You Thought Librarians Were Dull?

CEO, Internet publisher, coffee-bar aficionado -- Michael Keller is a master of the information universe who proves you can't tell a book by its cover.

September/October 1999

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You Thought Librarians Were Dull?

Photo: Jason Grow

With its pink tablecloths, brass chandeliers and silver champagne buckets, Chantilly II in downtown Palo Alto is the restaurant of choice for celebrating successful Silicon Valley IPOs -- those much-hyped public stock offerings. Apparently, this also is the spot to pitch deals to Michael Keller, Stanford's head librarian. "Their choice, not mine," says Keller, as our hosts -- two Sun Microsystems executives -- order up a bottle of California chardonnay over lunch on a Tuesday afternoon.

A trim 54-year-old former Army National Guard tank driver, the librarian sips his wine as the guys from Sun describe new network technology still officially under wraps. "Tell me how we'd turn this into kiosks. Would they be hardwired to the net?" Keller asks, taking a bite of his sautéed calamari. "What about talking to them? We're working on voice recognition."

Art Pasquinelli, who heads the Sun unit that sells computer gear to the increasingly lucrative library market, leans forward as Keller describes a test version of Stanford-engineered software that uses voice commands to access the library's online card catalog. "I'd love to get somebody from Sun labs in on that," Pasquinelli says. "You could sell this to banks." Then, with a laugh he adds, "But you've already thought about that, haven't you?"

Sometimes it seems Keller has thought of everything as he goes about the task of transforming Stanford's sprawling research holdings into the prototype of a 21st-century library. Part CEO, part technologist, part academic and all entrepreneur, he can debate the next wave of Internet technology as easily as he describes the library's most recent coup -- the acquisition of inventor-philosopher Buckminster Fuller's personal papers. Since coming to Stanford from Yale in 1993, Keller has launched an online publishing venture called HighWire Press, presided over the $56 million restoration of the University's quake-damaged Green Library West (now the Bing Wing), bulked up the book collection and made a series of important archival acquisitions. And all of that may be just a prelude to his most audacious plan: a string of proposed moneymaking ventures that would allow Stanford to profit from the library's vast holdings. "He is the librarian of the future," says Deanna Marcum, president of the Council on Library and Information Resources in Washington, D.C. "Mike understands that information will be available on all formats and through lots of channels." But the librarian's greatest asset may be his ability to shrewdly navigate the politics of a huge research university. "He hates it, but I call him Conan the Librarian," says Paul Saffo, JD '80, director of the Menlo Park-based Institute for the Future and Keller's good friend. "The guy just cuts through academic crap. But like Conan, he's charming."


Keller, the Ida M. Green University Librarian, delights in flaunting his unorthodox résumé. A musicologist by training, he segued into library management in 1970 when he couldn't get a job as a music professor. He dismisses his subsequent master's degree in library science as little more than "my union card." He never went to business school, although he runs a $42 million operation with 400 staffers and almost $2 billion in assets. And, while he's using technology to reinvent libraries, he's had no formal computer science training. "I'm self taught," he says.

His management style, too, is atypical in the collegial world of university librarians. He operates more like a hard-driving CEO than an academic. When he arrived at Stanford six years ago, he was intent on expanding access to special collections, increasing the availability of online indexes and catalogs and increasing the puny electronic book collection. But, he says, some library staffers resisted his high-tech plans, fearing that the innovations would cost them their jobs. "In 1993, I had a showdown with my staff," he recalls. "I wanted to change the whole process to cost less and deliver more. They became defensive -- and I fired them." Keller estimates he's dismissed about 20 senior managers, replacing them with his own recruits. "This is not a tenured staff," he says without apology. "They weren't prepared to do what I was telling them to do." Keller's decision-making style also has made waves among his peers outside Stanford. "He's trying to make things happen," says Marcum. "He's not worried about being part of the mainstream."

