Departing Pitt library director ‘‍finessed’ the system into 21st century

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As a medieval history student, Rush Miller researched 13th-century England with acres of index cards, meticulously taking note of bibliographic information. Now 67 and retiring in December after 20 years as the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s libraries, Mr. Miller is known for spearheading digitization efforts, launching partnerships and boldly rethinking the way services are organized.

From his office on the second floor of Hillman Library, Mr. Miller, bespectacled and wearing a paisley tie, reflected on the myriad changes he has seen during his 40 years in the business.

Card catalogs, once integral to a library’s organization, have been replaced with online search engines, and research no longer requires browsing bookshelves, as library services have become “ubiquitous,” he said. Sometimes, when students access an online database through a Pitt subscription, they might not even realize the library is involved.

“It’s phenomenal how this landscape has changed,” he said.

Mr. Miller believes these transformations have been largely positive. As director of Pitt’s libraries, he was always ahead of the curve and excited about modernization, planning in a way that involved the entire staff, his colleagues said.

When Mr. Miller arrived at Pitt in 1994, he judged the libraries to be disorganized and overcrowded. He set out to restructure the system and make it more efficient, closing half a dozen libraries, shipping books to a new storage facility and re-engineering back-room operations.

Tim Deliyannides, the university’s head of information technology, said Mr. Miller was forward-thinking and quickly shifted the library’s focus.

“From the very first time he came to Pitt, he had the vision and foresight that the role of the library would be completely redefined by information technology,” Mr. Deliyannides said. “He’s very bold in committing to a new activity and re-allocating resources, and sometimes that means we stop doing things we have always done because we’re moving in a new direction.”

Though there was some resistance from those who did not want to see any books go to storage, Mr. Miller said his colleagues overall were welcoming of change.

“He pulled this off with a certain finesse that made the changes easy for Pitt faculty to accept,” Mr. Deliyannides said. “That’s not an easy thing to do.”

A focus on the user was at the center of his changes, Mr. Miller said. Student and faculty needs at the school’s main library, Hillman, drove him to replace traditional reference desks with liaison librarians who specialize in various subject areas. The library recently extended its hours to be open all night Sunday through Thursday. Following a suggestion from a doctoral student, Harrison Grafos, the library built a dissertation writing room with individual study carrels.

“The library must continue to be relevant to learning and research, and the only way to do that is change the library,” Mr. Miller said.

Having served on the boards of the Association of Research Libraries and the Pennsylvania Academic Library Consortium, he also emphasized partnerships and open access.

Gloriana St. Clair, former dean of libraries at Carnegie Mellon University, said Mr. Miller “was very much willing to share his thinking and his visions with the rest of the librarians in the area.”

Mr. Miller started a document-sharing service with East Asian libraries that now has grown to more than 20 libraries in China, South Korea and Taiwan, and he developed a training and exchange program between Pitt and Chinese librarians. The Chinese American Librarians Association gave him its 2011 distinguished service award for his emphasis on diversity and collaboration with Chinese librarians.

Former Pitt provost Jim Maher said Mr. Miller was strategic in reallocating resources and forthright about changes that needed to happen, quickly transforming the library.

“We have library resources now that are very competitive with the best universities in the world and available to our students and faculty in a much more user-friendly way than they ever were before,” Mr. Maher said.

During his tenure, the library’s collection nearly doubled in size and now includes about 1 million electronic books and 110,000 journals.

Mr. Miller is confident libraries will continue to play an important role in academia, even as electronic resources replace print. Printed books do not define libraries; the antiquated reputation that they offer only printed material belies the extensive resources that today’s libraries offer, he said.

“I’m not wedded to the book because I’m a vellum guy,” he joked, referencing a type of medieval parchment.

Stephanie McFeeters: or 412-263-3909.

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