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Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, manager of knowledge

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OCTOBER 09, 2016


Ten o’clock Monday morning at UC Berkeley. Outside, people are hustling in every direction, hundreds of people throughout the day: frazzled people, fast people, people peering at other people, people buried in their phones or in books or magazines, many people not looking at anything at all — and Jeffrey MacKie-Mason, the campus’s university librarian and chief digital scholarship officer, sits at a sleek round table in the middle of his mid-century modern office in the east wing of Doe Library.

MacKie-Mason is a brawny man with bright red geometrically framed glasses, a plastered smile, plastered bleached-blonde Poseidon-like hair, dark moss-colored zippered leather booties, three ball-hoop earrings on the right lobe, form-fitting all-black everything — very rock and roll. He is a humble technocrat, self-described as “not what you would call a traditional librarian,” and he is at UC Berkeley to usher in the reign of the 21st-century library.

“My job is to be a CEO of a library. But I’m also an information professional,” said MacKie-Mason. “In a world with really exploding channels of communication and sources of information, those of us in this field have certain advantages in having spent a long time thinking about what information is worth collecting and relying on.”

Prior to last October, MacKie-Mason held faculty positions in both the University of Michigan’s department of economics and the School of Information, as well as served as its dean. At Berkeley, where he holds commensurate faculty positions, his office shelves are lined with “Database Nation” and “The Internet for Everyone,” “The Future of The Book” and “Incentives,” “Hidden Order” and “Numerical Recipes” —  a crock-pot of ways to unshackle information. The books, the office, the über-literati aesthetic all configure into a schematic that knowledge is meant to be curated, expanded, made visible.

There is an empowerment imbued in MacKie-Mason’s vision of accessibility. In the way that he strives to steward the library to new methods of information curation, his strategy as university librarian is essentially radical: MacKie-Mason is returning to the roots of his early research, to the interplay between technological advancement and individuals’ access to the burgeoning world of information.

“I think that, in so many ways, what Jeff is trying to do is not change what libraries do but rather make them more visible,” said Barclay Ogden, head of UC Berkeley’s Library Preservation Department. “Jeff very smartly is trying to reposition the library as a critical partner going forward. Because minus the information, we’re going to have to reinvent it.”

MacKie-Mason is, to an extent, as much a typical manager as the next well-intentioned, buzzword-bound Dilbert. He says the right things. He can wear the hat of Mr. Damage Control, that of a pathos-dripping, innovative leader — but without the trappings of a flighty idealist. He is, in other words, not drastically different than any other university dean. Except MacKie-Mason is uniquely manager of the managers of collected knowledge and optimistically envisions his role as promoting a vision of experimentation and growth. Still, as university librarian, he’s tethered to the demands of a rigid administrative framework.

“In a world with really exploding channels of communication and sources of information, those of us in this field have certain advantages in having spent a long time thinking about what information is worth collecting and relying on.”

“University of California is much more bureaucratic and rule-bound than I’m used to,” said MacKie-Mason. “It makes it difficult to adapt to change and to move forward. People don’t understand this change. They still have stereotypical images about what librarians do. And though we’re still doing the traditional things, we’re doing them in different ways.

As university librarian, MacKie-Mason has his finger on the pulse of the Berkeley Library conglomerate: 25 libraries with a $50 million annual budget and more than 400 employees report to him, and the whole system includes 11 million print volumes and more than 30 million items in all formats. He’s a fundraising purveyor of the library as a public good, an academic attuned to the zeitgeist of a learned life, a quintessential officer of information; and in a landscape of quickly evolving information technology, MacKie-Mason envisions the Berkeley Library as an adaptive environment.

According to Mackie-Mason, library professionals ought to provide unfettered, unfiltered, uncensored access to all information. Nonetheless, he is adamant that contemporary library users cannot rely solely on experts when deciphering information. In coming years, the library seeks to incorporate more online modules and connected learning — as well as to computerize its operations, increase open access to the library’s content and digitize more print materials.

“Anything that impedes the free flow of ideas is evil and antithetical to what librarians should do — which is to disseminate knowledge, to facilitate discourse, to advocate for open access,” said Gary Handman, the former director of UC Berkeley’s Media Resources Center. “No matter how much a person agrees or disagrees (with the content), libraries need to provide tools for contemporary discourse.”

What makes MacKie-Mason’s vision fantastic is the central idea that information consumers are not made smaller by a world simultaneously made bigger with unleashed information. Rather, he posits that the bigger world is for us to take — specifically, through library support. By means of open access, increased visibility of knowledge and further understanding of our surroundings, the university librarian wants to give us the world for the taking.

“The field is in huge change right now; it’s a time of remarkable transition,” said MacKie-Mason. “I’d like (the Berkeley Library) to be recognized as being a really valuable service organization to campus. I’d like us to deliver more and better services to campus. I’d like more people to see us as really valuable partners in education and research.”

Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected]

OCTOBER 09, 2016