Maybe not, but the librarian knows when to turn on the charm. Consider the tale of the disgruntled historians. Back in 1994, not everyone at Stanford wanted to join Keller's digital revolution. Some professors worried they wouldn't be able to navigate the online card catalog. In the history department, there were complaints that when the card catalog was digitized, the older, historical information came last. "Mike showed them a train that already had left the station," says history professor David Kennedy. "Academic culture doesn't always appreciate his executive style, but they got used to it." The grumbling diminished after Keller assured professors that the library staff would help them find what they needed -- and after the history professors learned that they still had a dedicated research room in the renovated library. Finally, Keller promised the historians java. "What they really needed was a place to get coffee," Keller says. "So, I said, 'Let me build you a replica of my favorite Italian cafe, Robiglio in Florence.'" He recounts the tale with relish as we sip iced lattes at a table near the new coffee bar, which opened in April 1998.

If it seems odd for a university librarian to wheel and deal in Italian coffee kiosks, remember that Keller has enjoyed great latitude ever since he was hired by President Gerhard Casper. His job description, Keller says, was "to innovate boldly without putting a drain on private resources." To make that possible, Casper broke ranks with other universities and gave Keller a dual role: University librarian and director of academic information resources. This made him the policymaker for the computing technology used by students and faculty across campus. Working with the University's information technology office, Keller oversees the selection of everything from software applications to routers and desktop hardware. The result is an information network deeply embedded in the fabric of University life. Dorms, classrooms and faculty offices have high-speed Internet connections. All 350 seats in Green Library's remodeled Bing Wing -- even the easy chairs -- have a place to plug in a laptop.


Those laptop connections are one sign of the dazzling makeover of the University's main library. And Keller has presided over every detail of the $56 million restoration of Green Library West, now named the Bing Wing in honor of donors Peter, '55, and Helen Bing. The 80-year-old building suffered major damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, forcing the removal of a million volumes to an auxiliary building on the edge of campus. October's dedication of the new wing (known since 1979 as Green Library West and to generations before that simply as the Main Library) marks a return of library facilities to the heart of campus.

When it came to renovating the neo-Romanesque structure, the librarian served as contractor-cum-interior designer. He approved the German marbled-linoleum flooring. He was in on the decision to install high-tech display cases (designed by the same firm that outfitted the Getty Museum in Los Angeles). And he can explain the thinking behind the choice of pricey fiber-optic lighting to spotlight rare manuscripts ("it's beautiful"). Keller's guiding principle: revive the once-grand building, which had become, he says, "a cold, forbidding structure." That meant tearing out chrome fixtures and purple carpeting and returning to more historically faithful materials and colors -- real oak and a palette of cream, beige, coral and muted green.

The heart of the building -- a soaring rotunda and exhibit gallery at the top of the grand staircase -- will showcase rare books and manuscripts. Keller has left his mark here, too. "This was made from an oak tree that was cut down on campus," he tells me, as he runs his hands lovingly over the round, inlaid table that sits in the center of the rotunda. Keller spotted the downed tree in 1994 and suggested using a cross section of the trunk for the table.

He's especially proud of the nearby second-floor Lane Reading Room (named for former trustee Melvin B. Lane, '44, and his wife, Joan). For decades the room had been dark and unwelcoming, used only by cataloguers and rare-books scholars. That ceiling had been painted over after Pearl Harbor to comply with wartime blackout regulations, he explains, pointing to the "laid glass" ceiling that was painstakingly restored, then treated with a special coating to keep out damaging ultraviolet light. The giant space has been transformed into a reading room for those who want to explore the one-of-a-kind special collections. There are rows of broad, oak tables, new and restored; comfy easy chairs and side tables -- all outfitted with cleverly concealed Internet-access wiring. "This had been a mausoleum for connoisseurs of rare books," Keller says. "We need to give more students the sense of handling evidence no one has handled before. My goal is to have every student in the special collections reading room at least once during their careers here."

