James O’Donnell is university librarian at Arizona State University (ASU), where he also serves as a professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies. He assumed his current position in February 2015. Previously, he was provost of Georgetown University, and he has held faculty appointments at Georgetown University, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, the Catholic University of America, and Bryn Mawr College. In addition to many works in the field of classics, his publications include Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace (Harvard University Press, 1998). O’Donnell earned his Ph.D. at Yale University.
I interviewed O’Donnell in his office in the Hayden Library on the ASU campus in Tempe, Ariz. This is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Dave Shumaker: Jim, I’m delighted to have this opportunity to talk with you. First of all, I’m intrigued by your background as a scholar and academic administrator. You’ve come to your position by a non-traditional path—you haven’t come up through the ranks, working in libraries, as many library leaders do. Would you talk about your perspective on the role of libraries and how your background influences your views?
James O’Donnell: As a professor of classics, a traditional humanistic discipline, the thing that justifies my existence is that I know stuff. Humanities scholars are the people who know the most and care about keeping that knowledge alive and passing it along. Without professors of the humanities and their tool, the library, we would lose our past. We would lose our sense of who we are. We would lose important, and sometimes controversial, terms of reference for the debate that must go on in our society. Scholars interpret and share that knowledge, and we couldn’t do what we do without the tools we have traditionally stored, and cherished, in the library.
I’m not over-connected to the library as physical space. Library space has changed radically and continues to change. But I’m passionately attached to the function—to making sure we preserve, protect, and defend our heritage—and using what’s there to keep that knowledge alive, fresh, and useful.
So when people say this job is a big change for me, I say, “No, not actually.” It’s nice that they’ve finally given me the key to the library, but the library has been as much my home as my faculty office or my classroom have been throughout my career.
I think it’s as natural for professors to move into administrative roles in libraries as to aspire to other roles in academic administration. Because of my background, there are some things I can bring to bear that others might not, and yet at the same time, I am deeply respectful of the professional expertise of the people in the library organization who have spent more time on the details of making the library useful for other people than I have ever done. I can add value precisely because no one who reports to me can possibly think that I think I know how to do their job better than they do. I know I can’t do the job of the team, but I can bring something else. My background gives me an advantage in communicating and interpreting the library to others in academic administration. Because I’ve been in the position, I know what issues to bring to my boss and how to bring them.
Shumaker: Let’s follow up on the point about your role in connecting the library to the academic enterprise. Here at ASU, there’s a clear orientation to innovation. The university was ranked number one for innovation by U.S. News & World Report, and it has become notable for its partnership with Starbucks and its Global Freshman Academy initiative, among others. How do you align the library with that culture of innovation?
O’Donnell: It’s both technical work and “social” work. One point would be that we’re building the most successful online education system in American higher education. This work is being led by our EdPlus organization. When I arrived, it was clear that they had reached the limit of what they could do on their own, without library involvement. We’ve now embedded a couple of librarians in the EdPlus headquarters. Our staff can help them be more effective in getting learning resources to students wherever they may be—those Starbucks baristas in places such as Holyoke, Massachusetts, for example.
Another aspect of our innovative culture is that new academic units are being born frequently. Just yesterday, I met with the director of a new school in the university that will begin operations this fall with four faculty members and will be growing from there. We talked about the academic landscape, the connections with library services, their traditional library service needs, and, not so traditionally, how the library can help them grow by being a marketing partner with them. We can use the library space and publicity tools to help them become more visible to the rest of the university community. In the process, we also build our own understanding of their work and connections so that we can serve their faculty and students more effectively.
At the end of the day, our job is to serve the faculty and students of ASU—to make sure that when they want information resources, they get them. My informal motto for the library is borrowed from Harrods of London, and it’s carved on the company’s building in Knightsbridge. It’s Latin, of course: “Omnia omnibus ubique,” or “Everything for everybody, everywhere.” It’s a good motto for Harrods, and it’s a good motto for the library, especially today. We can do a much better job of it than we used to do years ago when we were pretty much confined to supplying whatever books we could round up and keep in our building. Our university’s plans aren’t limited by geography. With the ambitions of ASU to expand and innovate, we in the library are also thinking about how we can provide information to as close to everybody as possible. Our students include all kinds of people in all kinds of places, with all kinds of good and bad access to information, so it’s appropriate for us to think about how we can deliver the same services and access wherever people are, as we do when they are in our building.
Shumaker: I’d like to know more about the role of those embedded librarians in EdPlus. What do you expect of them?