Against the Grain Vol. 33#4
The following is a lightly edited transcript of an episode of “ATG: The Podcast” that aired on June 1, 2021: http://www.charleston-hub.com/podcast/atgthepodcast-114-interview-with-greg-eow-president-of-crl/.
TG: Greg, welcome to ATG the Podcast. We’re delighted to have you chatting with us this morning.
GE: Well, thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here.
TG: Let’s start off with our first question, and for those listeners who may not be that familiar with CRL, or the Center for Research Libraries, can you tell us a little bit about CRL and its function and its role in the research community?
GE: Sure. When I think about the Center for Research Libraries, I think of the collective collection. It’s really just a cooperatively owned, cooperatively stewarded, collective collection that’s been built for seven decades by the research library community.
It was created in 1949 by largely the “Big Ten” libraries to be a shared storage facility for collections here in Chicago and the value proposition of that cooperative collection building was so persuasive that it grew really quickly and so by the early 60s we had members across the U.S. and even Canadian members, and so what CRL is now — it’s a membership organization of 200 research libraries across the U.S. and Canada that are cooperatively building and stewarding a research collection at the network level.
TG: I remember when I was working in the Reference Department at the College of Charleston, we used to borrow materials from the Center for Research Libraries. Back then, though, it was microfilm, and I suspect you may still have some microfilm collections, but I don’t imagine that you’re lending them out all that much.
GE: Yeah, that’s right. We have a large microfilm collection, and of course lend them out, but now they’re largely digitized or, if folks want to borrow the microfilm, we digitize on demand, so we’ll have someone request them, but then we’ll digitize them and deliver them digitally.
LH: Greg, you’re now 18 months into your tenure of being named President of CRL. Can you share any initial observations or lessons learned? How has the transition from MIT libraries to CRL gone for you so far?
GE: Well, it’s been an extraordinary transition. It’s a big leadership transition, anyway, going from Cambridge, Boston to Chicago and going from an AUL position to president of a consortia position, but, of course, I was only at CRL for about six months before COVID arrived. So, I had scarcely begun my tenure as president of CRL before I was leading in the context of crisis management. Given the context of my onboarding into the role at CRL: leading through the COVID crisis, while simultaneously getting to know the organization, getting to know the community, doing culture change, bringing on new staff — all of the leadership changes that you would expect in any transition — it’s been great. I am unbelievably appreciative and impressed at how resilient the CRL community has been through this leadership change.
We just had our annual CRL meeting a couple weeks ago and in my report to the CRL community, I said that I can honestly report that CRL is a stronger organization today than a year ago and the fact that we were able to do that in the context of COVID is just extraordinary, and really it is a testament to the resilience of the CRL staff and the CRL community. So, I’m deeply appreciative of that. But it has been a wild leadership transition, that is for sure.
But the way that we were able to navigate the challenges as a team and grow a really strong internal organizational culture and build stronger relationships and come out of it a stronger organization. That’s just, that’s been really heartening and it makes me feel really optimistic and appreciative for the future. One thing I got drilled into me when I was at MIT was that one of the responsibilities of leadership is to always look for opportunities to “hack” challenging situations to continue forward progress. Always be optimistic, and always be problem-solving and moving forward. As I tell my staff, optimism is a choice, and the right one.
TG: Well, it really is a remarkable accomplishment, too, to be able to say that and to have made it happen, and we know that you have had some extensive experience in collection development in a variety of libraries, but could you tell us which one of these experiences best prepared you to take over the leadership of CRL?
GE: Well, maybe I’ll tell a story here. You know, my first full-time, post grad school career job was when I was history librarian at Yale. I finished grad school at Rice, took my PhD in history at Rice, finished in 2007, and I landed this dream job at Yale that I was so excited about. I had just scarcely begun settling in at Yale and, lo and behold, we had the financial crisis, and the financial crisis was terrifying, and we were thinking about “What does this mean for staffing and possible reductions in staff? What does this mean in terms of collection budgets and reductions in collection budgets?” And being in the very, very early phase of my career and navigating this financial crisis — that was incredibly helpful for me. I think it helped me develop some comfort with extreme ambiguity in highly anxious moments.
