Beyond the Beginning: The Global Digital Library

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Chancellor, University System of Maryland, USA


This paper concentrates on the situation in, and forces acting on, higher education in America, though the concepts are widely applicable elsewhere. The pressures from commercial organisations are examined, and the associated focus on the meaning and relevance of academic qualifications. The impact of information technology on libraries and educational institutions is examined, and the ageing of the student population is considered, together with the implications for the current structure of the education sector in America.


The University System of Maryland

I’ve been asked to describe my view of higher education in the 21st century. It is tempting to offer simply to endorse the sentiments of other speakers at this conference; certainly, some inspiring papers have been presented. I will attempt to add constructively to those, adding in particular an American perspective to the British and Australian views presented earlier.

This paper is from my viewpoint of the chief executive officer of a large and diverse American university system. The "university system" is a particularly American construct. There are some 50 such systems, in 38 states. The University System of Maryland is a family of thirteen very different publicly assisted institutions governed by a single Board of Regents appointed by the Governor of Maryland. It includes eleven degree-granting institutions, ten universities and one college. The best known University is our flagship, the University of Maryland, College Park, a typical (but, I believe, especially good) large comprehensive research University. The largest institution (in terms of enrolment) is the University of Maryland University College. For fifty years it has served primarily working adults, 34,000 of them today, located on all seven continents. University College does this without a campus, a tenured faculty, a library, or a football team. The college, Coppin State College, serves about 3,600 mostly black students in Baltimore’s inner city. And there are also two system-wide research institutes, one for biotechnology and one for environmental science. This whole enterprise serves 126,000 students and has an operating budget of about $1.9 billion dollars, about 30% of which comes from the state.

Beyond the Candle Factory

The paper is subtitled "beyond the Candle Factory". This is not in any desire to be cryptic; it is in reference to a quote from Thomas Edison. When asked, "Mr Edison, what does this mean for the candle industry?", Edison is said to have replied: "We will make electricity so cheap only the rich will burn candles!" A growing pack of pundits now claims we are entering an era in which the survival of most colleges and universities as we now know them is questionable. Peter Drucker, for example, has said quite plainly that they’re on the road to the knacker’s yard. I am not quite so pessimistic, but I do believe this is a time in which most colleges and universities must soon decide whether to change a little (and thus remain in the academic candle industry) or a lot (and launch themselves into the academic electrical business). My own experience in the University System of Maryland and my contacts with colleagues around the world suggests that we are all facing the same sweeping changes, the same threat, and the same charges. Here are some that I see.


It will soon be possible to deliver enormous quantities of information almost anywhere on the face of the Earth, any time. We in academia need to decide what to do with this unprecedented capability. And we must decide quickly because for the first time in a long history, we are beginning to face intense competition from non-traditional organisations, some of them for-profit businesses. American higher education alone is estimated to be a $200bn - $300bn market. It’s a wonder that the profit-making sector has taken so long to go after this business. It’s now beginning to do so. Right now, Arthur Andersen, one of the largest accounting firms in the United States, has an education budget that is as large as the University of Virginia’s.

We all know, of course, that an education – even in these very job-conscious times – has a far greater intrinsic value than the monetary worth of a degree in the marketplace. We know, too, that private businesses enter this arena with little experience and fewer qualifications as providers of higher education. But we must acknowledge that they also enter with fewer of the entrenched traditions that have made colleges and universities so inflexible and slow to respond to the changing needs of students. And companies like Arthur Andersen can do one thing we can’t: they can guarantee their students jobs once they have completed their studies.

The Background to Entrenched Attitudes

Let me review briefly how American higher education became so entrenched. In their 1958 book, Higher Education In Transition: An American History, 1636 - 1956, Brubacher and Rudy recount the fascinating history of the evolution of the present layered structure of the American educational system. Beginning with village schools and academies, we founded colleges patterned after English four-year colleges and then added what were known as preparatory schools (eventually called high schools). Next we added to the colleges graduate and professional schools on the German model. Then we inserted transitional institutions, the junior high school or middle school, and the junior college, now commonly called community college.

