Faculty image C. Olivia Frost Professor emerita School of Information


C.  Olivia Frost joined the University of Michigan faculty in 1977, as an assistant professor in the School of Library Science. She earned a B.A. degree in German Language and Literature from Howard University, a Master of Library Science from the University of Oregon, and an M.A. in Germanic Languages and Literatures and a Ph.D. in Library Science from the University of Chicago. Over the years, she saw the School evolve into the School of Information, and played a role in its transition. From March through April 2005, she served as Acting Dean of the School of Information while Dean King was on leave. From May 2006 until July 2007 she served as interim dean.

Dr. Frost’s research, teaching and service has focused on ways of providing intellectual access to information, with an emphasis on non-textual resources. Frost was PI of the Art Image Browser project, which developed, deployed, and evaluated a digital database of images in art and architecture. As PI of the Digital Image Library Project at UM, Frost assembled a multidisciplinary team of researchers to design systems combining computerized image retrieval with text-based classification strategies. Frost’s most recent research and service initiatives focused on cultural heritage outreach. She was PI of the Cultural Heritage Initiative for Community Outreach (CHICO), a research and service program in the area of cultural preservation and community outreach. In 2004, the Smithsonian Computerworld Honors Program recognized Frost as a Laureate and Finalist for her work on the CHICO project.

As Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Professor Frost provided administrative oversight over instructional programs at the School of Information, including curriculum delivery, student services, recruitment, and admissions. Her role also included administrative responsibility for academic personnel matters, including faculty recruitment, retention, and promotion and tenure. During Frost’s tenure as Associate Dean, she was part of the creation of the new School of Information and has worked with the school to help realize its vision to bring together multidisciplinary faculty and students with a common commitment to provide leadership to professional education and research relation to information.

As Interim Dean, Frost worked with faculty and staff to finalize plans for the School’s new quarters in the North Quad building, to launch the new multi-disciplinary undergraduate Informatics degree program, to increase enrollment and secure a more stable financial footing, and to garner significant funding for student financial support.

Curriculum Vitae


History in maize and blue

For me, Michigan has been a place to see history happen. I began my thirty-year career at Michigan in 1977, as a faculty member at the School of Library Science, before the dawn of the “Information Age” . With my colleagues I had the opportunity to play a role in the School’s transformation into the School of Information. I was at the right place at the right time. At a time when technology was about to change the way in which people at all levels interact with information in their everyday life. At a place where transformational leadership at the president and dean level fostered innovation and made a major investment to move forward in the development of a new discipline.

And it started out with a job interview where I was wearing the perfect outfit - maize and blue. At the time, I had no idea that these were the Michigan colors; This was my best outfit at the time that was suitable for an interview. I won’t say that the blue dress with the gold beads made the difference, but it certainly didn’t hurt.


Card catalogs, electric erasers, and purple ink

When I came to the University in the late 70’s, typewriters were the prevailing technology in academic life as I lived it. I was finishing up my dissertation to complete my doctoral degree in library science at the University of Chicago, and had written out a draft of an article for the most prestigious journal in my field.

I’d handed the draft of my dissertation over to a professional typist to render in the required Turabian style. As for the article, the topic was the16th century Bodleian Catalogs and the draft was in longhand –just like the Bodleian catalogs. It was, however, typed up before submission to the journal.

In my doctoral program at Chicago, computer programming was required - I think it was assembly language that we had to learn - but it was not yet a tool we used in our everyday scholarly activities. We wrote programs, which were translated onto punch cards, and brought the stacks of cards to the central computing system to have the programs run. As for the field of library science, computing was becoming a force in libraries, but mainly at the back end. Online catalogs were not yet on the scene and card catalogs were the prevailing technology. In my job as a cataloger at a medical school library shortly after completing my library science masters degree, the department was changing the system of subject headings, and this involved literally erasing the existing subject headings on the catalog cards and then typing the new ones over them. This was a tricky business because the slightest degree of pressure too far on the electric eraser could result in erasing a hole in the cards.

Typewriters aside, though, the technology that best defines the 1970s faculty scene for me at the School of Library Science was the mimeograph machine, a low-cost printing press that works by forcing ink through a waxed paper stencil cut from a typewriter. You wrapped the stencil around an ink-filled drum and wound up with purple printed copies and purple fingers. No typing mistakes were tolerated because to make a correction in the stencil original was a cumbersome and not very effective procedure, just like the electric erasers.

