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

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'".

Managing resources

Paula has the hard as well as the soft management skills, and possesses a keen eye for the finances, helped no doubt by being an economics major and having an MBA, as well as a lot of experience in managing a large and complex organization. Finance is one of the major challenges of her role, both in terms of raising money and having her budget cut back.

Like all universities in the USA (and most of the rest of the world), the University of Illinois is living through challenging times. But in the US, state funding to universities has decreased, declining in Illinois itself from nearly half in 1980 to less than 17 per cent in 2008.


As part of a university-wide fundraising campaign, the Library has now raised US$36 million since 2005, supported by a development team of seven, four of whom are development professionals. They have met their original goal, and they've now raised it to 50 million.

"People will give money when they have confidence that it's going to be well used, and so, especially for larger donors, establishing their confidence is very important.

"I have a couple who had enough confidence to give us a million-and-a-half dollars five years ago to endow the person who looks after our rare book library. Just last year they've given us five million dollars to endow my position, and that's because they've come to know me and trust me and thought it was a good investment."

Using the money effectively

Another priority is ensuring that the money is used in the most effective way, by concentrating on those areas of greatest need which will yield the greatest return, and finding savings elsewhere.

One of the ways of doing this is by looking at the departmental structure of libraries – "I've got all these departmental libraries, which is really good, but the mechanisms are really old fashioned" – and trying to find cost saving ways of doing things.

It's a matter of looking at where there is slack, and at opportunities for consolidating libraries whereby, "we are able to offer more consolidated services which are better integrated within academic programmes".

Yet it can sometimes be difficult when these libraries are seen as "of iconic value", as in the case of The Institute of Labor and Employment Relations, or the Women and Gender Resources Library. In the former case, she pointed out to the dean that the Library was under-used, but he was reluctant to close it because there were only three such institutes in the USA.

Yet within three weeks, he was back in her office, agreeing that the space could be used for "something more important", such as a doctoral seminar room, and rooms recruiters can use to interview students for jobs. And the Library worked quickly, not only to vacate the space, but also to create an excellent virtual library,, which retains the iconic value of the original.

She also closed the Women and Gender Resources Library – again of iconic value and something that 30 years ago, people had fought to get. Although the existing librarian had pointed out that "nobody ever comes here", there was outrage from some quarters at its closure.

To which Paula pointed out that there was no longer any need for a separate women's studies library, and that "we can serve students better out of a library that's open longer hours". The librarian is retained full time on women and gender resources, but works in the larger and busier education and social science library, as well as the women's studies centre "so she's right there where the students and faculty are". Again a virtual library is in place, available on

Finally, at the time of writing, the Library and Information Science (LIS) Library is due to close as of May 15th 2009, being replaced by an enhanced subject portal, and with stock and staff being redeployed. The LIS librarian will be situated in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) building.

Paula manages such situations by negotiation and consultation. She invites ideas from library staff about "things that we could do better", and holds "town hall" type meetings to consult with faculty over proposals. She works by helping people think differently about situations, and about what they could get rather than what they are giving up.

"It's really important to compromise, it's not an ‘us against them' or a black and white situation."

Assessing value

In the current financial climate, all parts of an institution must demonstrate their ongoing value, and the Library can no longer rely purely on being the bait to lure scholars to the Midwest.

Paula has therefore been anxious to develop hard measures which show in quantitative terms the value that the Library adds. This she has done by using a groundbreaking return on investment formula that establishes a link between the availability of library resources and grant funding.

This is a model that can be applied to institutions around the world, with the proviso that the funding system is not the same in different countries, for example, in the UK it is based partly on attracting students as well as grants.

The Illinois team made the following assumption: that the availability of digital resources led to increased productivity among researchers, which resulted in more grant applications, scholarly output and citations – and more grant money coming into the University. The end result is a virtuous cycle – a more attractive environment, more researchers, and greater scholarly output and grant income.

