Q&A: James Williams on his tenure as dean of libraries

Published: May 18, 2017 By

Dean of University Libraries James WilliamsJames Williams, dean of the University Libraries since 1988 and longtime commencement marshal, has led the five-branch library system on campus through a digital revolution that has upended the manner in which libraries are viewed and used.

Williams, who will retire on June 30, was recently honored with the inaugural James F. Williams Lifetime Achievement Award. The award, which is given to individuals as a recognition of exceptional contributions to the libraries over the whole of a career, honors Dean Williams' distinguished career and stalwart leadership. 

On Tuesday, June 13, the University Libraries will honor Williams with a retirement celebration from 2 to 4 p.m. at the University Memorial Center Glenn Miller Ballroom. Please RSVP by Monday, May 22, to attend. You can contact Susie Siders at susie.siders@colorado.edu or 303-492-9012 to register.

Williams sat down with CU Boulder Today to discuss his tenure as dean.

What are you most proud of during your time as dean of libraries?

I'm really proud of building a world-class faculty that are strong and active partners on campus. They are marvelous. They are in the classroom planning assignments with faculty, and teaching students about information and access to information. This is what I am most proud of.

What was your favorite part of your job?

My favorite part comes down to the everyday aspect of the job, which is serving all of the knowledge seekers on this campus . . . the students, the general public, the faculty and staff. It's the full spectrum of people who are seeking knowledge. It's the best job on campus, because I serve everybody. The needs of a freshman are very different from a research assistant in a campus lab. It has been fun being a servant administrator.

How did technology change the way university libraries function on campus during your tenure?

When I started in 1988, we were living in the world of card catalogs. In the early 1990s, we moved from card catalogs to an internet that has basically democratized information. It was technology that allowed that change. This has made a huge difference in the education of our populace. However, the things that we can do with technology today are not what we're going to be able to do tomorrow. So libraries have to keep up with that technology, because one of the things we do as libraries is teach it.

How do university libraries remain relevant in the digital world?

A huge part of what we do in libraries today is not sit behind a desk, waiting for somebody to show up; instead we go into classrooms and teach about information and how to get access to it. We talk to faculty and students about how to evaluate information. The internet is like a fire hose, and you're drinking from it when you are seeking information. You can't drink from a fire hose. You need some way to sift information that's coming at you so you can make use of it. We have to teach students to live in that world and not make the wrong assumptions about the information they are getting.

Research libraries will also be very involved in the debate over net neutrality. Libraries will support the values of higher education in which people get access to information barrier-free. Because after all, what does higher education value? It values freedom of expression. It values freedom of access to information. And it values a learned society.

What is your best kept secret about Norlin Library?

We call Norlin "Hogwarts," because it is not an easy place to get to know physically. We have 400,000 square feet, and it's been added onto three times. Each time it became harder and harder to find your way around. What we've tried to do is make wayfinding a lot easier. If you find yourself in the stacks, you can find your way out because of wayfinder things we have done.

I would say the best kept secret has to be our Special Collections and Archives. I want people to know about this. We have some gems here that people really don't know about. We have 13th century bibles, we have manuscript collections, we're home to the Glenn Miller Archive. It is these rare and specialized things that we have in here that are the best kept secrets. Most of the things in these collections have been brought to us by our faculty, because they want to teach about these things. That's why I love this place so much, because it's all about knowledge.

This spring also marked your final year as commencement marshal. What can you tell us about being the “voice of commencement?”

The thing I've really enjoyed about commencement is that it's the happiest day of the year here on campus. I have tried to bring a lot of joyful energy to the ceremony, because it is really about moving on, so you want to do that with energy. I like to remind people that their time here was a time of big energy and lots of opportunities. It's really a meaningful day for everyone involved, and I've really enjoyed my role.

What's next for you?

I do want to have some personal time. That said, I have quite a few civic things that I am involved in. When I was an undergrad at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr. would come over to campus at night. I was pledging his fraternity and he would come over and talk to us about being men among men.

I'll never forget one of those times when he said to us, "Don't ever take for granted your being a student at this place. There are so many kids who will never have the opportunity that you have here, and wherever you find yourself in life, find a way to give back." I'll never forget it. That's why I'm involved with hospice, the Denver Art Museum and the other boards that I sit on. My passion is to find a way to give back. You will always find me somewhere supporting that passion.