Steward of the once and future book

Julie Brown

Julie Brown

Frank Turner ’71PhD has been a professor and a provost at Yale. Now he's running the university library system. View full image

Editor’s Note: On November 11, after this article was published in our November/December issue, Frank Turner died suddenly. Click here for more information.


How does it feel to become University Librarian at Yale when all around you are predicting the end of the book as we know it? Intellectual historian Frank M. Turner '71PhD, who became interim University Librarian in January, has now formally assumed the leadership of Yale's vast library system—just as the apocalypse of the printed book is being discussed by his counterparts around the country. There are dark suggestions in journals and at conferences, he says, that "in less than 25 years, libraries will be glorified study halls," each with "one vast computer furnishing electronic materials."

But he's not worried: "The book won't disappear, and, in fact, our circulation remains high." Turner—the John Hay Whitney Professor of History, a former Yale provost, and since 2003 the head of the Beinecke (a post he'll keep until his replacement is hired)—readily acknowledges the reach of the digital revolution. "Libraries have changed more in the last 15 years than they have in the last five centuries," he says. Yale's library system "contains exemplars of everything: from the Beinecke, with its enormous breadth and depth of traditional print materials, to the medical library, which, except for its historical component, is virtually all electronic."

The rise of such virtual collections, along with digital devices and high-speed wireless Internet access, is changing a fundamental aspect of the library. "We've always thought of the library as the heart of the university, as a distinct place," Turner says. But librarians need a new perspective on the Sterling system. By enabling researchers to invent their own fresh ways of using the collections, "the library of the future will have to go into the heart of the user." 

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