A risk-averse environment

Just as the technology of the day was hardly recognizable today, the intellectual landscape would be equally foreign. When I joined the faculty in 1977, the field of library science was certainly not perceived as an area where exciting ideas were happening. Librarian stereotypes prevailed and, when our students were presented at the UM graduation, they’d be greeted by a loud, universal shush heard through the audience.

Within our field, however the School of Library Science at Michigan and its dean were highly regarded at the time, and the dean, Russ Bidlack, was the primary reason I’d chosen Michigan over two other strong offers at North Carolina and Columbia. Raised in rural Iowa, the dean was frugal by nature and didn’t believe in spending money that was not in hand. Fiscally, he was risk-averse, which probably made sense for the environment in which he lived. The dean’s mindset was that you weren’t entitled to something unless you’d truly earned it. Dessert was his favorite part of any meal, but he firmly believed that you hadn’t earned it unless you’d eaten the main course. Once, when we’d been served a particularly mediocre entrée at the Michigan Union, which nobody ate, I saw him turn down dessert, because as he explained, he hadn’t earned it.

Being entrepreneurial was not something that entered our mindset. I remember the dean addressing the student body and apologizing for our high tuition. As a faculty and a school, we were focused on the cost of tuition and its impact on our enrollment and it never occurred to us at the time to make the case that the education was worth the price.

Our School was quite small, but had the benefit of being an independent and autonomous unit, created from a department in LS&A in the 1960s. Our staff consisted of just a few secretaries, plus an administrative assistant. The dean did everything else including budget and personnel. I recall how at a faculty meeting once the dean handed out copies of the school’s budget. It fit on one page. The School was housed in part of a dorm, now West Quad. There were numerous drawers and closets in our faculty offices, which made it easy to tidy up our space in a hurry. The Dean’s office was spacious, with its own shower, but looked out onto the garbage truck area.

A field with inward looking research

As junior faculty, we received little mentoring in research and in fact the dean told me early in my career that research was something I’d have to do on my own time and that it was teaching that would determine my tenure prospects. But Chicago had taught me that research was the hard currency of the academic realm, and that stood me in good stead when, just a year or two after my arrival, tenure standards began to shift much more heavily towards research.

The research at the time in my field was inward-looking, and focused on libraries and our profession without looking at broader implications which might be of interest to the larger public. While it was common to say that “Libraries are the heart of the university”, it was likely that few people cared about the research that was done in the library field, and we did little to make people care, and to make our work central to the mission of the university. That insular character, along with our relatively small size, and along with the perception – sometimes with good cause – that the research was less than rigorous - would make us vulnerable and attractive targets for elimination when budget crises loomed. Technology at that time was beginning to make its mark on libraries, and the school was just beginning to introduce technology courses, but it was a very minor part of the curriculum and faculty research. Of the thirty odd courses which were offered at the time I entered the school, no more than two dealt with technology.


Technology, with a Michigan brand

In the mid 1980s, desktop computers were introduced at the school, and each faculty member got one. The brand was Heath/Zenith, a Michigan-based company. They had a twelve inch monitor, with blinking green characters, slots for the two floppy disks for storage, and a keyboard all built into one. A staff member provided basic instruction and on the whole we found them easy to use. I did some checking recently and found that this version of the Zenith had up to 768k of memory, which translates into .0007 gigabytes. By comparison, my current laptop (a MacBook Pro) has 4 gigabytes of memory. And as I recall, the Zenith went for about three thousand dollars, well under half of the price of my current, relatively high-end Mac. But this is all in perspective. We loved our new computers and they introduced a whole new way of doing our work as instructors and researchers. Around the same time, Heath / Zenith later offered a laptop computer, the first MS DOS-based small portable computer. It also had two 5"1/4 floppy disks. Highly regarded in its time, it was purchased in large numbers by the US Internal Revenue Service. I purchased one, for three thousand dollars, at a time when my annual salary was about 25,000. The machine was huge, about the size of a sewing machine body, but quite trend-setting for its time.

