Alumni Profile: Jim Neal

October 11, 2021

Volume 5, Issue 1, Winter 2015

M.A. ’73, History, M.S. ’73, School of Library Service

By Alexander Gelfand

Disruption, according to Jim Neal, is not a bad thing.

Neal is talking about the kind of disruption that new media and networked resources have wrought on research libraries and the people who run them.  And he has reason to be sanguine: as Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian since 2001, Neal, who retired at the end of 2014, has positioned Columbia’s library system at the forefront of the digital revolution (digitizing large swathes of its holdings, creating new units like the various Digital Centers to engage faculty and students with cutting- edge technology) while continuing to build on its traditional strengths of print academic monographs and global publications (pooling its print collections with those of its peer institutions, expanding its unique archives and special collections).

Yet Neal could just as well be articulating his personal credo. For while some fear change, Neal has spent most of his career embracing it.

Neal initially planned to pursue a career in the professoriate and got as far as completing his course work in the Russian history doctoral program at Columbia. But the prospect of doing archival research in the Soviet Union with one child at home and another on the way led him to seek other options. The switch to librarianship wasn’t much of a leap: Neal was already spending plenty of time at Butler Library, which housed the University’s School of Library Service before the latter was decommissioned in 1992. Before long, he had a Master of Library Science and a job as the Social Sciences Librarian at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.

After just three years, however, Neal was laid off, a victim of the mid-’70s fiscal crisis that nearly bankrupted the city. It was, he says, the best thing that ever happened to him, not because he hadn’t enjoyed his time at CUNY, but because he landed on his feet as head of the College Libraries Department at the University of Notre Dame. “In my heart of hearts, I’m an academic,” Neal says. And his time in South Bend led to positions of increasing responsibility at major institutions like Pennsylvania State University, Indiana University, and The Johns Hopkins University before finally returning him to Columbia.

By the late 1980s, when Neal was at Indiana, libraries were already beginning to migrate from print to digital media, as many standard indexes and reference works went online. By the mid-’90s, when he left for Johns Hopkins, that migration had become a stampede. As director of University Libraries at Hopkins, Neal not only developed new digital collections; he also became involved in a variety of innovative electronic publishing and academic computing initiatives. All of that made him the ideal person to take over, in 2001, from Elaine Sloan, who  in the course of her own 13-year tenure as Columbia’s top librarian attended to brick-and-mortar projects like renovating Butler Library while simultaneously initiating the University’s first digital library projects. Thanks to Neal’s subsequent efforts, Columbia now represents a case study in how a large academic research library system can adapt to—and benefit from—seismic technological upheaval.

The digital revolution also prompted Neal’s first  forays into copyright law. While Neal jokingly derides copyright as a MEGO topic (for “My Eyes Glaze Over”), it is of vital interest to libraries, which have a responsibility to provide barrier-free and open access to information. That sometimes places them in conflict with publishers, who have a financial interest in restricting it in order to make a profit. (Neal notes with some irony that universities like Columbia must pay large sums of money to buy access to research that their own scholars have published in prestigious journals.) But the advent of networked data and online content have complicated matters considerably, prompting high-profile legal battles over the rights granted to copyright holders, and the exemptions granted to libraries under the U.S. Copyright Act; and spurring the open access movement, which seeks to provide unrestricted access to scholarly research through online repositories like Columbia’s own Academic Commons.

As a result, Neal has spent a lot of time testifying before Congress and advising the U.S. Copyright Office and the Library of Congress on how copyright legislation should or should not be amended so that libraries can do what they need to in a wired world (digitizing print materials, duplicating digital content for preservation purposes) without running afoul of the law. He also helped found the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an international alliance of academic and research libraries that promotes open access, and established  a Copyright Advisory Office here at Columbia to help scholars understand how the intricacies of copyright law affect their ability to use, share, and disseminate their own work.

For Neal, all of those efforts constitute part of a much larger fight over who ought to control information and who should have access to it: producers or consumers, private corporations or public-facing institutions. “We’re not doing this for libraries,” Neal says of the work he and his fellow librarians  do to promote copyright reform and open access. “We’re doing it for the people who rely on us: the students and faculty at Columbia, the people in our communities.”

Soon, Neal will have slightly more time to spend on his own personal interests—namely, producing the kind of scholarly papers that his inner academic yearns to write again. One article on his to-do list will consider transfers of leadership within North American research libraries since 1947; another will address Thomas Edison’s seminal role in establishing what is now known as the “special library,” which marshals information for internal use by businesses and corporations; and a third will explore the historical ties between East Asian and American libraries.

“I feel a writing frenzy coming on,” Neal says.

Sometimes, change is good.