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iSchools and the Evolution of the Information Movement

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Michael Eisenberg G'86 once visited a kindergarten class that was working on a project about the signs of spring in New England. He introduced himself as 'Mr. I, the Information Guy,' sat on the floor, and guided them through the assignment. "We have to make a picture of signs of spring. That's a story," he recalled telling the young students. "How do you tell a story? In the beginning, you plan. In the middle, you do. In the end, you review."

Michael Eisenberg

The outline Eisenberg presented to the students was a modified version of Big6, the widely praised curriculum he co-authored to use information to solve problems or make decisions. "It’s all about helping students of any age process information," he explained. "Information is power and makes things happen."

That philosophy underlies his career as a leading scholar of information literacy and champion for iSchools. After working as a teacher and school librarian, in 1982 he entered the doctoral program at Syracuse's School of Information Studies. In his 16 years here as a student and professor, Eisenberg launched a number of initiatives that put the Syracuse iSchool on the cutting edge of information technology.

He left Syracuse in 1998 to become founding dean of what would soon become the iSchool at the University of Washington in Seattle. Under Eisenberg's leadership, what started as the Graduate School of Library and Information Science leapt into the Internet age, embraced technology, and stressed collaboration with the computer science and engineering departments. Following in the footsteps of Eisenberg's alma mater, the UW school became an iSchool. He called it Syracuse West.

Eisenberg – described in a UW profile as possessing "bulldog optimism" – retired from UW in 2014 as dean emeritus and professor emeritus. But his legendary energy and passion for information keep him busy in the field he loves. He continues to do research, present seminars on Big6 (a new book was released in May), and act as "the Johnny Appleseed of iSchools," advising colleges and universities on how to create iSchools.

For years, Eisenberg taught an introductory course to first-year iSchool students. "I gave them the elevator speech about the importance of information," he recalled. "Information is the lifeblood of every field, every endeavor, every aspect of human life. Human beings are information processing organizations. Creating information and keeping track of information, organizing it, making it available, determining credibility, and processing it are crucial to an organization." Information studies, he would conclude, "is the most exciting field."

The late Robert S. Taylor, Syracuse iSchool dean from 1972 to 1981, once told him school librarians didn't fit in the doctoral program. "I told him I was going to show him he was wrong, and I did," Eisenberg said. "It’s not just reading to kids, although promoting reading and literacy is part of it. It's about understanding resources and how to use them. The heart of it is information literacy."

Elizabeth D. Liddy G'77, G'88, dean of the iSchool, recalls her former graduate school classmate and colleague as a popular, effective teacher. "When he cares about something, he cares deeply and puts his whole heart and soul into it," she said. "He's fearless about what he believes in. For a field that's considered kind of old-fashioned, he had a native inquisitiveness about where the field was going."

His enthusiasm was infectious, Liddy added. "His students would graduate with a sense of mission that literacy and information are critical."

Eisenberg championed the idea that education, technology, and librarianship are closely intertwined. He brought to Syracuse and to the field an entrepreneurial spirit eager to experiment with the ways new technology could improve communication and access to information. He co-created the Information Institute of Syracuse (IIS), a research center that developed resources including The Gateway to Educational Materials (GEM, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education), AskERIC, and the Educator's Reference Desk.

Eisenberg's entrepreneurial spirit also led to the Big6 in the late 1980s. He and Robert Berkowitz, a library media specialist, collaborated to create a six-step research process.  "In those days, when people talked about teaching research skills, they were talking about sources," he explained. "Bob and I thought it was bigger than that. It’s a process. How can you understand what sources to use unless you understand the question?"

The Big6 has become the best known information literacy model and approach in the world. The beauty of the system, Eisenberg said, is that it's as relevant to kindergarteners designing a project on construction paper as it is to graduate students sorting complex data on spreadsheets.

As research moved from the note card method to computers, it grew more sophisticated and complex. "But the fundamental process is engaging the information and extracting what’s important," Eisenberg explained. "The process is really timeless."

In 1992, when the Internet was young, he envisioned the potential of online learning communities and co-founded LM_NET (Library Media Network). The listserv ("Where School Librarians Connect") now connects more than 12,000 members worldwide.

Mike Eisenberg with students

"He was always ahead of his time," said R. David Lankes '92, G'99, former professor and Dean’s Scholar for New Librarianship at Syracuse. "Mike's genius was his ability to forecast what trends and technologies are going to be successful. These days we laugh at the idea of AOL. Mike saw that it was going to be transformative."

Lankes met Eisenberg in 1992, the day he was accepted into the iSchool's doctoral program. They were at a pasta party prepared by Ph.D. students. "I was sitting with Mike, and he says, 'I've got this crazy idea about the Internet,'" Lankes recalled. "This was before Mosaic. The Internet was a way to get email."

That conversation led to the creation of AskERIC, a groundbreaking email question answering service for educators. AskERIC was among the first 100 sites on the World Wide Web and the first registered, educational site on the Web.

"Mike knew open networks were the future," said Lankes, who in July became director and associate dean at the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science. "He saw teachers were going to bring this into the classroom. He saw it early and helped push it forward."

Eisenberg was Lankes's doctoral adviser and grew to be his mentor, colleague, and friend. "I proudly say I modeled my career to be like Mike," Lankes said.

When Lankes interviewed at the University of South Carolina, he pitched ideas based on Eisenberg's concepts. "His enduring legacy will be his model of an information school that can be replicated," Lankes said. "We can all write a paper or book that people will pay attention to a for a little while. There will be people graduating with a degree from the iSchool for years and years."

As Eisenberg slows down, he looks back at his career with satisfaction. "The iSchools at Syracuse and across the globe are the center of what society is concerned about in this information age," he said. "Syracuse University should take tremendous pride in being one of the true birthplaces of the entire information movement. I’m very loyal to the school I created."


This article originally appeared in the Spring / Summer 2016 issue of the iSchool's alumni magazine, Connections.

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