We worked largely in an unconnected, dumb-terminal mode. There was however the Michigan Terminal System which we used for e-mail in dial-up mode. For instruction in online database searching In the late 1980s, we used modems that were connected to the phone through the handset, known as acoustically coupled modems. Gradually, computing became a larger part of the field of library science – online catalogs made their debut, and in my cataloging courses our students became more familiar with the generation of and sharing of electronic bibliographic data as well as the electronic production of catalog cards.

A threatening landscape of library school closings

The 1980s were also a time of transition and also threats to survival. In the decade following my arrival at Michigan, large numbers of library schools faced elimination. The department in which I earned my first library degree at the University of Oregon, was eliminated in 1978, the year after I joined the Michigan faculty, a casualty of budget cuts. And the school in which I earned my doctoral degree, the prestigious University of Chicago Graduate Library School, had a similar fate in 1989. The decision to close Columbia University’s program, where I’d received a job offer, came a year later. In an announcement in The New York Times, the Columbia provost pronounced the school “valuable but not vital”.  Dozens of other schools across the academic spectrum were eventually closed, primarily in the 1980s and early 90s, just as my academic career was just getting started. The clouds had begun to gather at Michigan shortly before Dean Bidlack retired, when an outside evaluation gave the school a scathing review. Bidlack himself was personally devastated.

A Washington pro as new dean, and the secret of chicken salad

Dean Robert Warner assumed the deanship in a time of uncertainty in library science education and served successfully from 1985 to 1992. Coming from his post as National Archivist, Bob Warner brought with him an aura of national prominence, and a natural gift for strategizing and schmoozing that he used to bring the school more into the campus mainstream. He arrived shortly after achieving a major triumph, in establishing the National Archives as an independent entity, and he used his political and social savvy along with a keen sense of strategy. He and his wife Jane were charmers, the life of any party or gathering and he was proud to say that he and Jane had won many politicians over to his cause by bringing them to their home and serving them his wife’s fabulous chicken salad.  On campus, Bob utilized his considerable national contacts to help the school serve as a venue for discussions on information policy. The school continued to earn national standing in library science education during Dean Warner’s tenure but these were still threatening times for the field.

At Michigan, we were never directly threatened with closing, but I could observe troubling signs. At budget meetings that I attended in my role as associate dean, there was much in the way of critique and little in the way of encouragement; in side remarks I overheard one administrator call us “one of the lesser schools”. I never got the sense that we were in direct danger, but when Bob Warner retired, I heard some people speculate that the school might be closed.

Bob Warner recruited me as associate dean which post I accepted after attaining full professorship status; I enjoyed working with him and the relationship we had. I knew that the position could only be fun if I had a dean whom I both respected as a person and a leader. When Bob stepped down, I decided I could only stay on as associate dean if the new dean were someone I could respect and admire. Fortunately, this decision was to become quite easy.


The right time and the right place

The 1990s was the decade in which transformational and almost magical change occurred in the School.  Despite the forces which closed library schools across the country and threatened others, Michigan through these and later years not only survived but thrived and in fact would go on to lead the field and define its new directions. How this happened was the confluence of many forces. It came about in part as a result of the emergence of an age where information and its collection, access, organization, value, etc., became a topic which was central not just to librarians but to the public at large.

The term “transformative leader” is often overused, but in my faculty experience I have been fortunate to have had the chance to witness the effect that a visionary and empowered leader can have at an opportune time. 1992 was a time when many leading library schools had already closed or were facing closure. It was also the time immediately preceding the dawn of the Internet age. In 1992, UM president Jim Duderstadt saw the potential for library schools to lead in this age, as did the incoming dean Dan Atkins. The vision of these two leaders, along with their ability to bring about change with the human and financial resources at hand, resulted in the transformation of the school and the lives of its faculty members, and in fact played a large role in charting new directions for the field of information and education for its leaders. 

A change in culture, and aspirations

Leadership notwithstanding, it’s safe to say that in academia change is unlikely to come about by fiat, but is instead brought about through faculty involvement and a change in faculty culture. Perhaps the biggest change at our school was the creation of a team culture in research, as well as a culture in which we were encouraged and enabled to dream boldly and go after the big win.

