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Longtime library director reflects on a career at the crossroads

September 1, 2011 By Susannah Brooks

When a young Ken Frazier attempted to discern his future career, he found that his interests lay in “introductory everything and advanced nothing.” Becoming a librarian, he realized, brought him into collaboration with a wide spectrum of students, scholars and administrators — all looking toward the future.

“No one could have foreseen that libraries would have been some of the most innovative parts of the university,” says Frazier, director of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s General Library System.

To Frazier, who retires this December, the great advantage of many libraries is a service mission that almost always trumps the preservation of knowledge, a “crossroads” for people with diverse needs and backgrounds.

“Throughout his career, Ken has left visible and less-visible reminders of his advocacy everywhere he has been asked to serve,” says Provost Paul M. DeLuca Jr., who plans to convene a search committee for Frazier’s replacement this fall. “He is a true campus citizen; his leadership has had a remarkable impact on campus life.”

Case in point: College Library.

Socially and culturally, College Library functions much as a library always has: a social and academic space; a neutral learning space, neither classroom nor dorm; a place to get things done.

Over the years, however, College Library has served as a proving ground for new ideas. The immediacy of student-staff interactions drives changes that might shock nostalgic alumni: 24-hour access; raucous, pizza-fueled study sessions; a café, steps from course reserves.

“College Library was never mainly about the books,” says Frazier. “They’ve responded to not just the community of students, but the community of the whole university as student and academic life changed around them.”

Frazier has used these close connections with patrons to inform his nationally known work on fair use and copyright issues.

Elected president of the Association of Research Librarians in 1998, Frazier led a consortium of 121 research libraries from across the country. As part of his service, he began working from the inside out to transform scholarly communication through a group called the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC).  

One of the biggest issues involved dramatic price increases in the world of scholarly journal publishing. Similar to some cable-television pricing, a so-called “Big Deal” would have homogenized journal offerings through massive package deals, forcing cash-strapped universities with specific strengths and needs to pay for unwanted subscriptions.

Frazier’s commentary, “The Librarians’ Dilemma: Contemplating the Costs of the ‘Big Deal,’” is still used in library schools. Despite his quiet demeanor and background in social ethics, his passion came through loud and clear.

“I have always thought of Ken as the Peter Finch/Howard Beale of the scholarly communication wars,” says James Neal, vice president for information services and university librarian at Columbia University and a fellow honorary member of SPARC’s steering committee. “He threw open that window at an ARL meeting in the mid-1990s and led that collective and primal scream: ‘We’re mad as hell…’ and SPARC was born.” 

This nuanced understanding of information management served Frazier well when he took on a new role in 2006. A librarian might seem an unlikely choice for interim CIO and head of the Division of Information Technology (DoIT), but he soon made his mark.

“Ken brought something special to DoIT,” says former CIO Ron Kraemer, now at Notre Dame. “The attitude and values he demonstrated became contagious, and he helped DoIT transform itself from a technology organization to a service organization.”

Frazier took on the controversy over file sharing just as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) began threatening students. UW–Madison was the first institution to refuse to hand over student address information outright.

“Not all information is shared illegally,” says Carrie Kruse, director of College Library. “There are copyright fair-use aspects, especially for academic purposes, as well as artists who encourage music sharing. Ken had a positive impact on how campus folks thought about this issue. He brought a librarianship perspective: ‘Information wants to be free.’”

Even as Frazier navigated the world of emerging technologies, he has also championed more archaic forms of communication. In 2000, Parallel Press began printing soft-cover poetry chapbooks, reviving a form popular since the dawn of the printing press in the late 15th century. A news release noted that “Frazier’s no poet himself, ‘but I want to play,’ he says with a laugh.”

That spirit of play has infused Frazier’s work with humor and imagination throughout his tenure.

“The lesson there is that some of the things you’re happiest about in your career, you’ve done in the margins of your time,” says Frazier. “The fun part will often come in the extra things you do. You just never know what kinds of things will pan out.”

Tags: libraries