When business and library training meet

Share this on social media:

John Murphy profiles the president and CEO of the Research Libraries Group, an international organisation for libraries, museums and archives

All libraries are important resources and exist to make what they have available to anyone who needs them. But some libraries are also repositories of primary research materials. Traditionally, people have travelled around the world to get access to what they hold, but James Michalko has been trying to make their work easier. As head of the Research Libraries Group (RLG), he has worked to make library catalogues available electronically to the research community.

His vision is of a huge pool of primary source material that anyone can access from anywhere, irrespective of where the material is held or what systems are used to gain access. He has moved the RLG along from being simply a club in which large libraries cooperate on systems development, into a much broader organisation that builds institutions into global communities of research materials.

He is achieving these lofty goals with quiet diplomacy and passion that has persuaded a lot of people to forget their pride and work together. Instead of being a brash showman his colleagues say that he has kept the organisation going through trials and tribulations by keeping a sense of proportion � and a sense of humour.

Molly Singer, former chief financial officer of the RLG and a friend of Michalko for 15 years, describes him as 'very smart, very clever, very funny and very dry, kind of sardonic,' but says that there is another side to him too. 'He is very compassionate in a quiet way � when people have difficulties he looks after them,' she explained.

'He is very articulate when selling the story of RLG but he's not a backslapper � he more introspective. His greatest contribution has been in building connections between various repositories, archives and libraries and he has been ahead of the curve in making cultural material accessible,' she said.

'Being an enabler who makes connections between people is important, because some of these people at big repositories have big egos,' she continued. 'He is diplomatic and can communicate his ideas in a way that gets people talking to each other. This is particularly important when dealing with museums, which often have different priorities than those of research libraries,' she added.

James Michalko was brought up in Cleveland, Ohio, amid what is now called the 'Rust Belt' but at the time was a thriving centre of heavy industry. His parents were Czech and Slovak immigrants and most of his relatives worked in steel mills and other factories in the area. Michalko's parents were keen for him to get a good education, however, and they sent him to a local Catholic school. He was a good academic student but balanced this with a keen interest in athletics.

Michalko went on to gain a place at Georgetown University, in Washington DC. 'This was slightly controversial at the time, because back then somebody could get you into the steel mill and that was regarded as employment for life but I got a lot of encouragement and took the opportunity,' he said. 'If you went to a Catholic School you aspired to go to Georgetown because, at the time, it was the leading Catholic university and was run by Jesuits. I have a great admiration for the Jesuits.'

He studied English literature and political science, which was a major strength of Georgetown, where many senior government figures were professors. After graduating, Michalko decided to seek his fortune in the business world and returned to Cleveland to join the Boston Capital Corporation, a huge holding company that was investing in new industries by buying other companies, particularly in medical technology. 'Whenever there was a company that was too boring for one of the big guys to visit, I got to visit it,' said Michalko. After a while, the company urged him to go to graduate school to get an MBA and then come back to work for them.

But Michalko had begun to develop other interests. As part of this work, he had spent considerable time in libraries doing desk research. He said he was 'both impressed and appalled by them' and decided that he really wanted to go to library school. Fortunately, he was able to find a graduate school where he could develop both business and library skills, the University of Chicago.

'The library school was full of people who really were leaders in their field,' said Michalko. 'In fact, the library school was more competitive than the business school,' he added. 'I guess it's because everyone in the business school knew they were going to have careers and be fine. Maybe the uncertainty of the future for those in the library school made them more competitive.'

He worked at the University of Chicago library while a student, and stayed on afterwards before being offered a job at the University of Pennsylvania.

He said: 'I had decided that I really wanted to work in libraries and wanted to work with one of the leaders in the field. At the time, Richard DeGennaro was at Pennsylvania and he was one of two or three people that I really admired. We met and chatted. After a while he said he didn't really know what he could do with me but thought he needed somebody with an MBA. A few weeks later he offered me a job. I was the business manager, but he gave me responsibility and experience in every department. It wasn't pretend � he made me work � but it gave me a 360-degree view of a library.'

