Interview with Stuart Sutton
By Anne Dame
Stuart graciously agreed to meet with me and let me ask him all sorts of questions. Here is what he had to say about the various topics I brought up:
AD: What was your favorite book when you were growing up?
SS: I’m so old that I don’t even remember any of my favorite books from when I was growing up. I do remember the library where I grew up and spending hours and hours and hours there.
AD: Let’s try an easier one, hopefully. What’s your favorite color?
AD: Do you have any Personal Information Management (PIM) tips that you would like to share?
SS: I can tell you what NOT to do! When I was doing my doctoral dissertation, I made copies of absolutely everything that I read. I was using a program called InMagic to organize and keep track of all of them. So they were all assigned a number and filed, numerically. The system took care of all the retrieval pieces for me but the actual files were basically in the order in which I read them. Years later, when I needed to go back into the system, the folder labels had all aged and fallen off! The lesson here is don’t depend solely on technology to organize your stuff.
AD: What was your dissertation about?
SS: Attorney mental models. How attorneys go about constructing their intellectual model of the law and how they deal with artifacts.
AD: Which is really just another form of information management.
SS: Yes. I watched attorneys in the law library and how they organized materials on their desks. Frequently it was just many, many books laid out in specific ways. I came to some interesting conclusions, but mainly that none of our online systems really support the way they go about doing things. And, frequently, neither do our libraries. But they built these base models of their perception of the law at the time in the way they found and stacked their materials.
I think that a lot of the organizational models don’t fit practice very well. As users, we are expected to bend our way to the system, to think in system terms, terms of controlled vocabulary and other things that just don’t come naturally to us.
AD: Do you think going more digital helps work around this?
SS: I think the potential is there.
AD: The person entering the digital information would still have to consider the potential user and how they would access the data.
SS: Yes, and nevertheless, many of those mimic the physical system they were born out of. They never take advantage of all the information that is there. A MARC record, for example, has much, much more information than a card in the card catalog ever had. But our OPACs don’t take advantage of fixed fields. Information that heralds new ways of doing things just sits there.
AD: What do you foresee as the greatest challenge as the MLIS program chair?
SS: Well, first let me say that this is not new to me. I was the director of the school of Library and Information Science at San Jose State which was, and may still be, the largest library school program in the country. Then I was chair of the MLIS at Syracuse University when I was there. There are things I am discovering that I think need attention and we’ve already started exploring, like the portfolio. We’re in the final stages of that and I think that the students will be very pleased with the changes. The opportunity will be much richer.
The next one is advising. I think we have a systemic problem there in the MLIS. I don’t think advising needs are the same in all the programs. It’s different from undergraduate advising and it’s different from doctoral advising. I don’t think we do it very well. My sense, off the top, is that it is a vast issue of failed expectations. The expectations of faculty and students are not aligning. Not that the advising itself is bad, just that the expectations do not match up.
We’re looking at some curriculum issues as well. The curriculum is just under ten years old. I want to take the opportunity to do some looking at that. There’s an initiative starting this summer with the Knowledge Organization people that are going to look at that whole area. Are we doing what we need for the breadth of our students? I shouldn’t say issues. It’s just time that we look at these things. Over time, courses tend to drift. Course inventories are meant to be the anchor for the course. Most students never see this. It’s not the syllabus.
AD: It ensures that no matter who teaches the course, the students get the same information.
SS: Right. It doesn’t give the pedagogy, how you should do it, it gives them some freedom but it also says you can’t go into a cataloging class and teach physics. A good example of this is the 540 class and the changes we are making there. That was definitely a case of failed expectations. The expectations were too high for a ten week course and the needs of the students too diverse. When I was at Berkeley I took a class from Patrick Wilson. Fabulous class! His background is in philosophy. Next semester I audited the same course with an economist. So it was a completely different take on it. It was a very different perspective, and yet, the inventory was the same. This is the richness that makes life interesting.
SS: The chair is normally a 3 year appointment, but I’m only here for one year. I’m just an interim appointment.
AD: Why is that?
SS: I’m retiring at the end of the year. It’s been 40 years.
AD: Well, how much can you do in a year then?
SS: I think the concerns are pretty clear cut and I don’t need to convince anyone that we have a problem. We just need to take the bull by the horns and see if we can wrestle some of them to the ground.
AD: What excites you most about being the program chair?
SS: The things that we’ve been talking about excite me. We had a meeting on the 19th with a small group of faculty about the portfolio. That turned out to be a really exciting discussion with the faculty. The discussion was about alternatives for students to still meet university requirements. The brainstorming was so exciting.
The other thing that excites me is to focus back in on the campus. My work and my research have really kept me focused a great deal on the outside, away from campus. It’s nice here at the end to look back over the ten years and see what we’ve accomplished school-wide.
AD: Do you ever miss practicing law?
SS: No! Not for a moment. I knew the first hour of practicing that I had made a mistake. The thing that doesn’t come through in law school, or maybe I was just naïve, is that it is about conflict and sometimes you have to be aggressive. I don’t enjoy either of those things. I enjoy the law as a living classification system that has an amazing way of growing. How do we think about this stuff? How does it shift when times change? But when you get to the grouchy counsel who lies to you? No. When the opportunity came to leave the law, it was to work at a law library.
AD: How long was that after you started practicing?
SS: Almost a decade. But I brought the best pieces of it with me. Nothing is ever a waste.
AD: And in closing, do you have a favorite pizza place or pizza toppings?
SS: Olympia Pizza – the Olympia Special: it has pesto and a couple different kinds of meats 2 or 3 cheeses and it’s this thick and greasy from the pesto. That’s my favorite.
AD: A huge thank you to Stuart for taking the time out of his busy schedule to talk to me and the ‘Fish about his interests and his excitement for the future of the Information School and the MLIS program. And now, off to get some pizza!