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Dean of libraries’ final chapter at CMU

Gloriana St. Clair, the dean of University Libraries, will retire in June 2013 after 15 years at Carnegie Mellon. St. Clair is one of the pioneers of the movement to digitize books. (credit: Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University) Gloriana St. Clair, the dean of University Libraries, will retire in June 2013 after 15 years at Carnegie Mellon. St. Clair is one of the pioneers of the movement to digitize books. (credit: Courtesy of Carnegie Mellon University)

In the original 1960s television series Star Trek, all one had to do was ask the ship’s computer a question and it would automatically search through every book ever written to find the relevant information for the answer. This is what Gloriana St. Clair, Carnegie Mellon’s dean of University Libraries, hopes for the future of libraries.

St. Clair, 72, has watched over Carnegie Mellon’s books for nearly 15 years. Her lengthy career will come to a close in June 2013, as she plans to retire and spend time on her own research endeavors. Throughout her time at Carnegie Mellon, she has not only managed the books in Hunt Library, but also millions of others around the world.

Since 1999, St. Clair has been working alongside colleagues in the School of Computer Science to digitize millions of books. Digitizing books is “the direction society is going in,” according to St. Clair, who has worked in the library business since 1963. With Carnegie Mellon computer science professors Raj Reddy, Michael Shamos, and Jaime Carbonell, St. Clair developed the Million Book Project. Collaborating with several U.S. partners and a broad coalition of libraries and computer scientists in India and China, the project digitized over 1.5 million books and made them free to read on the internet.

Since her undergraduate days at the University of California, Berkeley, St. Clair has had an interest in the intersection between technology and printed texts. She originally received her bachelor’s degree in English in 1962, but the job market pushed her toward a career in library sciences. “I was sitting outside a class, waiting for it to start, and there were few other people standing there,” St. Clair said. “They were talking about going to library school because there weren’t very many jobs for people in English, and there were a lot in library studies. And I thought, ‘Hmm. I could do that.’ ”

A master’s in library science is mandatory for any practicing librarian. The field is interdisciplinary. Library science utilizes management; information technology; education; collection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information resources; and political economy of information.

St. Clair received her master’s degree from UC Berkeley in 1963. “And at that time, it was one of the top three schools,” she said. “Generally, you could get jobs in academic libraries, in public libraries, in special libraries, and children’s libraries.”

For her library sciences degree, St. Clair specialized in technology. “I was kind of focused on academic libraries and on science and technology,” she said. “So as soon as I finished the program, I immediately got a job as a cataloguer at the Water Regional Center Archives at Berkeley.”

It was this initial emphasis on the technological aspect of library sciences that spurred St. Clair’s interest in the digitization of books during the rest of her career as a librarian. She has held 13 different positions, working across multiple institutions, such as Pennsylvania State University, Texas A&M University, and the University of Oklahoma. As the digital age came into focus and she began her work at Carnegie Mellon, St. Clair immediately found a niche for her interests.

“Raj Reddy was the dean of computer science when I came here as head of the library. I went around to all the deans to talk to them about what their needs were and what they wanted from the library,” St. Clair explained. “I went to him and walked in, and said, ‘The future of libraries is digital.’ So we talked for an hour, and then he sent his colleague Mike Shamos over to meet me and make sure that I was a true believer that we should digitize books and they should be free to read.”

This moment marked the start of what would become the Million Books Project, something St. Clair is very proud of. It began as a “proof of concept” project — she and her colleagues started by digitizing 1,000 books to see if the concept was feasible. The team then moved onto larger numbers and collaborated with international partners.

“So then I became a director of Universal Libraries, which was a project that [Reddy] had ongoing, and we were interested in how we could manage to digitize a million books,” St. Clair said. “We started out by convening a bunch of librarians from states that don’t get as much National Science Foundation money as other states, and that didn’t work out. So he began to work internationally and work with his colleagues in China and India, and we started two Million Books Projects, one in China and one in India.”

Currently, the project in China has managed to digitize approximately 2 million books, while the project in India digitized about 300,000.

According to St. Clair, the Million Books Project was in part the inspiration for the Google Books program, which has digitized about 20 million books.

“The power of digitization is knowledge,” St. Clair said. She cited the story of a current Carnegie Mellon student who is getting his Ph.D. in English. St. Clair explained that his dissertation was on Charles Darwin, and she had helped him use digitized copies of Darwin’s books for his research.

“All of Darwin’s books are digitized and searchable through Google Books, and he doesn’t need to read every single page; he can use key words to find the bits of information he’s interested in,” St. Clair said.
This is St. Clair’s goal for the future of libraries. She hopes that someday “people all over the world will have the information they need because of digitization.”

As for libraries being potentially threatened from such easy and accessible knowledge through digitization and the internet, St. Clair isn’t worried. She remains confident that neither libraries nor librarians will ever go out of business.

“They will always have a use as long as books need to be paid for, as long as people need help sorting through information, as long as people need help differentiating between good and bad information,” she said. “People will always need libraries.”