After a while, Michalko rose to director of administration and started to feel there was going to be a big change in the library world because of computer technology � even though it was still in its infancy at that time. He realised that individual institutions would not have the resources to deal with that change. Several organisations had been formed by libraries to share resources on development work, including the RLG, and Michalko began to feel that this is where the really exciting work was going to be done. The RLG needed a business manager, so he jumped on a plane and headed west.

Although the RLG had originally been formed by a group of East Coast institutions, Stanford University in California had asked to join the group and, in return, it agreed to sell library administration software, which it had developed, to the group for $1. The RLG had then moved its base to the Stanford campus, although it kept an office on the East Coast.

Michalko found his early experience of the RLG chaotic. He didn't even really know how many people worked there, because so many people were seconded or were shared between the RLG and other projects. His first task was to really get to grips with the group and turn it into a functional organisation.

He said: 'I stepped into a chaotic start-up situation, and it was uncertain whether it would survive. It was interesting, exciting and unnerving. The computing challenges were pretty enormous; scaling up to something that would work in hundreds of institutions was a pretty big job. The first president was a very charismatic guy, a great salesman, but he was very much ahead of what we could actually deliver at that time. I spent most of my time borrowing money from people.'

One of the first outcomes of the RLG was the Research Libraries Information network. This linked the catalogues of all the members and was the major source of revenue at the time. Before this the group had just been funded by grants and 'the random kindness of strangers.' Eventually, however, the member institutions were persuaded to make large capital investments in the RLG, and its survival became more secure.

Michalko became president of the RLG in 1989. Since then, he has shifted from simply focusing on systems development to encompassing the much broader field of getting institutions to pool their resources in a way that helps researchers. He has helped set up several databases that combine resources � not just from libraries, but from other sources such as museums and archives.

'When I took over, my pitch was that the future was partnership between institutions that have the same clientele, like museums and archives,' he explained. 'A museum has more in common with the library at Stanford University than that library has in common with a public library. Primary source material is not just in libraries. Institutions are being described these days as 'memories'. Scholarship at this level is global. The mandate I got was to think about what kind of institutions should be brought together and to think about institutions outside North America.'

Subjects like science, medicine and the law were already served by commercial interests so most of the effort of the RLG has been concentrated in the humanities and the social sciences, which Michalko describes as 'the poor but demanding'. Recently, it has also put some work into the actual user interface. People have become accustomed to Google-style search engines, so the RLG decided to develop something that has a single window input and produces results similar to a search engine. It came up with 'RedLightGreen.com' which effectively searches library catalogues for books and other deposits around a keyword, and helps the user trace where they can be retrieved from.

Michalko's ambitions for the future is that people will now start to find new and creative uses for the resources that have been made available and he hopes that commercial players might also come onto the scene.

'I would love to see the computer science community turning some of its research interest on this cultural information,' he enthused. 'From a computer science research standpoint this is really challenging stuff. When you have this kind of information you encounter huge problems, like the naive language problem. We need to meet people on the ground in which they are playing.'

When not creating cultural memory Michalko has become an addictive skier, something that never occurred to him in Cleveland, but the advantage of being in California is that there are not just technological mountains to climb.


1971 Georgetown University, graduate in English literature and political science
1974 University of Chicago, Graduate School of Business, MBA
1974 University of Chicago, Graduate Library School, MA

1971-72 Boston Capital Corporation, Cleveland, OH, assistant to the vice-president of administration
1973-74 University of Chicago Libraries, Chicago, IL, Reference and Microforms
1975-80 University of Pennsylvania Libraries, various then director of administration
1980-89 Research Libraries Group, Stanford, CA, manager of business and finance then vice-president, finance and administration
1989-date RLG, Mountain View, CA, president and CEO