Throughout her impactful career in the private and public sector, Dr. Deanna Marcum has helped provide libraries, students, elected officials and businesses with unprecedented access to valuable information.
Marcum currently serves as Senior Advisor to Ithaka S+R, a firm that provides research and strategic guidance to academic and cultural institutions. In her previous role as managing director for the organization, she helped secure grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for research related to online learning, and from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support the digital preservation of books and documents.
She has previously served as Dean of the School of Library and Information Science at Catholic University and as president of the Council on Library and Information Resources, where she oversaw the process by which the Council was created from the merger of two other organizations. She worked for over a decade at the Library of Congress, where she oversaw 1,600 employees, increased public access to the library’s fascinating collection, and innovated new programs in digitization and global inter-library loans.
Marcum began her career teaching English at the University of Kentucky. Thanks to inspiration from a mentor, she earned a Master’s degree in library sciences and a PhD in American studies before joining the Council on Library Resources as a program officer, and later as vice president. It was in this role that she first traveled to Japan, and began a decades-long professional relationship with the country. In 2013, Marcum was invited to join the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, on which she continues to serve as a commissioner today.
NichiBei Connect recently spoke with Marcum about the vitality of the U.S.-Japan relationship, the power of mentors to guide by word and example, and the importance of access and information for all.
When did you first visit Japan?
I went to Japan for the first time in 1991. I wasn’t very familiar with the country, but I did know a little about the relationship that had been established between the Council on Library Resources, where I started working that same year, and Japan’s National Diet Library, which had been bombed and destroyed during World War II.
Right after the war ended, Dr. Sakai, who was the National Diet Library’s operating head, wrote to the Library of Congress asking for help to rebuild. The Council on Library Resources assisted with funding and a team of people from both institutions went to Japan to help with the rebuilding process. Funny enough, if you’ve ever seen the National Diet Library, it looks almost identical to the John Adams Building of the Library of Congress.
In appreciation for that help, Dr. Sakai created and endowed an annual conference that brought Americans to Japan to talk about issues of importance to both countries. Five American speakers and one hundred Japanese librarians came every year. And in 1991, Dr. Sakai did something quite remarkable—for the first time, he invited a woman to speak. I was that speaker.
That sounds like a groundbreaking step.
It was a very big deal. The women who were on staff at the libraries we visited in Japan were still wearing uniforms, and mostly just served coffee and tea. They were so happy to see a woman featured as a speaker at the conference.
Dr. Sakai was quite elderly at that time and, sadly, died later that year. But his successor asked if I would chair the American side of the conference and help keep it going. I agreed to do that from 1991 through 2012. I helped choose the conference theme each year, and I invited American speakers based on the themes we chose.
During that time period, I traveled to Japan almost every year and got to know the country and culture, and Japanese librarians in particular. I wouldn’t describe myself as a Japanese expert at all, but I loved going there. I was just enchanted with the country.
How did you first decide to pursue a career in library science?
I was a literature major, and then went to the University of Kentucky to teach English in 1969. It was at the height of the Vietnam conflict. I had students in my class hoping to avoid the draft and I was very sympathetic. I was concerned with what was happening to young people at the time. I was only maybe two years older than my students.
I realized that I was not prepared to teach in that environment and went to the dean of students to talk about how to do a better job. He was also the university’s librarian, and he suggested that I consider working in the library for a while. I had never considered librarianship as a career, but once I went to work there, I started to understand the field and decided I liked it.
When I was studying for my masters in library science, I also had an internship, and the university librarian would meet with the interns every Friday afternoon to talk about the major social and policy issues of the time. This was in the early 1970s, and one of those big issues was access to information for people who were poor or disadvantaged. There was a lot of emphasis on increasing equity in society, and also an emphasis on peaceful resolution of conflicts. Could education, knowledge, and understanding lead to different outcomes for our nation, rather than to wars like Vietnam? That concept was very attractive to me. I realized, “this is not just a job” and I was hooked.
How can librarians help give everyone access to the information they need?
A big part of that work is helping people understand which resources are valid, and how to know whether what you’re looking at is something worth reading. It’s also about making sure that resources are available regardless of whether you’re a student at a certain institution or not. When I was studying to be a librarian, inter-library loan became a very big issue.
Information access seems like a central theme of your career.
Absolutely. I’m co-writing a book that will be published by Princeton University Press this summer and, in a way, that book is a reflection of my entire career. I have focused on how to make sure that information for all is not just an aspiration, but something real, something we can deliver. The book is called Along Came Google: The History of Book Digitization, but really, it’s about this very long quest among librarians to provide equity of access in lots of different ways. Book digitization may be the best hope yet for achieving that goal.
How did you work towards this goal during your time at the Library of Congress?
When I began working there, it was policy to not participate in inter-library loan unless the material could not be gotten from any other source. I was very happy to change that policy, and to open up inter-library loan, particularly when it came to making resources available to international libraries. Digitization broadens access without harming materials, or even requiring them to leave the building. It can make a huge difference to other countries’ national libraries, particularly smaller ones that have a hard time getting resources.
