February 17, 2018

Dan Greenstein | Movers & Shakers 2002

Orchestrating Digital Worlds

“You have to be able to surf across lots of communities”

“Everything that I know about the library world that’s not associated with my academic past I’ve learned in the past two years,” says Dan Greenstein, but don’t sell him short. He sees the big picture, because he’s been working on digital library issues for well over a decade.

Greenstein was teaching history at Glasgow University in the early 1990s when he was given a part-time release to manage the arts faculty computing unit he’d established three years earlier. He found he liked merging technology with academia so much that when he hit a crossroads in 1995–whether or not to finish a book version of his dissertation–he chose to serve the broader world rather than his narrow specialty: “I could only be one person, not two.”

So in 1996 Greenstein became founding director of the Arts and Humanities Data Service (AHDS), which supports research and teaching in the UK’s 440 universities and colleges. Using five subject-based data services, AHDS collected and shared digital versions of everything from visual arts to ancient texts. “We learned a lot about interoperability,” Greenstein says, an issue that has remained high on his radar screen.

In 1998, he helped found the Resource Discovery Network, a network of Internet portals with selected high-quality web-based information. Such projects, he reflects, may be easier to start in the UK, owing to national funding, but they’re less sustainable. So he decided to head home to the United States.


Current position: University Librarian, University of California, Office of the President, and Executive Director, California Digital Library

Recently Director, Digital Library Federation (www.diglib.org)

Degree: Ph.D., Social Studies, Oxford University, 1989

Writings: Article on digital library standards (www.clir.org/pubs/issues/

“You have to be able to surf across lots of communities”

There, in 1999, Greenstein took over the Digital Library Federation, a group of two dozen major university libraries that “weren’t a natural consortium.” The group was seen by some as sluggish, but Greenstein credits his two predecessors for laying the groundwork for projects that later flowered, like CrossRef. “What was needed was an emphasis on communications, to enfranchise more people,” says Greenstein. He spent six weeks visiting the members, then put together a strategic plan. That led to such projects as the Open Archives Initiative and a possible protocol for metadata harvesting.

“I enjoy facilitating discussion across communities,” says Greenstein. “I don’t know if it’s part of my background or just my personal makeup.” Still, it readied him to move to a new level: “Brokering this stuff is really interesting, but at the end of the day you’re just facilitating it.”

Now he’s getting the chance, not to broker but to orchestrate. The California Digital Library, established in 1997, provides digital content and services for UC faculty and students, and Greenstein will be among 11 university librarians, the rest associated with the system’s ten campuses. “We need to move into a situation where we’re facilitating deep resource sharing,” he says, noting that some 40 percent of his job will involve systemwide planning.

Maybe Greenstein is the guy to knock some heads and get libraries to break–as some have started to do–with some longstanding paradigms. “There are really challenging questions about how libraries are organized and funded. When general collections are concerned, is it necessary for everyone to manage the same books?” he asks. “I think change in professional practice is really hard. I’ve seen that in the faculty, and I’ve seen that in the library. I think students are going to demand change more than the faculty. Campuses need to deliver it, and libraries are part of the solution, though not just in the library.”

Greenstein acknowledges that he’s been criticized for not understanding issues because he lacks an MLS.

However, his formal training wasn’t questioned when he interviewed for the new job. “They recognize that leadership in a library doesn’t necessarily require a library degree,” he says. “Organizations that are trying to change take a risk.” Now, his capacities for strategy, planning, and diplomacy will be newly challenged in this emerging digital age.