One major change was evident in the way we faculty went about identifying and pursuing research projects. Where previously research had been largely a solo enterprise, the new dean instilled in us a team spirit, encouraging us to go after research projects in a collaborative way. A few months after his entry into the deanship, Dean Atkins brought the faculty together to consider a federal grant opportunity and set up sub-teams to submit grant ideas. The winning team would then garner the support of the school as a whole. My team won and we worked furiously over the Christmas holiday to submit a proposal in record time. This resulted in a multidisciplinary project that defined my research agenda in the coming decade. Though the grant money was serious, we were priming ourselves to eventually go for a much, much bigger win.  

Within a year or so after Dan Atkins’ arrival, he marshaled the faculty to come together as an entity to craft bold proposals. First, with the W.K. Kellogg grant, which eventually resulted in four million dollars to design a curricular program which would re-think librarianship. Next was a proposal for one of the four digital library initiatives being launched by the National Science Foundation and other federal government agencies. Prior to this, we had considered the occasional hundred thousand dollar research grant to be a big accomplishment. Now we had our sights set on multiple millions. Just as important would be the national prominence which an award of this magnitude would garner for our fledgling program.

Library science meets computer science

The federally-sponsored digital libraries project brought us together as a school along with colleagues and partners in computer science, economics, education, and the University Library. The process was intense, not least because of the cultural divides that we attempted to bridge. Finding common ground between the library/ information (LIS) science and computer science contingents required an understanding and appreciation of vocabulary and jargon, research methodologies, values, and culture. While the computer science dimension was by far the most prominent, necessitated in no small degree by the culture of the sponsors and peer evaluators of the grant, we were able to distill elements of some of the core functions and core values of librarianship, and integrate them into the proposal.

For me, a personal indicator of the cultural divide came on a trip to Silicon Valley in the mid-90s, when colleagues who were working with us on the NSF digital library project visited a video game in a theater setting providing an immersive, high-powered video game experience. It was very loud, overpowering - and to myself and the other LIS faculty member - totally alien and intimidating territory. But the guys loved it. To this day I’m not sure of the extent to which the divide was determined by gender, or discipline, but it was clear to me that these were distinctly different cultures.

Still, we managed to bridge the divide. At the same time, the perception that our “library school” was being taken over by a computer science engineer, persisted for years. Eventually, the question became less important, as technology became an integral component of other LIS programs, even mainstream ones, and the human and user dimensions of information technology became a more prominent part of IT discussions.

A new school

The process by which we developed the two mega grants became a mere prelude for an even larger goal: that of creating a new school, and perhaps even a new discipline. This began with informal discussions between a sub-set of interested faculty and interested faculty from fields such as economics, computer science, psychology, and complex systems. We had grand dreams of creating a new school. Around August of 1994 notices would go out to a small strategic thinking group on “Information and Collaboration Systems” announcing the agenda to consider opportunities for graduate education and research. The School’s administrative assistant, Shirley Culliton also announced the menu : “You are having pizza and salad.”

These discussions led to the re-chartering of the School, with the strong support of the president and provost. On the day that the school’s name change and re-chartering were approved by the regents, the dean learned that at that meeting, the story of SI and the vision for the new school reminded the group that what the University does has a purpose.

And a new name

One of the most important decisions we made as a school was our choice of a name. Choosing a new name for the new school proved to be a process which helped us along the path to defining who we were and who we hoped to be. In the process of selecting a name, hundreds of possibilities were submitted, including “School of Digital Culture” and even “Cool Cool Cyber School”.

There was no single name that garnered universal support or even enthusiasm. “School of Information” won out because it contained the one key word that was central to our efforts, while keeping our options open and not limiting our areas of intellectual involvement. Some liked our name, and got the message. On a visit to Malaysia shortly after the name change, I visited alums who immediately grasped the concept and said, Oh yes, it means the school has been broadened.

But initially, the choice of the name – and its brevity-  was met with puzzlement by many. I was present at a meeting with the Rackham Board, where one member observed “Less is less.” Others, including one of the other deans, consistently refused to give the name without supplementing it with some other term, such as Information Science, or Information Studies. For many of our alums, who focused on the omission of the term library, the name change seemed an ominous portent, and they feared it indicated an abandonment of the library culture. 

Over the years, our choice of name proved to be a wise one. As the school’s intellectual horizons broadened along with the explosion of areas encompassing the information revolution, we were able to include countless new areas, like social media, that hadn’t been imagined before.  As the role of information in people’s everyday lives became ever more important, it was much easier for people to grasp the meaning of our name. Now, when I mention the name to a complete stranger, there is a nod of recognition, and they are able to relate to the school through their own personal examples.

