Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Interface Miriam Drake: A Rainy Night in Georgia?

The Library is still busy, as Miriam Drake explains to Alison Kilgour.

Miriam Drake, Dean and Director of the Library and Information Centre at Georgia Institute of Technology, feels that librarians should concern themselves with making money for their libraries and confesses that most of her time is spent doing just that. The climate is changing and universities have to become more and more self-sufficient. In the US, says Drake, "...there will be more jobs created by small business than big. My advice to you is to identify and seek out the potential small business starters - and be very good to them. Give them technical information and, more importantly, marketing information. When they become successful they should repay you for the service you have provided to them." At Georgia Tech, she adds, they are very good to their users.

Miriam Drake came to libraries quite by accident. In the late 1960s, with a degree in Economics, Drake took a job as a transportation economist. One of her projects was working on an airline reservations system for small airlines. Her colleague was Calvin Moores, a key figure in the early history of the discipline of information science. This prompted an interest in computing and information retrieval, and she decided to specialise in librarianship, where a fascinating relationship with new technology was just beginning. She progressed to a varied career in libraries, including a spell in an advertising agency, moving to Georgia Institute of Technology in 1984.

A year after she started at Georgia Tech, the library went online with the aim of creating the most technologically advanced library possible within its means. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennysylvania, launched its electronic library at almost exactly the same time. They were the first libraries in the US to have campus-wide access from day one. Initially the library catalogue and databases such as INSPEC were run from a mainframe. Ten years on, in March 1995, the Web became the standard interface to all electronic library services. "People seem to like it", comments Drake, somewhat unenthusiastically.

Doesn't she? "Not altogether. I foresee dangers for the point-and-click generation". She believes that students' learning is impoverished by the lack of use of traditionally published materials, and that the new generation of students - 70% of whom have access to computers either at home or in school - do not understand why information is not instantly available to them. "We fail to develop critical thinking in students if they are challenged only to find the right answer and not the method of finding it." The Web is wonderful, but not necessarily for deep learning. Nor is it the last word in networked publication and communication. "Something else will replace it. We've made all of this conversion, and we'll convert many times before we're through."

Miriam Drake Academic librarians are more and more involved in the learning process, and this particular Library Director has strong views on teaching and learning methods. She is dissatisfied with current course evaluation methods, and takes the view that students should be assessed after they have left university. "Students are in a university to learn competencies, skills and critical thinking that will prepare them for the workplace and to lead useful lives. This cannot be judged until they have been out of school for a while... We can test students on what they know in terms of being able to solve equations, or do chemical experiments, but what is it going to do for them in terms of enriching their lives or preparing them for the workplace?" Higher education needs to fit more closely with the real world of work and working lifestyles. Distance learning must play an ever greater role in course provision. "The more flexible we can be with that the better. Everything from using interactive television and multimedia, to actually coming back to campus, is very important." She sees in the future the graduate of Georgia Tech coming back for courses every two years, for a couple of weeks of 'recycling'.

Drake recognises that libraries also have other constituencies to serve. We have a responsibility to the needs of our universities' administrations, and a role to play in bridging the gap between higher education and the surrounding industrial and commercial communities.

While Georgie Tech's GTEL (Georgia Tech Electronic Library) databases are available only to the student and staff body at the Institute, the GALILEO databases are run by the state of Georgia, and include UMI periodical abstracts and full-text articles, ABI Inform full-text, and a number of OCLC databases. This is surely an impressive example of bringing cutting-edge technology to the general public? Drake agrees, with typical pragmatism. "Sure. If a member of the public walks into my library, they can access the range of GALILEO services. But they usually don't come to us because they can't find a parking space."

The future of the Web service lies in access to key articles and book chapters. Already an electronic reserves facility is available. Copyright permitting, lecturing staff can put items on reserve, which students then access from their dormitories. The effect of comprehensive networking of library services has been to reduce physical usage of the library by 20-25% over the last few years. Indeed, for some 20 years now a delivery service to academic staff has been in operation, allowing orders to be placed for library material - now including document delivery from external hosts. "Some of our best users have not been in the library for years".

Georgia Tech is the most engineering-intensive university in the US, and this type of service suits the study patterns of engineers. The university supports a $200m research business, and the library is used on an equal basis with commercial research establishments. Where time is money, the library has to be in the business of providing an express service. The users appreciate this. And one of them may be the next Bill Gates.