Charles Eckman, dean of University of Miami Libraries. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami

School Library Month boosts awareness

By Barbara Gutierrez

School Library Month boosts awareness

By Barbara Gutierrez
Charles Eckman, the University’s top librarian, discusses topics relevant to his occupation and elevates knowledge about the profession.

Charles “Chuck” Eckman, dean of the University of Miami Libraries, believes the future of the library is a very promising one.

The library of the future will combine paper books with learning areas, digital collections, special collections, and service programs that will support use of the latest software and technologies. As the world of extended reality (XR) grows, libraries will offer a myriad of options, he said.

I anticipate the emergence of impressive virtual libraries that are accessible to patrons near and far,” Eckman declared.

April is designated as School Library Month, a period meant to increase awareness and the celebration of the connection between the librarian and students, as well as the local community. It was established by the American Association of School Librarians in 1985.    

Born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to two librarians, Eckman knew what his path would be. “It was in my blood,” he said. His sister also became a librarian.

Eckman shares his thoughts about his profession.

What would people be surprised to know about librarians and the work they do in today’s digital world?

When people are asked what they think about libraries, their minds immediately turn to books. Libraries have always been about books. But from the days of the Library of Alexandria, the idea of building stores of knowledge has been intimately connected to the concept of transmitting knowledge. Some of that is through the act of preservation itself. But leading libraries have also been centers of teaching and learning. The work of librarians varies according to library type. In part, the work is based on the deep expertise required to build, preserve, and provide access to diverse digital and print collections. In higher education settings, libraries also provide experts in supporting all aspects of the research life cycle including digital scholarship and creativity using the latest software and technologies. 

And what would you tell a student who is considering going into the field? It’s a whole lot different than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Can you also elaborate on the changes that have taken place since you have taken the helm of UM Libraries?

I advise students going into the field of library and information studies to pay close attention to the types of initiatives and programming underway in libraries today. And consider the value of internships for gaining real-world library experience.

The UM Libraries have hired staff required to support a diversity of collection types and to build expertise related to new forms of scholarship and creativity. Expertise in things such as geographic information systems (GIS), data management, statistical analysis software, research impact strategies, data science, data visualization, and XR, etc. And we are reprogramming library spaces to build new communities across the University around strategic priorities. For example, the Learning Commons is a collaboration with a range of academic units to support learning. The Research Commons is a collaboration with a different set of units and faculties to facilitate interdisciplinary research engagement. 

Many people are moving away from paper books and reading e-books. What are the biggest changes you are making in this new digital age throughout the University of Miami’s library system?

The pandemic experience has reminded us that the digital library is not as robust and comprehensive as it needs to be. Some of that is a result of copyright restrictions. We are exploring ways to redouble our digitization efforts and promote existing digital collections. But we are also looking at ways to encourage our users, including faculty members, to both rely upon and publish open access content.

And, as an aside, can you share what your favorite e-reader is and why?

I haven’t found an e-reader I love yet. I prefer to read articles and books on my laptop—and rely on EPUB and open PDF formats because they are the most universal and accessible e-book formats (i.e., they don’t require you to own a particular bookstore chain’s proprietary reader). 

In 10 years’ time do you feel there will be printed books on the shelves?

No doubt printed books will still be around given current purchasing trends, which show a relatively balanced split between print, audio, and e-books. Print books continue to enjoy a number of features that people like—intuitive structure, ability to read without purchasing a reading device, ability to reread later without having to repurchase, and ability to share with friends and family. E-books may at first glance appear to be the low-cost alternative—but when you factor in the cost of the e-reader, the regular software/hardware upgrades required to reuse the item, and digital rights management limiters, the costs begin to add up. 

What will libraries around the world look like in the future?

In terms of physical libraries, we are seeing something of a boom in the demand for architects to build new libraries and renovate existing facilities. Google “new libraries” and you will get a sense of the grandiosity of some of these projects, especially those in China, North and Central Europe, and the Middle East. I think another area to watch is the development of virtual library spaces, particularly as XR takes off, I anticipate the emergence of impressive virtual libraries that are accessible to patrons near and far.

How do libraries protect literary history? For instance, do you remove banned books such as the Dr. Seuss books that were recently pulled from publication or do you continue to make them accessible?

Private publishers have a clear right to make their own decisions regarding whether they will publish a particular author’s work, or whether they have a reasonable business case to reprint any work in their backfile. In spite of some of the sensationalism in the press around the decision of Dr. Seuss Enterprises to no longer reprint six of its lesser-known titles, the publisher was well within their business rights to make that determination. Moreover, there has been no attempt to recall these books by the publisher.

What libraries do is ensure that our collections are preserved and accessible and that our users have access to the world of published content through interlibrary lending services and digitization programs—no matter what decisions are made by private publishers. In fact, libraries are committed to resisting interference of any sort in our work building and preserving collections. This is an important issue for our time—political interference in library collection development decisions. According to the 2020 State of America's Libraries Report, 377 books were challenged in 2019 in libraries across the country for a variety of reasons, most notably for books affirming transgender youth. For the past several years the UM Libraries have told this story of book banning during the annual “Banned Books Week” activities.

Special Collections is a gem for the University. This is a two-part question: Is there a particular collection that you would like people to know about, and is there one collection that UM Libraries has that would surprise people?

I would love for people to know about the range of Special Collections available. It is hard to pick just one. The PanAm collection is our largest and most frequently consulted. The Kislak Collection is a significant recent gift that is recognized in the naming for the home of Special Collections—the Kislak Center.

I think people would be surprised to know that we have Jackie Gleason’s personal library—a collection of books that focuses upon scholarly and popular works in parapsychology.