CORVALLIS - Anonymous donors have established a $2 million endowment with the Oregon Community Foundation to benefit libraries at Oregon State University.

Support generated from the "Gray Family Chair for Innovative Library Services at Oregon State University Fund" will allow OSU to create an endowed chair for its libraries that focuses on public access to research data and other 21st century information needs.

Don't expect anyone to permanently occupy the chair, however.

Karyle Butcher, director of OSU Libraries, said funds generated by the endowment will be used to bring to campus a series of loaned executives from industry to provide expertise in managing massive data collections and similar information technology projects.

Called the Gray Family Chair for Innovative Library Services, the endowment also will fund a number of efforts to improve access and delivery of digital information - with a likely focus on natural resources.

"The idea is to create a chair for innovative library services with a rolling definition that will change as the years go by," Butcher said. "Today it might be access to digital information. In five or six years, it may be something we cannot now anticipate. That kind of flexibility is so attractive, we don't have any intention of filling this with a permanent chair holder."

The $2 million gift is from a family of OSU alums who wish to remain anonymous, according to OSU President Paul Risser.

"They have a powerful interest in education," Risser said, "and they recognize the critical and changing role that libraries play in the education process. They expressed a desire to move the library ahead of where it is today and they are genuinely excited about the innovative design of the endowment. "I'm pretty excited myself," Risser said. "The support for this unique effort will give OSU students and faculty an opportunity to work with nationally recognized experts in an array of different fields. I think this 'marriage' of a top caliber university library with top practitioners in the field of information technology is one of the most interesting concepts in higher ed that I've heard in some time."

OSU's library services already generate a good deal of attention. In 1999, the Library Journal tabbed The Valley Library at Oregon State as its Library of the Year. That same year, the library completed an expansion and renovation of more than $40 million that significantly expanded its space and accessibility - for both personal and electronic visitors.

In 1998, Butcher was named the Oregon Librarian of the Year by the Oregon Library Association. She holds the Donald and Delpha Campbell University Librarian endowed chair at OSU.

Butcher already has held preliminary talks with executives at such companies as Intel, Sun Microsystems, Tektronix and IBM about a loaned executive program. Industry leaders are interested, she says, because such an agreement would give them access to the "working lab of a library at a major research university."

OSU, on the other hand, is looking for new ways to handle large collections of data, and to coordinate data from different sources. What is needed, Butcher says, are creative Web interfaces that can integrate many different components, yet be accessible to multiple users.

"There needs to be flexibility based on the users' sophistication and the level of detail they want," Butcher said. "There also needs to be some kind of quality control for the data - similar to the concept of a peer-reviewed journal article."

OSU, she says, frequently runs into those situations with its Linus Pauling Collection. The papers and memorabilia of the two-time Nobel Prize-winner are housed in The Valley Library and include more than 500,000 items. When someone from the public requests information on Pauling, the library staff quickly determines whether the request is from a high school senior doing a three-page report, a post-doctoral researcher working on quantum mechanics, or a biographer who wants it all.

"On the web, however, that distinction isn't there," Butcher said. "And that's one of the things we hope to address."

Another need is coordinating information on similar topics from a myriad of sources. Reports on the Oregon environment, for example, have been developed by OSU, the Oregon Department of Forestry, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Oregon Progress Board and by literally dozens of other agencies and organizations.

The different locations, technologies, and levels of details and sophistication create a nightmare for users trying to coordinate such data.

Butcher said the first project using OSU's new endowment may be an assessment of Oregon's natural resource data - including state agency reports, watershed council analyses, and existing databases - to determine their scope and accessibility. Such a project would dovetail nicely with OSU's goal of creating a Natural Resources Institute on campus to manage such information.

"We're looking at real work in real world settings that affects the public," Butcher said. "This is pretty interesting and exciting stuff."

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Karyle Butcher, 541-737-7300