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Library science meets business

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Michael Koenig, professor in the College of Information and Computer Science and Palmer School of Library and Information Science, Long Island University, USA...

Everyone knows the price of information, but its value is a bit harder to quantify. One of the reasons that the information industry continues to grow is that Michael Koenig put his considerable mind to this problem. He was one of the first academics to talk about the return on investment in information services rather than just what these services allow you to do.

In this respect he can be thought of as the missing link between the academic world of library science and the business world. He has had a career that spanned the world of manufacturing, industry and academia, even starting a 'dot com' company long before anyone even knew what the term meant.

This professor of library and information science at Long Island University was recognised in 2005 with the Jason Farradane Award. This was presented by UKeiG, the UK's eInformation Group, during the recent Online Information show, for his outstanding work in the information field. This included his record of publication and his establishment of one of the first of a new breed of 'I Schools' which combine the study of library science with computer science. He hopes it will produce a new generation of professionals in the library and information field that not only understand what is needed from information systems, but also how to apply technology to meet those needs.

Jim Matarazzo, dean and professor of Library and Information Science, Emeritus at Simmons University in Boston has known Koenig since he started teaching at Columbia University in the 1980s and regards him as an unsung hero of the field.

He said: 'Michael has had work experience in the business world and academia, and has worked for a vendor. Michael understands information from the point-of-view of people who teach, people who practice and people who sell - which is a unique view. Michael has a lot of publications that are very well done. In 1990 Michael was talking about 'knowledge workers' and 'downstream productivity'. I think he was way ahead of the curve. He has made a unique contribution to helping people who work with information understand the contribution they make to the people who use information to make decisions. Michael provided a means to assign a value to their work.'

He describes Koenig as a striking character with a booming voice and something to say about everything. He is a controversial character within the information world, more because of his character and image than his views, which are usually leading the field.

Matarazzo added: 'He is very independent; smart; driven; with a powerful personality. He says things that other people don't see for 10 or 15 years. His powerful personality gets in his way. Michael wears these big thick belts with trucks on them. It s bit unusual in academic circles to have someone looking at you with a belt buckle that is a giant truck. Not just one, if you see him five days in a row you see five different trucks. It's a bit off-putting and people say 'he's definitely nuts'. He's not nuts, he just likes trucks! If you are a library industry professional it's a bit unusual to be into trucks.

'The message sometimes gets lost because of the way he delivers it. But Michael Koenig is right, and sometimes people forget that he is right. He can see the future as very few of us can see it. The I-School was something that he saw and implemented. When people saw that it worked other people did it and said that they had had the idea first. He drags everyone else along with him.'

Koenig was born in Rochester New York, two weeks before the Pearl Harbour attack, but grew up mostly in Connecticut. His background was typically American, with his surname coming from 19th century German blood on his father's side. His father was a teacher at a Catholic school that numbered President Kennedy among its alumni. He was a bright student from his early days, generally being the last boy standing in the elementary school 'spelling bee'. He went to the school that his father taught at, although he was not a Catholic. He was always good at maths and physics so he decided to study physics at college.

He got a scholarship to Yale, but there he discovered that things were a bit more complicated. He said: 'My room mate at college was a genius at physics and he convinced me that I was not going to win a Nobel Prize at physics, so I shifted to psychology - for the simple reason that it was fun. I never took it seriously enough to do graduate work.'

As a child he was fascinated by warships so, when he left college, he enrolled in the Naval Officer Reserve Corps and spent two years in the Navy. He served on a ship that was effectively a floating dry dock, spending much of the time sailing the Mediterranean. He got it out of his system and decided it was not the right career for him - even though he enjoyed it.

He was not sure what he wanted to do next and took a job at the university library at Yale. It was just as library automation was being introduced. He had done a bit of programming at college and got involved in the technology side. This caught his interest and he decided that this was what he wanted to pursue as a career. There were very few graduate programmes in computer science at the time, and the closest thing he could find to it was an MA programme in library science and an MBA programme in mathematical methods at the University of Chicago.

He said: 'It was clear that this was the way that libraries were going to go. Libraries were big repositories of information and computers were big information handling devices. It was clear that they did not require a lot of processing resources. But it was also becoming clear that libraries needed real-time information systems because if a lecturer mentioned a book then it was a case of the first person to get to the library got the one copy. It was obvious, too, that with libraries there was no central authority imposing discipline, leaving a very messy amount of data to deal with.'

His next step was to work for Pfizer, managing its technical information department, which was undergoing rapid change at the time with the introduction of more technology. He was involved in a joint venture which allowed the company to use the Online Computer Library Centre (OCLC), which had previously only had not-for-profit members. He also saw the introduction of Medline and services like Dialog and Derwent.

He started to publish articles about his work at Pfizer and remembers one in particular. He said: 'It was the first article in library automation to demonstrate actual cost effectiveness. If anyone can find anything earlier then please let me know. In the early years automation was not introduced to make things more cost effective, it simply allowed you to do new things. There was not a lot of business expertise in the library world. When I sent the article in, the editor said the referee had described it as a very unorthodox presentation. I suggested a few referees who knew something about cost effectiveness and he eventually accepted it. I met him later at a conference and he put his hand out, smiled and said "so you are the young whipper-snapper who told me that my referees didn't know what they were doing"'.