Indeed, though Keller is focused on the digital world, he hardly dismisses old-fashioned paper and cloth. He has followed Casper's mandate to "buy lots more books." Since 1993, the libraries have acquired a million volumes, bringing the total to 7 million. And Keller's team has brought home the personal papers and artifacts of Allen Ginsberg, John Steinbeck and, in July, Buckminster Fuller. Stanford has sidestepped the "bookless library" trend of the '80s, says Kevin Starr, California's state librarian. That movement, he says, left universities like Cal State-Long Beach with buildings full of "big study rooms." Says Starr: "Michael blends librarianship and scholarship with an instinctive futurism."


When Keller starts laying out his vision of the information universe, you'd think you were listening to a start-up CEO pitching investors. And you may be. "I wanted to create the ubiquitous library," he says, "so students and professors can latch onto text or information about texts from everywhere, at any time." To that end, his team has acquired tens of thousands of digitized titles, from early African-American poetry to James Joyce's complete works. The librarian dreams of a string of money-making enterprises. And recently he tried to engineer Stanford's purchase of a private company, Biosis, a Philadelphia indexing and abstracting service. The company ultimately rejected the offer.

Keller hoped to fold Biosis into HighWire Press, his successful -- if nonprofit -- online publishing venture. Launched in 1995, HighWire grew out of conversations between Keller and Robert D. Simoni, a Stanford biological sciences professor and deputy editor of the weekly Journal of Biological Chemistry. Simoni was finding it difficult to distribute the publication, which was running to 600 pages an issue. "By 1995, it had gotten so big and heavy that it was costly to send through the mail," Simoni says. Keller saw an opportunity to try a new publishing model online. With colleague John Sack, he set up HighWire to function as a semiautonomous venture, much like Stanford University Press.

It was nothing short of a revolution in scholarly publishing. HighWire joined with scientific societies and publishers, creating a huge website (highwire.stanford.edu) stocked with research journals. The idea was to take advantage of the electronic format: readers could use powerful index tools to search articles and click on links to a wealth of supporting data like charts, graphs, audio clips and videotape. Most important, researchers around the world would get cheap, instant access to the latest scientific advances.

Four years later, HighWire has contracts to publish electronic versions of 142 titles, from Brain and Cell to Gut and Thorax. The site includes Science and recently took over the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary. Some journals go to individual subscribers, some to whole library systems. A portion of the content is free. Even still, HighWire's revenues now run $7.5 million a year, $500,000 above its expenses. The leftover money gets reinvested in the press.

Eventually, Keller says, he wants to break commercial publishers' stranglehold on journal pricing by offering an alternate vehicle for publishing scholarly works. "The hope is to draw good papers away from the for-profit journals," Simoni says. Meanwhile, Keller says he's turned away venture capitalists who wanted to invest in HighWire. "I don't want to lose control of my mission," he says.

Instead, he'd like to expand it. His team has conducted marketing surveys among alumni and Bay Area companies -- potential customers for a batch of for-profit information services he's calling Knowledge Enterprises. Keller imagines a spinoff of HighWire that would electronically publish trade and professional journals. He envisions selling digital copies of material in the Stanford collections via the Internet to alumni and knowledge-hungry corporations. "Alums might pay $10 to $20 a month," says Keller, who adds that the University would have to restructure licensing contracts with publishers. Corporations could enter into agreements to use Stanford's libraries as their information resource. "I'd have to hire a separate staff," he says, stressing that profits would get plowed back into the University's libraries and information technology. "My challenge is to keep doing more interesting things without a new budget," he explains. "I'm trying to leverage resources to serve more readers and acquire more resources for Stanford."

That might even mean spinning some of these enterprises off as quasi-independent businesses. If it comes to that, does the librarian see employees being rewarded with the ultimate Silicon Valley payoff -- equity stakes in a start-up? "Yes, if I'm on the board of the business," Keller says. "I'm trying to involve key library figures in business development, so there would be appropriate remuneration for their contributions."

As with any start-up venture, there is a chance of failure. "It's one thing to talk technology; it's another thing to pull it off and be on the mark," says California's head librarian Starr. "You can win or lose big." That's fine with Michael Keller. For him, risky business is what being a librarian is all about.

Tia O'Brien, a frequent contributor to Stanford, lives in Marin County and writes about technology, business and politics.

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