The Stanford Innovation Juggernaut

The libraries at Stanford University have reenvisioned scholarly communications

October 14, 2010

The libraries at Stanford University have been a juggernaut of innovation over the last 20 years. They have reenvisioned scholarly communications with the launch of HighWire Press, initiated digital preservation and archiving tools LOCKSS and CLOCKSS, become a founding member of the open-source course management software Sakai, and developed numerous enhancements to Blacklight, the open-source OPAC. On top of all that, they are also a major contributor to the Google Books project, offering over eight million volumes to be digitized.

Being located in Palo Alto, the birthplace of Google, has undoubtedly impacted the philosophy and philanthropy of the Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources (SULAIR). A key distinction of this paradigm-shifting organization is that it blends traditional library functions with campus-wide academic computing, as well as the University Press.

The leader of this ambitious unit is Michael Keller, a former Army National Guard tank driver and trained musicologist. He insists that SULAIR never set out to be a pioneer. “The big idea isn’t innovation for its own sake, but rather, the question that we ask ourselves everyday is: ‘What opportunities and assets do we have that can make scholarship and learning better?’”

Keller took the helm in 1993, a critical time in Stanford’s history when it was recovering from a damaging earthquake. The campus was eventually rebuilt, and it was from this chaos that SULAIR emerged as a model 21st-century library.

The driving force of Keller’s leadership is stewardship. “Everything we do is for the benefit of the entire institution,” he says. Keller views success as improving the university, not just the libraries. “Everyone feels a great sense of satisfaction when they can see how their effort makes a difference to the students, faculty, and researchers.”

The entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley and the process of “constant reengineering and continuous improvement” have affected operations. Too many committees can kill productivity, so Keller encourages short-term task-oriented groups. “Individual responsibility is critical for getting things done,” he explains. This approach ensures that SULAIR maintains its project-driven start-up mentality.

This year Stanford opened its new Engineering Library, hailed in the press as “bookless” despite having 10,000 print volumes. Keller speculates that in five years it will be truly bookless, and views it as an experimental model.

The idea blossomed for Keller over dinner with the dean of engineering; they envisioned an “Information Collaboratory” where students and faculty no longer relied on print books and journals. Keller’s intention is to have librarians working closely with faculty and researchers in their classrooms and labs.

SULAIR is now focused on the mobile landscape. With alums, they developed the iStanford app, which has served as the prototype for several other libraries. Keller is excited to expand: “We’re planning a whole set of routines where people can request books from our storage facility and have them delivered, as well as better mapping tools to help people navigate the libraries.”

Mobile is also influencing the University Press. With new editions coming out in eBook formats, Keller believes that eventually the press will start publishing books and articles that are “tuned up” for devices like the iPad. “An eTextbook revolution is upon us,” Keller speculates. “This is a chance for a new narrative; reading will no longer just be a ribbon of text, but rather, a ribbon of ideas that include text, media objects, applications, spreadsheets, and other interactive components.”

While SULAIR may be driven by innovation, it is not immune to budget cuts. Last year, faced with a 15% reduction to its general allocation, SULAIR sustained numerous layoffs and vacant positions. Keller remains optimistic. “Regrettably, we lost some good people, but there are no backward glances. Our mindset is focused on the future.”

Brian Mathews is a librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Marketing Today’s Academic Library (ALA Editions, 2009). This column spotlights leadership strategies that produce inspirational libraries.


Libraries Now More Than Ever

Keynote address, “A 21st-Century Vision for Libraries” conference, October 13, Islamabad, Pakistan