Mike Showalter: Nontraditional librarian

Information School alumnus Mike Showalter is living proof that the capabilities engendered by library science extend far beyond the traditional “librarian” role. Showalter is now a director of product management at Seattle-based Serials Solutions and counts many librarians among his customers. While this may seem little removed from his Master of Librarianship roots, it belies the unusual path he followed in reaching this point.

After earning his degree in 1992, Showalter was both witness and participant in librarianship helping shape today’s high tech landscape. This includes the birth of the Internet as we know it, the Dotcom boom and bust, the ascension of refined Search, and dominance of modern analytics, aka Big Data.

“I ended up in the library school the way a lot of people do,” recalls Showalter. “ I came to it late; I was an older student and had several careers before I got there.” In fact, the UW Information School (then the Graduate School of Library and Information Science) wasn’t his first choice: he originally came to the UW as a fifth year journalism student, serving as news editor of The Daily in 1989-90. He considered a Ph.D. in history, until a part-time job at the downtown Seattle Public Library circulation desk convinced him libraries might be a good place to work.

Showalter joined the Information School at an inflection point. “I saw something big was happening. It was the Internet,” he says. “It was a revelation.”

By the time Showalter got his degree, serving as a librarian had become the furthest thing from his mind. Instead, he found a job with a non-profit called NorthwestNet, one of several federally funded pioneers in providing Internet services to institutions, businesses, and the general public in the early 1990s.

Showalter was one of several people with librarianship training hired by the company. His role was Information Services Specialist, charged with creating a text-based online hierarchy for finding information. This was what constituted search in pre-Google days, as any seasoned librarian will recall—essentially a taxonomy that allowed users to drill down through a series of subcategories until eventually a document was found. “The reason they hired librarians was they thought we would have a sense of how to organizing something, how to provide access,” says Showalter.

Showalter also notes that, at the time, he wasn’t aware that that NorthwestNet technically constituted a “startup.” Given their relative rarity at the time, perhaps this is understandable. But with the Internet taking off, startup companies would come to dominate the high-tech landscape. And Showalter discovered that his MLIS background gave him precisely the skills these fledgling businesses were looking for.

“If you look at Seattle in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, there was a lot of activity, a lot of newness and freshness in what was happening in the online space,” he explains. “And really, no one knew how to do anything. Everybody was making it up. So somebody out of Library School with a graduate degree in Library and Information Science had a big attraction to people—because they thought you might be helpful in figuring out how to do things.”

Showalter happily rode this wave for many years, working in the sometimes “sketchy” yet always fascinating outer extremes of the technology space. For a time he mined horse racing data for a Las Vegas-based software company, pinpointing patterns that gamblers looked to for better results. A decade before LinkedIn, he helped a headhunting firm use the Internet to identify corporate officer candidates. At a startup called Usedbooks.com, he used his background in managing bibliographic information to help network independent bookstores nationwide and offer their collective inventories to the general public. Later, he helped build online software for car dealers and auto repair facilities and also a national clearinghouse for concerts and events.

“Every product I worked on in some way had an aspect of organizing or creating a user experience for accessing content,” says Showalter. “They were essentially informational organization tools. I excelled because not only did I have an interest in it, but I had the background that came from the Information School.”

In 2003, Showalter came full-circle with his library roots, landing a job at Serials Solutions. Newly co-founded by one-time University of Washington librarian Peter McCracken, Serials Solutions at that time was a startup focused on building electronic content management and discovery software for libraries.

This was the point at which digitization was hitting its stride. Libraries were moving away from individual journal subscriptions in favor of massive aggregated databases offered by electronic publishers such as ProQuest and EBSCO. As Serials Solutions’ first product manager, Showalter oversaw development of software for tracking this aggregated content. “What was happening was, things were changing so quickly that libraries had no good way of knowing what they actually owned in their collections,” explains Showalter. “As a librarian, that’s going to drive you insane—you need to know what you’ve purchased and what you can deliver access to.”

“It was super-exciting time, because you could see the world changing for libraries in a really fast way.”

Ten years later, Serials Solutions is a well-established business unit of ProQuest. And the world is still changing fast for libraries. As director of product management for discovery, Showalter is now responsible for the discovery aspect of many products—most notably Summon, an academic search engine used in roughly a third of ARL libraries in the U.S. and more than 600 worldwide.

In a marked change from his NorthwestNet days, Showalter sees his users in two distinct groups: librarians who want help managing their collections, and also end-users with highly sophisticated expectations. 

“I think today, when you look at Summon, our big search product for libraries, it’s really a response to what end users expect, which is completely unmediated search,” explains Showalter. “Today, the end-user is doing the discovery without a librarian in the middle of it—they’ve been trained and conditioned by services such as Google. They expect to put in an unstructured query and get meaningful results back, the most relevant things at the top.”

This is a paradigm shift for librarians. “It’s not about focusing on the person at the desk in front of you anymore,” he explains, thinking back to his early experience at the circulation desk. “Now, it’s about focusing on the thousands of people who are coming through the front door of the library—in person or online—and what they’re trying to do, and whether they’re achieving their goals.”

Although end-users have been conditioned by Google, Showalter actually suggests libraries look to a different company for inspiration. “Amazon thinks constantly about how stuff is found on their site, because every potential improvement incrementally improves their bottom line. Libraries kind of have to think about it in the same way.”

Showalter encourages iSchool students to acquire a basic understanding of programming. “Over the course of your career, you’re going to have to interact with developers, either directly or indirectly,” he explains. “You have to be able to speak the lingo, which means knowing something about how software actually gets built.”

He also thinks students must understand that information is no longer completely centralized in the library – which  is actually a good thing, in that it provides more opportunities for MLIS graduates. But it also means expanding one’s horizons. “If you want to be successful using that degree, I think you’re going to have to figure out how you can apply those concepts outside the library,” he says. “I think a lot more of the jobs are going to be outside, in the private space.”

Given the variegated course of Showalter’s career, that latter piece of advice should come as no surprise. To his way of thinking, his Master of Librarianship degree has served him very well, thank you very much. “You know those student loans I took out to go through the Library School? Best investment I ever made!”