Koenig was later to win recognition for ground-breaking work on examining the relationship between the success of pharmaceutical companies and the amount they invested in information services. He found a direct correlation between information and the bottom line. His paper was reprinted five times and is very widely cited.

His next move was the Institute for Scientific Information, which had started to invest heavily in electronic services. Koenig was in charge of operations, which meant producing the databases and search services. He later moved on to a development role and played an important part in expanding the level of information obtainable from the Citations Index, one of its flagship products. Then he moved again to a system development role at Swets, where he was a vice-president and member of the board of directors.

After a couple of years there he moved again, to Columbia University. He said: 'My wife believed that a professor would make a much better trophy husband than a vice-president, which was a very Italian attitude. I had been teaching part-time at Columbia and it looked like fun, and then I got the job offer. My wife was working at the UN in New York and it was a good deal all round.'

Columbia had the world's oldest library school but it had little background in electronic information systems. He started doing important work on the actual world of information, identifying that there was actually more information out there than people have previously realised and that it was more uniform that previously realised. This work contributed significantly to his recent award of the Jason Farradane Prize.

In the mid-80s he got involved in setting up a company called Tradenet. It was designed to be a trading service for companies that wanted to barter goods. In many ways it was a dot com company and attracted the same amount of hype. It did an IPO and at one time it had a market capitalisation of $460 million. But it was too far ahead of its time and never worked. It crashed in dot com style in 1988 and Koenig moved to Dominican University, just outside Chicago. He wife wanted to stay working in New York so they both became weekly commuters, getting together at a weekend home near Philadelphia, where he still lives today. His main research effort at that time was around knowledge management and metrics bringing together the library world with the business world.

After two four-year terms at Dominican he felt it was time to do something new, and he was offered a job at Long Island University. This was a more internationally-known library school, with a doctoral programme. He was again able to come up with some innovations in teaching to form what became known as the 'I School'

He said: 'Some places have evolved from being conventional library schools to offering a bunch of other degrees too. Other schools are combining library science with either journalism or education. What I did was combine the library school with computer science. We developed new programmes in information management with post graduate programmes in things like public libraries. We wanted to give them a stronger background in computer science, which helps them address a wider job market. I like to think that in library school we teach people about authority control, which can be applied in any field. In the business world they used to talk about data integrity and master data management, which is just authority control. We hope that the programme will give students a broader horizon than they had before. There are lots of applications for the control and management of information that don't have the 'L' word in them.'

He retired as dean of the College of Information and Computer Science in 2004. This just means he has more time to write, do research and teach. Although at 64 he is close to the traditional retirement age, he says he intends to carry on for at least another 20-30 years because he enjoys what he does so much. He is taking it a bit easier though, although he intends to continue travelling extensively as he has done throughout his career. He loves telling stories about the scrapes he has got into. One of his best is the story of being caught up in the Russian Coup of 1991, where he had to dodge a few tanks around the White House of Russia. He has a wide range of other interests, besides trucks, and has a small collection of classic American cars, including a rocket carrier and a DeLorean. He also claims to have the largest collection of British bar towels in America, which he started while working for Pfizer to England. Needless to say they are all meticulously indexed and cross referenced.

Curriculum Vitae

Education

  • 1963 BA Psychology and physics, Yale University
  • 1968 MA Library science, University of Chicago
  • 1969 Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study, Library and Information Science, University of Chicago
  • 1970 MBA Mathematical methods and computers, University of Chicago
  • 1982 PhD Information science, Drexel University

Employment

  • 1963-1965 Communications officer (lieutenant j.g.) U.S.S. Shadwell LSD 15, US Navy
  • 1965-1966 Assistant department head, Circulation Department, Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University
  • 1970-1974 Manager of information services, Pfizer, Inc
  • 1974-1978 Member, executive committee, Institute for Scientific Information.
    • Director of library operations (1974 -1977)
    • Director of development (1977-1978)
  • 1978-1980 Vice-president, North American operations, & member, board of directors, Swets & Zeitlinger
  • 1980-1985 Associate professor, School of Library Service, Columbia University
  • 1983-1985 Affiliated faculty, Graduate School of Business, Columbia University
  • 1985-1988 Adjunct professor, School of Library Service, Columbia University
  • 1985-1988 Vice-president - data management, Tradenet Inc
  • 1988-1996 Dean and professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, Dominican University
  • 1996-1999 Professor and former dean, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and Professor, Graduate School of Business, Dominican University
  • 1999-2004 Dean and professor, the Palmer School of Library and Information Science, Long Island University.
  • 2001-2004 Dean of the College of Information and Computer Science, Long Island University
  • 2004- Professor in College of Information and Computer Science and the Palmer School of Library and Information Science, Long Island University, and information management adviser to university

John Murphy