At every stage of this creation process, educators vigorously debated the purposes and the proper "thickness" of each layer, and the circumstances and conditions that should attend a student’s transition from one layer to the next. Although traces of these debates persist today, this gradually accreted sedimentary structure has largely hardened into something with the apparent hardness of stone.

It seems to me it is time to revive the vigorous debate of a century ago and reconsider the whole structure of the American education system. (It may even be time to contemplate crushing the rock, making cement, and using it to construct something entirely new.)

Changes in Student Demographics

Whether or not we choose to undertake that debate, important transformational changes are already under way. For example, for the past quarter century, enrolment of people between the ages of 18 and 24 in American colleges and universities has been growing at an annual rate of about 1% a year. Enrolment of people 25 or over older has been growing almost four times as fast. Today, 45% of all American college and university students are 25 or older. The numerate among you will have jumped to my conclusion. Early in the millennium that begins less than a thousand days hence, we will reach an important symbolic milestone. The majority of all American college and university students will be 25 years of age or older!

It is fascinating to contemplate the implications of that fact. To be sure, a few of that majority will be elderly graduate students still struggling to complete a doctoral dissertation on medieval Basque syntax. But most will be professionals with jobs and families. What this really means is that we are moving rapidly into a world in which substantial numbers of our population are in school from time to time throughout their lives. Clearly, perpetual learning is becoming the norm, the rule rather than the exception.

New Partnerships

We are not only experiencing changes from "old-down"; we are also initiating change from "young-up". One of the most exciting developments in educational reform in the state of Maryland in recent years has been the emergence of a state-wide partnership among elementary, secondary and higher education systems and business communities. The goal of this "K-16 Partnership" is thorough reform of the entire elementary, secondary, and higher education enterprise in our state, leading to a seamlessly integrated and performance-based system. This effort is based on the belief that the establishment of rigorous standards for all students and the assessment of student performance in terms of those standards will help restore the quality of our schools’ graduates to acceptable levels and help us further improve our colleges and universities.

In some respects this may resemble what many Americans perceive to be the more focused and less fragmented European model. But we are seeking to go beyond that model. Rather than make an early division between those who go on to college and those who don’t, we are working toward an educational system where that division never occurs at all. And it will be an educational system for all ages. In my own mind I have already replaced "K-16" with "PP-to-PM" (post partum to post mortem), or, to be blunt about it, "cradle to grave."

The Relevance of Qualifications

As this happens, we need to consider how best to certify the next generation of leaders of any age. In recent conversations with employers and politicians, I have found that business and government leaders are less interested in what kind of a general degree a student has than in knowing more precisely what he or she knows and can do. Rather than continue to rely on diplomas or degrees (which in our country are often too often based on little more than time spent in a classroom seat), I believe we ought to consider developing a more detailed suite of certification that would give a truer picture both are students knowledge and of their skills. This is hardly a novel idea. It is essentially what the Boy Scouts do with merit badges, what the military does with campaign ribbons, and what many academics do with the weighty curricula vitae they thrust upon anyone who expresses any interest.


Perhaps the most powerful driver of change in our universities is information technology. One of the most frequently expressed concerns in discussions of the impact of information technology on education is that it may isolate students from their teachers and one another, dehumanise the process of education, and destroy our academic communities. Such evidence as there is suggests the contrary. Let me give one example.

One of the institutions in the university system I head is completing construction of a new library building. What a library building was supposed to look like and do was once obvious to everyone, but today at the dawn of the Information Age it is less obvious. Many question the wisdom of ever again building anything called a library. Early on our planners sought advice from other architects who had recently gone through the same process. One said that his recent client institutions:

… predicted that as their campuses were wired and they were all connected, fewer people would come to their libraries. They were wrong. In fact, as more technology is provided, more people are coming into the libraries. The increase is staggering. The architect went on to say, technology is neither replacing collections, nor, with remote access available, discouraging people from the facilities. Technology is actually serving to encourage individuals to come into the libraries where there is activity of people together accessing and using information, and manipulating and turning that into knowledge.