The hypothesis was tested with an online questionnaire to more than 2000 members of Illinois faculty in September 2007. The questionnaire confirmed the hypothesis and revealed perceptions that digital access made people more productive, due to the convenience of any-place-access to resources, the ability to integrate scholarly information into their workflow effectively, and discovery tools that allowed for better use of literature in interdisciplinary and emerging areas.

It also established that 78.14 per cent of faculty had used citations from the Library in their proposals, and that 50.79 per cent of grants awarded came from proposals from library-accessed citations.

Using a formula based on these figures, it was calculated that the average amount of grant income generated by the Library was just over $25,000 out of $63,923. This proportion was totalled over the number of grants received during the year, and compared with the Library budget. The result showed that for every dollar invested in the Library, there was a return of $4.38. (Kaufman, 2008b).

Special collections

Like all major libraries, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has its own holdings of rare and distinguished special collections, particularly of rare books and manuscripts. Paula talks enthusiastically about the range of these collections, which is "absolutely fabulous …one of the largest in the country".

For example, the Milton collection holds Milton's personal library, more than 100 seventeenth-century editions of Milton, more than 3,000 volumes of later editions and works of criticism, as well as other seventeenth-century works on English history, literature, and religion.

There is also the H.G. Wells collection, with correspondence, editions of his work, and manuscripts which show its evolution, as well as an outstanding collection of emblem books and incunabula.


Some of these collections are being digitized, through such initiatives as the Open Content Alliance, which has already digitized about 10,000 books. And through the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), their consortium of leading research libraries in the Midwest, they are involved with the Google book project to digitize ten million volumes. Both will have page turning capabilities, and CIC's collection will also have help for people with visual impairment.

They have also helped develop the HathiTrust, a shared digital repository which will help aggregate all these digital collections, as well as those of other research libraries. This will ensure their long life and make them accessible to anyone who wants to see them.

There is also a very interesting project underway to produce a digital surrogate of one-off publications, or publications where there's only one known copy left. Called Project Unica, more information can be found at They may be joined by other institutions like the University of Toronto and Michigan State University, and the hope is to make this a worldwide project, so there is a complete online collection of such publications.

Computer games

But perhaps the most unusual of the special collections is that of computer games. Faculty is keen to have these available to support its teaching and research, and the collection supports a range of disciplines, such as psychology, speech communications, literature, and computer science, as well as research into such topics as gender in games, music in games, game world structure, and social interactions.

Paula believes that they are also important long term:

"this is the popular culture of today, and people who study popular culture are going to have to experience what these games are like".

The future of libraries

What will academic libraries look like in the future? They'll be more diverse, and make better use of space, predicts Paula.

"I made a prediction several years ago that I would still stand by, that we are going to find that academic libraries will look less and less like each other, that we are each going to develop depending on what our institutions are, what kind of resources are available, what kind of consortia we can be involved with."

The settlement of the Google book search project, which will make digital version of copyright books available through an institutional subscription, will also make a difference to the policies of research libraries.

"It makes us really have to sit back and think, those of us who have 11 million volumes, do we need to continue to store all of them? Do I need to store them in prime space in my main library? Can I not put them in storage some place else? Can I not share my copies? How many printed copies does the US need? All these are questions that need to be asked."

It will also change the way publishers operate, particularly the less profitable university presses, which may be inclined to make their product available in digital form and print on demand.

"Place is expensive, and maintaining these things is expensive. So, it raises lots of questions which none of us have answers for yet. But 20 years from now I can imagine the spaces in my main library being used very differently."

It demands considerable skill to be able to manage a large and complex library at any time, let along in a climate of dwindling public funding, and where the very foundations of the academic endeavour are shifting under our feet. While it is difficult to predict the future, there can be little doubt that Paula has ensured that in 20 years' time, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will still have a world-class library.


Kaufman, P. (2008a), "State of the Library 2008", available at [accessed January 26 2009].

Kaufman, P. (2008b), "The library as strategic investment: results of the University of Illinois return on investment study", conference paper given at Online Information 2008, London, UK.