Another result of the financial crisis was that I developed a deep and abiding appreciation for the traditions and traditional workflows of research libraries. At the time I was so new to my career that I was seen, rightly, as being a change agent because I had new ideas and new perspectives. Some of this was born of enthusiasm, but also probably born of naiveté, too. Right? But so, I was really thinking about the future and hoping we could change things, and in the wake of that financial crisis, we really had a whole generation or multi-generations of staff retire. I saw this sudden loss of institutional knowledge and professional knowledge and I was afraid, and I thought, I don’t really know a lot of these traditions. I don’t know why we have some of these workflows. I don’t know why do we do serial reviews like this? What are slips? What are standing orders? Why do we have these? And so, what I did was I decided to really study collections and collection development in a disciplined way and really interview folks that were retiring, really read a lot of literature that was seen as being maybe out of date, but I just — it taught me to really respect tradition and learn from tradition while understanding my role in the profession to be one of being a change agent. That that’s what I learned.
TG: It really is amazing how a crisis like that and being challenged to meet it can teach you so much and it sounds like in this particular instance that really held true for you.
GE: Yeah, it’s interesting, you know, when I think about my career. I graduated from library school in 1998 and then I was working as an archivist for a few years before I went back to grad school for history and in between there, there was the dot com bust, so I was trying to get my first archivist job while navigating the dot com bust, and then I came out of grad school and started working at Yale and then there was the financial crisis.
GE: And then I come here and it’s Covid.
TG: You’ve just been hopping from one crisis to the next.
GE: And having some familiarity with crises and developing the tools to remain productive while simultaneously existing in the emotional space of deep anxiety has been helpful. Essential, really. I’m used to being anxious.
TG: Anxiety as a plus. That’s an interesting concept.
LH: Using it as a tool.
GE: When you think about libraries as well, I have never known a day as a professional librarian that wasn’t informed by the scholcomm crisis and as an historian I’ve never known a moment as an historian that hasn’t been informed by the crisis to humanities though, so it’s just this is in some ways that’s been very helpful because it is just routinized. It is not really a crisis. It’s just sort of the condition of my work. That’s been helpful. Covid, however, has been a genuine crisis. We’re doing all right.
LH: So, at MIT you were active in finding ways for the MIT Libraries and MIT Press to collaborate on exploring new business models for open publishing. So now that you are at CRL, do you see possibilities for CRL to pursue similar partnerships with university presses and publishers?
GE: Yeah, absolutely. This is one of the things that I’m really keen for CRL to do, and here’s why. So, to use MIT as an example, as a microcosm, at the MIT libraries, the MIT Press is part of the libraries and so organizationally it actually reports into the libraries. They are actually the same administrative unit. So, same institution, same commitment to creating great research-based knowledge, and disseminating it and preserving it and part of the same organization. And at MIT I thought, “Well, the MIT Press is creating really fabulous research content and one of their challenges is getting that content to libraries in ways that are financially sustainable, a business model of distribution.” And then I was thinking, “Well, at the libraries we’re trying to make our collection budgets go as far as they can go and trying to be as efficient and as effective with the management of our collection budgets.”
So, the question was, how can we at the MIT Libraries actually work directly with the MIT Press because they’re our colleagues, they’re literally in the same organization as we are. So, we started reserving parts of the library collection budget aside to subvent publications, OA publications, so we would set funds aside to subvent publication of MIT Press books, we created a committee that would have librarians and members of the press that would work on how to manage those and prioritize those funds and so really create structures to bring the librarians and the publishers together to create and disseminate content. That model worked so well in that microcosm at MIT that I thought, “Well, what a great opportunity at CRL to do that at scale,” because when you think of CRL we’re just one giant research library. We’re just one giant co-op. Right? We’re not “.com”; we’re not even “.org.” CRL is CRL.edu, with a business model and governance structure that we are one big research library cooperative. So if university presses and scholarly societies, so publishers and scholars or authors, want to partner with research libraries on innovative business models, we can really do that using CRL as a platform for research libraries at scale. So, I definitely want to use that model that we had at MIT libraries and see if that works at a consortial level, at the network level from CRL. I would love to do that and that’s what we’re exploring now.
LH: That’s great. Can you give us any previews of any projects that may be coming down the road or is it too early to speak to that yet?
GE: Well, there is one that I’m working on later today. We’re putting together a webinar to talk about exactly this issue. How can scholars and publishers and librarians, so sort of this three-legged stool, how can we work together to find new models for creating and disseminating and preserving content that works for all of these communities? We’re going to have representatives from PLoS come and talk about their new business model exploring Community Action Publishing which is similar in some ways to the MIT Press Direct to Open Model. And then we’re also going to talk about the Global Press Archive which is a collaboration between CRL and Eastview which is similar to a Direct to Open publishing model but for newspaper content. So, those are some things that we’re doing later this month but that’s something that we want to build on in the future.
This concludes Part 1 of our two part interview with Greg Eow, President at Center for Research Libraries, Global Resources Network. Part 2 of this insightful and fascinating interview will be published in the November 2021 issue of Against the Grain.