The University Record, September 7, 1999

‘Fantastic faculty,’ administrative support drew King to U-M post

By Jane R. Elgass

The only thing that would compel John King to leave the University of California, Irvine—“a fantastic place that’s on the move”—would be new opportunities.

And while not necessarily seeking them, he found them at the U-M, one of the few places that he says is putting the pieces of a vital triangle together—management, computer science, and library/information science. “Michigan is engaging these issues in a serious manner,” said King, who will become dean of the School of Information (SI) in January.

“My research has dealt with the bridges between information technology (IT) and its applications, with a focus on IT’s usability and its effects on individuals and organizations. I am very interested in how social forces of institutions and organizations shape the evolution of technologies. I am always on the lookout for interesting ways of dealing with these questions,” explained King in talking with the Record last month.

King acknowledges that “a strange set of pathways” led him to the U-M post. His sister was a librarian, and so are many friends and colleagues. He was UCI’s interim librarian in 1991-92. This gave him a chance to “jump feet first” into a world that always had interested him.

“I became quite engaged with the library world. As part of this connection, I subsequently served on a UC systemwide committee rethinking the future of the University of California libraries, which, taken together, are the largest library in the world after the Library of Congress. I also became familiar with the efforts of library schools to reinvent themselves.”

King worked with a committee reviewing the University of California, Berkeley’s library school, which was scheduled to be closed. “Instead of abandoning their library school tradition, Berkeley created a new School of Information Management and Systems. That got me thinking about the evolution of libraries in a much-expanded vision.

“Michigan moved before Berkeley did in rechartering its library school. Michigan has kept the library piece while moving aggressively in other directions, such as archiving, information management and economics, and human-computer interaction. That was attractive to me.”

Institutional commitment and a “fantastic” faculty also were strong draws for King.

“The University administration is highly committed to building SI. This was conveyed to me in very tangible terms by the provost and president. They feel information is at the heart of the University’s future. They want the school to be the best. That commitment is vital. I can spend my energies on looking at what is possible rather than be mired in constraints.”

And King will count on Michigan’s “fantastic” faculty to help him envision the opportunities. “There is an excellent group at UCI and that was my benchmark. SI has very exciting, intellectually alive people. They are thinking about the future, and their thinking is consonant with mine. This is a very forward-looking place and the faculty have terrific intuitions.

“In addition, the School of Information has a tradition in the library world that I respect and care about. Libraries are infrastructural. You don’t notice them until they break. If you remove them, you realize how impoverished you’ve become.”

King noted that the current “spin and hyperbole” focused on computers and the Internet is not what will matter in the long term. “What will matter once the tornado slows down, and it will, are the other issues that the library world has been dealing with for two thousand years—what is information, what is it worth, who owns it, how do you make it more accessible? These questions are difficult to answer. They are more important now than they were 50 years ago, as we’ve developed ways to put information to work in ways not imagined then.

“We are now very dependent on information. This dependence raises fundamental questions about the relationship between information and knowledge. Such questions are at the heart of what a university is about,” King said.

“What’s happening with information technologies affects important dimensions of the university’s emerging mission—lifelong learning, distance education and access to knowledge, along with concerns about how you organize higher education, who it is for, how you extend its benefits to those who are not now served.

“I see the School of Information as tightly coupled to the mission of the University as it is to concerns outside the academy such as commerce, entertainment and governance.

“The problem the School of Information will have,” King added, “is an overabundance of opportunity. There are so many exciting, important challenges toward which SI’s energies could appropriately be directed. The key for the SI faculty and the University is to pick and choose well what will get attention. This is the kind of problem you want to have.

“I’ve been getting messages from all over the University, from individuals who want to work with SI on the information aspects of their own fields. People are beginning to realize that the School of Information offers an opportunity to open new intellectual territory.”