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Hamilton Alumni Review
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Keller ’67: ‘It’s about the information’

By Donald Challenger

Librarians don’t typically log much time in the media spotlight, but Michael Keller ’67, the university librarian and director of academic information resources at Stanford University, has been the exception recently. When NPR and others reported last summer on Stanford’s new “bookless” library — the school actually had reduced the number of volumes on its engineering shelves by more than 85 percent, allowing it to “get rid of” tens of thousands of volumes — the implication was that Keller had pulled a Dumpster up to the door. Such accounts have fueled a “death of the library” debate that Keller dismisses as wrong-headed, both factually and figuratively.

“When we created the so-called bookless library here, we didn’t discard any books,” he says. “We discarded second copies. We don’t throw things away. We keep those in a storage library.” More importantly, he says, the debate should be “about the information itself, not the technology. If you focus only on the technology, you get all wrapped up in secondary issues.”

That distinction is fundamental to his work at Stanford, where Keller is not only a pioneer in embracing and adapting digital technology for the library — he has been working with computers since the start of his career in the music library at SUNY Buffalo in 1970 — he is also deeply involved in traditional paper-and-ink enterprises such as the acquisition of manuscripts and other archival materials. His interest in making scholarship more accessible has led him to establish and publish Highwire Press, a highly regarded online publishing platform based at Stanford. Additionally, Keller supported the university’s effort to develop LOCKSS (Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe), software that allows libraries to collect and preserve digital materials through what he calls “a multi-genre, multi-format repository.” By creating constantly updated redundant systems, LOCKSS helps libraries to avoid what is sometimes called “the floppy disk problem,” referring to old storage media that become outdated in a few years as formats evolve.

“The career I’ve had results entirely from two experiences” at Hamilton, Keller says. The first was his four years of liberal arts education, where he focused first on biology and then, increasingly, on music. “What that gave me, in addition to the importance of the Honor Code, was the curricular requirements in place then, especially training in writing and speaking.”

The second was orientation in the library, which he recalls as taking at least two hours a day for two weeks. “It was about how to crack the code, how to find material of interest and value to me,” he says. “It taught us how to look for information.” But it did so not by simply offering “a repertoire of responses” to research problems, but by teaching Keller and other novices “how to think about gathering and marshalling information and evidence.”

That remains the critical principle in the evolution toward digital libraries and the training of librarians to operate them. “The purpose is to make the extractions, analysis, presentation and advocacy easier for users,” he says. “I actually think that the skill set we need is not so much technical as attitudinal…. We hire people who have a good attitude toward service.”

Cooperation is crucial on the institutional level as well, but there it’s a trickier proposition. “Most libraries don’t have the apparatus to integrate IT service and library service, says Keller, who has acted as an occasional advisor to Couper Librarian Randy Ericson and Vice President for Information Technology Dave Smallen. “It’s a problem in that you have separate sets of aspirations, and that’s inherently limiting…. Randy and Dave have done a terrific job of working together on that front.” 

Cupola