INTERVIEW: John Unsworth discusses opportunities and challenges for LTS
The Justice spoke to John Unsworth, the next vice provost for Library and Technology Services and chief information officer. Unsworth currently serves as the dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and will begin at Brandeis in mid-February. Below are excerpts from the interview.
JustNews: Why were you attracted to Brandeis and what are your goals for the University?
John Unsworth: One of the things that's particularly appealing about it to me is its size and the fact that at that size it functions as a research university.
I was looking for an excellent school that had what I think is a fairly unique combination of undergraduate liberal arts and graduate education and research, and Brandeis is really one of the few places in the country that had that particular combination.
I think there are some special opportunities and some special challenges at the scale that we are talking about. You have faculty and students who have pretty high-end information needs, and some of those needs will have to be met by intelligent service design and also intelligent kinds of collaborations with neighboring institutions.
JN: What are the opportunities and challenges?
JU: Well, I think the organizational design of this particular part of the operation is not unprecedented, but it is somewhat unusual to have combined the library and the IT services, and I think that's both an opportunity and a challenge. Those are both often very different cultures of work in universities—the ITs and libraries. But they are two core information services, and they represent core information resources for the whole campus. What particularly attracted me to this job at Brandeis is that that combination, I think, can work really well together and when it does can provide really interesting work opportunities for staff [and] really interesting support opportunities for faculty and students.
The challenge is that the world of information is changing very rapidly, and it is hard for everybody to keep up and hard to figure out how to position yourself to take advantage of it rather than it taking advantage of you. But I think Brandeis has already done a really good job on that. For example, you guys as a campus are already on voice over IP.
JN: What are your priorities regarding LTS infrastructure?
JU: Well, again, I need to get to know that better. I know that there's been a major push to upgrade the networks, and that level of infrastructure functionality is very important to every campus. … But I also know that there are other kinds of infrastructure issues awaiting; for example, deferred maintenance on the library building. And there are some important collections that are potentially at risk if those issues aren't addressed. So those will be the challenges. Nobody has infinite resources; making the right decisions about which things to do first is part of the job.
JN: Do you teach library and technology?
JU: My background is in English, and I've taught courses at the University of Illinois, which have generally been offered through the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and cross-listed in English, so I teach a graduate seminar in digital humanities, which is my area of interest. I also teach a course at the undergraduate and graduate level: … 20th-century American bestsellers.
JN: Are there other trends that will have to be addressed while you're at Brandeis?
JU: Well, there has been for some time now, both on the library side and the IT side, to outsource various kinds of services or collections. So that's something that is now just part of how people operate. But, again, making the right decisions about what to outsource and when is key. You do sacrifice some control; you usually gain some kind of cost-effectiveness by doing that, so that's a trend across the board that is sort of inescapable but needs to be handled wisely. I also think, although this trend hits different disciplines at different times, that in general there's a trend towards the digitization of primary research data in different disciplines and that drives the tendency to move in the direction of computational methods for analysis, and that's hitting the humanities and the social sciences now. That, I think, will be one of the challenges for a combined library/IT organization in the future. … And in general in the sciences there's computational work that people want to do, and figuring out how to make available the necessary resources to do that is a challenge.
JN: What can Brandeis do to address these challenges specifically?
JU: I think there's no doubt that it needs to reinvest some in the library and technology infrastructure, and, after talking to the president and the provost as part of the search process, I think there's a will to do that. It's a matter of their wanting to have the leadership in place to have the leadership of how to make those investments.
JN: Do you have specific ideas?
JU: I have changed positions and changed institutions about every decade, and they have always been very different kinds of jobs from the last job, and sometimes very different kinds of institutions. I've found that it really helps me a lot to spend the first month or two just talking in-depth and listening in-depth to what people have to say inside the organization that I am running and people who use its services. All its students, faculty and alumni are its clients in some way. So I am going to be doing a lot of that at the outside. Then on the basis of that I'll be, I hope, arriving at some shared vision about where we go from there.