Another frequently expressed fear is that information technology might disrupt traditional modes of academic research and undergraduate education, sometimes ideally pictured as a professor and a graduate student working together at a laboratory bench in an intimate mentor-apprentice relationship. The fearful overlook the fact that, in many fields, that idyllic model has long since been abandoned. Perhaps the most salient example is that of experimental elementary particle physics. Decades ago, the size and cost of the basic tool of the field, the particle accelerator, outgrew the financial capacity of any single scientist, any single university, and most single nations. The result today is a very few international laboratories (e.g., CERN) where single experiments occupy teams of hundreds of physicists (faculty and graduate students from dozens of universities in many countries) for a decade, and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

The life of a faculty member engaged in academic research of this sort bears little resemblance to the conventional ideal. A colleague who for several years managed a normal campus teaching load in Cambridge (Massachusetts) while running a major experiment at DESY in Hamburg, at the cost of a weekly transatlantic round trip, once described himself as holding an endowed chair on Lufthansa. The graduate students of another colleague calculated his annual average speed by dividing his annual air mileage by the number of hours in a year and came up with a value of about 35 mph.

Information technology did not cause this to happen, but it did make it all possible. And it is worth remembering that the World Wide Web was originally invented by a British programmer to serve the communication needs of a mere couple of thousand elementary particle physicists spread around world.

Retiring Graduates

Another part of this academic tapestry has recently captured my imagination. My colleague, Steve Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University, has taken note of the fact that in the U.S., university communities are becoming popular places of retirement for a burgeoning population of retirees. The reasons are obvious: they are rich in cultural and intellectual activities, not to mention sporting events, and populated by people who can remind one of what it was like to be young. Trachtenberg speculate that as the "baby boom" generation, that bulge in the population that has often carried along the rest of society its powerful wake, ages and retires, our university communities’ population of octogenarians will skyrocket. He predicts that this will spur a rebirth of the humanities, as many retirees, free from the demands of their careers, chose to pursue knowledge for its own sake.

Now if we add all this to the already evident potential consequences for higher education of information technology, one can discern a vastly changed, and for humankind, vastly improved, educational landscape. I expect most people will continue to have some sort of semi-traditional undergraduate university experience. Many of them will be residential students fully engaged in an undergraduate experience that, for American students, includes parties, Saturday football games in the autumn, and sitting under a tree in the spring reading Kafka or Keats. When they reach their golden years, they’ll be back, having parties, going to football games and reading whichever "K" they missed the first time around. And in between, they’ll be engaged with their Alma Mater’s virtual manifestation, engaged in perpetual learning.

A university has been aptly defined as a great library surrounded by a community of scholars. When asked to define happiness, Cicero is said to have remarked, "a library in a garden." The university I suggest may lie in our future is an ever-present fount of perpetual learning, and thus of perpetual happiness in Cicero’s terms. It might be defined as a global community of scholars permeated by a global digital library. And if the place-bound model of a library that has been valid since the great library of Alexandria makes it difficult to imagine such a university and such a library, then I would suggest we adopt the term "infory" as an apt descriptor for what is to come.

Near-Future Changes

But all that lies in the more distant future. For the immediate future, while all these changes take place, we must continue to adapt to the duality that accompanies any great cultural shift. We must continue to juggle information that we receive and store electronically and on paper; to teach and take classes on campus and online; to interface physically and virtually; to search the stacks and comb the shelves and surf the Web until we have all the information we need.

As we all know, surviving sweeping changes isn’t easy. I recently had two very valuable pieces of advice on how to ride out this upheaval. The first came from an executive at Lucent Technologies, the research and development spin-off of telecommunications giant AT&T. Observing that we will go through two generations of new computer chips in the next five years, she advises that you simply can’t expect to manage the change. The best you can do is "ride the wave".

The second piece of advice comes from Ken Auletta, a columnist for the New Yorker magazine, who in his most recent book reminds us that it’s all right to be confused by the rapid changes in telecommunications.

Combining these two comments, I would simply close with the thought that those who succeed in the next century will be those who can tolerate ambiguity, adapt quickly to change, and spot the next big wave before it crashes upon them. Now it’s time for questions. In order to start a conversation, let me end with three intentionally provocative predictions about the way things will look in the year 2020. Here’s my 20-20 vision for the future:

[49] This account was prepared for this report by The Marc Fresko Consultancy. It is based on text adapted from a paper supplied by the speaker, augmented by notes taken during the presentation.

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