The other project that comes to mind was digitizing special collections, which are the primary source material from the Library of Congress. I worked very hard to make those documents available on the Library’s website, so they’re accessible for everyone. Many of those special collections had not even been catalogued, so people didn’t know they existed. Much of the raw material of America’s history was archived at the Library of Congress. For a while, people just didn’t know about it. Now, there are maybe twenty million digitized items available to the public online.
You mentioned the importance of being able to tell valid information sources from questionable ones. That idea seems even more vital in the age of social media.
It’s a huge concern, because it’s so easy now to go on social media sites and focus on content from people who share your beliefs. And that’s one of the major issues facing the library profession—how do we combat forces of misinformation? Academic libraries are doing a great job of developing courses about how to evaluate the validity of resources, and a lot of college students are being exposed to that kind of structured process. I am hopeful that enough public libraries, schools, and colleges will address the importance of valid information that the issue will really penetrate.
Has the theme of access for all manifested in your work with the Japan-United States Friendship Commission?
When I first joined the commission, there was a tendency to prioritize grant funding for larger institutions that were well established and had sterling reputations. I’ve tried to give more support to small institutions, to make sure that, if they have great ideas for funding but not much experience applying for grants, they can still have a chance. That process involves discussing with certain applicants what they can do to get better hearings for their proposals.
Were there any mentors who made a big difference in your career?
The librarian I mentioned earlier—who used to talk to me and my fellow interns when I was in graduate school—was named Stuart Forth. He died a long time ago, but he was absolutely wonderful in helping me understand broad issues, and not just to focus on immediate concerns. I don’t know if I’d ever thought in that way before meeting him. He helped me shape my thinking by always taking me a level or two above where I was. That was just enormously valuable.
When I moved to Washington, DC and started working with the Council on Library Resources, Warren Haas was president of that organization. He didn’t believe in mentorship. [Laughs.] He was a curmudgeonly guy who wasn’t comfortable talking about soft issues. He always wanted to focus on the work and what needed to be done. He told me the very first day I was there that if he didn’t say anything, all was fine, but if things were not going well, he’d let me know. Otherwise, there was no need for discussion.
What I learned from watching him—even though he would never have called himself a mentor—was how to influence people and help them enter a discussion, contribute ideas, and feel like they were part of a larger cause. That has been so valuable to me throughout my career. He was extraordinarily important in helping me see ways of making progress without having money or any particular authority, just by having good ideas that other people wanted to be part of.
What are some current projects you’re particularly proud of with the JUSFC, Ithaka S+R, or elsewhere?
I’ve been with the Commission since 2013 and have exceeded my legitimate time by quite a bit [laughs] so I’m very proud to have identified a young, black librarian who will take my place when I retire. We’ve just gone through an important series of conversations on diversity, inclusion, and equity with leaders in a lot of fields that influence the U.S.-Japan relationship. When I knew my term was coming to an end, I was able to identify this librarian who is going to contribute greatly to the program and bring a different perspective. I’m enormously happy about that.
I’ve been reducing my time at Ithaka, though I continue to work on a couple of projects I care deeply about. One project helps small, independent colleges identify valid and accessible resources that teachers and students can use, instead of expensive textbooks. Many students at institutions like these have a hard time managing the financial burden of staying in college, so this is really a continuation of my eternal quest to make resources more open to those who need them.
I’m also focusing more on working with the League of Women Voters, making sure people are educated about issues and registered to vote, supporting voting rights and making ballots more accessible. Now that I’m cutting back my official work time, I have more flexibility to devote to those issues.
What advice could you offer to young people who are trying to find the right mentor in the U.S.-Japan relations space?
Having admiration for another person, just liking that person’s style, is a surprisingly important part of developing a mentorship relationship that has many dimensions, so I always encourage people to look for mentors they truly want to emulate. It’s important to look for mentors who you think are doing a good job, and to be specific about what you want to learn from them. And make the time to develop the relationship. It’s not just about having phone calls on a regular basis—it’s really about developing the relationship so you can share candid conversations and get candid responses. That’s so important.
Do you have any advice for established figures in the U.S.-Japan space who want to give back as mentors?
The hardest thing for many mentors is making the time. Again, there has to be time and space to develop and deepen the relationship. When I see talent and potential for great things in a young person I’m working with, I try to spend time getting to know that person and to develop a relationship of trust. I want to be able to suggest ways to improve without being threatening.
To you, why is the U.S.-Japan relationship important?
It’s extremely important from a security, cultural, and economic standpoint. I became much more aware of the value of that relationship after joining the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, but even before then, by traveling to Japan and focusing on library issues, I realized that our countries were facing many similar problems. Even just in the library world, having access to resources, for the scholarly and student communities, has really depended on a global outlook. And when I was at the Library of Congress, we became quite interested in developing an office of the library in Japan, so we could hire somebody to visit Japanese government offices, collect materials, bring them back to the U.S., and make them available to Congress for context and reference.
The relationship between the U.S. and Japan is vital on so many levels, and so many of our problems are identical. I think it’s extremely important for interested young people be able to experience Japan and Japanese culture. It’s been a great source of satisfaction within the Commission to make possible the direct personal relationships that, in the end, become the foundation for national exchanges of ideas and perspectives.