Transformational leadership, big risks and big wins

In looking back, I am particularly struck by the degree of risk around the creation of the SI enterprise. In the early 1990s when the new School of Information was re-chartered from the School of Information and Library Studies, no one had heard of a School of Information and no one really knew what it would mean to be a School of Information. In the course of creating a new school, faculty created a new professional degree program and a new doctoral degree program in information. We tapped into an emerging discipline and built an innovative curriculum around it. We invited students to join us in this risky enterprise, and hoped they would be successful in a job market which was as yet undefined. To make room for the backgrounds that students would need to have, we also increased the number of credit hours, extending a 36 hour degree program to 48 hours, and ours was already the most expensive program of its kind, with an inverse level of salary prospects.

At the time that the School was in its formative stages, many library schools had recently closed and Michigan could have eventually been a casualty as well but our good fortune was no accident.  In the early 1990s, when the role of information in society was just beginning to be evidenced, but well before the full realization of its impact, the School was able to tap into one of the transformational developments of a generation, even a lifetime: the Internet. But it took visionary and entrepreneurial leaders and faculty to recognize the potential of this development for changing library services and eventually having its impact on the broader information arena.  At the time that SI came into being, we had a university president with a bold idea of what this school might be, and who made a substantial investment in us at a time of uncertainly for education in the library and information field. In addition to this vision, he also provided support and resources in helping to make this happen. Without his vision and support, there would not have been an SI. We had a dean who helped us think how libraries and other information enterprises could change the world, recognizing the potential for the emerging digital technologies which provided new ways for people to use information. He recognized the ways in which information professionals could serve society and how social and technical dimensions needed to be an important part of the education of new professionals. When I think of transformational leadership, I think of these two individuals as examples from my own personal experience as a faculty member. The landscape of our school has been fundamentally changed as a result of their leadership, and in turn our school has helped shape our discipline and the whole emerging movement of information schools.


Moving forward as an Information school

In the decade to follow, the School continued to thrive along multiple fronts. For years we had struggled with achieving enrollments which could provide us with a base of financial support and a level of endorsement of our academic program which was sustainable in a highly competitive environment. Shortly after assuming the interim deanship at SI, Gary Olson made the critical decision to enlist the help of professionals who could advise us in communicating our message to prospective students. With their help, we were able to make the case much more effectively for investing in the kind of education that the School could provide. We were also making the case for a new and as yet untested degree. Our first year of implementing the recommendations of the enrollment consulting firm brought immediate results and reassured both ourselves and the University administration of our prospects for success.

In the first decade of the 2000s, the School grew in size and in stature and has become a force in the university and larger information environment. We continued to attract an intellectually diverse and nationally recognized set of new faculty. The information school or “I-school” movement gained traction. The name once considered so strange has been adopted by other programs at UT Austin and Berkeley, with variations of the name in numerous other programs.  The term information school is now widespread with dozens of I-schools, throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia. I took particular pride in visiting two of these schools in Germany and India and learning how they had been influenced by the SI model.

Leaving on a high note

I enjoyed my role as associate dean, and was fortunate to serve under deans who delegated authority and provided me with valuable experience. When Dean John King encouraged me to serve in 2005 as acting dean, and then later in 2006 as interim dean, I welcomed the opportunity. My terms as dean were rewarding, and fun. I got a chance to have a role in recruiting stellar new faculty and in helping them succeed. In fundraising, I was fortunate to garner some major contributions to our scholarship funds. Enrollment and research revenues continued to climb and the School was on the way to securing a sound financial footing. I also came in at a time when the planning for our new building was at a critical stage, with the School’s opportunity to work with the noted architect Robert A.M. Stern and his staff. Our new building, North Quad, was to contain splendid classroom, meeting, faculty and student space for the School. Planning was also underway for the establishment of an innovative undergraduate program.

At the end of my term, the provost said that I had far surpassed expectations for an interim dean.  This was one of my proudest moments. I had set the year of 2007, thirty years since my arrival in Michigan, as my departure date. Closing out my years of service in the School, I was pleased to be able to leave on a high note.


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