articles – all then in print – to uncover scientific or technical secrets that might be prejudicial to US interests.

The FBI targeted libraries in New York City, and Paula was at that time working for Columbia University Library. They tried to intimidate one library staff member and appeal to his sense of patriotism, but they were referred to Paula. The FBI told Paula that they were trying to make people aware of the dangers lurking in the Library, that you could piece together things in the literature that revealed secrets, and that libraries are good places to recruit spies.

Paula responded that people were free to read what they chose, and that this was part of living in a democratic society. She also told them that if they wanted to investigate further, they would have to obtain a court order. She was certainly not prepared to spy on people (including one member of faculty who had been a member of the Carter Administration).

She also reported the matter to the American Library Association, which in turn issued a statement about the programme, urging librarians not to violate the rights of their patrons to read what they wanted. Paula ended up testifying in Congress in 1988, proud, she maintained, "to stand up for our rights to privacy".

Moving in the same direction

This story is an illustration of Paula's integrity, and her belief in the core values of librarianship. Values which also involve excellence of service, even in very changing times. And maintaining that level of excellence, not only in service, but also in the content of the collections, is challenging given the highly complex environment within which a research library must operate in the twenty-first century.

One of Paula's tasks is to lay out a vision for her staff, delivered in her annual State of the Library address. She tries to make sure that they take these challenges on board. The many changes in higher education and society as a whole mean that twentieth-century service models can no longer apply: people research and learn in very different ways.

Because a library cannot continue to operate in the same way, the model of service must change in response to the new requirements of the way people work, research and learn. In Autumn 2007, new service model planning was formally put in place.

This initiative looked to meet the challenge not only of the new environment of higher education, but also of new models of scholarly communication, new mechanisms for licensing and accessing digital content, the changes brought about by the Internet, the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of academic enquiry, and the emergence of the digital natives generation.

In her 2008 State of the Library address, Paula used the metaphor of two pieces of music she had heard played by Nigel Kennedy and the Kroke band on their CD, East Meets East: a lively and rhythmic "Kukush" which fizzles out too soon, and "Eden", a haunting melody which uses both fast and soft tempos. She poses the question:

"Now that we have begun to meet some – and only some – of the challenges of the early twenty-first century do we sputter and stop after achieving only a small piece of what we can become, as does 'Kukush', or do we take the core of the unforgettable services and content we provide and, like 'Eden' create variations and tempos that will allow us to venture into notes we had not played previously? Do we leave a memorable rhythm or a memorable melody? Do we provide common rhythms or that beautiful personal note?" (Kaufman, 2008a).

Paula is a good delegator, and has enough trust in her staff to believe that having laid out the vision, they will get on with the action, and will all move in the right direction with the same broad outcomes. In so doing, she challenges them to think not just of individual excellence, but of the overall picture. The best is the "aggregated best" of everyone working together for a common outcome, and she reminded people that "it's not 'all about me', it's 'all about us'".