December 19, 2004, Crisler Arena
Address by President Mary Sue Coleman
Congratulations to all of you who are receiving degrees and to your families and friends who have supported you and cheered for you through all the hard work.
At some points I am sure your time on campus felt like an eternity, but today, I imagine you are marveling at how quickly the time has passed.
Many of you arrived on campus in September 2000, and have experienced extraordinary events while you were here. I remember a few snapshots from these past years, marking watershed events in our nation and our world.
For instance, in Autumn of 2000 you debated and discussed the presidential electoral process and vote-counting, as we all waited to see who would become our next president.
You will be able to say that you were at Michigan in the years leading up to the Supreme Court cases on affirmative action in admissions, and that you were a student here when those cases were decided in our favor in 2003.
You will tell the next generation what it was like to be here on September 11, 2001, and how our university, like the rest of our nation, searched for solace and meaning in days when the horror of those events first engulfed us and then led us to come together as a community – so that we might heal and better understand one another.
And now, you will also be able to declare that you graduated from the University of Michigan in the same week that it launched a major revolution in information technology. Although we cannot fully understand all the implications yet, decades from now we will remember this week as a time that changed the world.
I believe it will change your lives and certainly your children’s lives, and it will transform the way the world obtains access to knowledge.
About five years ago, you might have heard about a new company that had been founded by one of our alumni – back then, it had a funny name that no one recognized, but now we all know it. That new company was called: ----- Google.
The Google company was co-founded by Larry Page, an alumnus of our own College of Engineering.
In the years you have been here, it has transformed itself from a curiosity, to a way of life, to a verb we learned to conjugate: I Google – you Google – many times we have Googled.
And this past Tuesday, we were proud to join Google in announcing an enormous initiative to digitize the seven million books in our libraries, creating a searchable database of our world’s printed treasures.
Why Michigan? Why now?
We already were a world-wide leader in digitizing books and making them available on the Web, and had been scanning 5,000 books per year. But at that rate, it would have taken us more than a thousand years just to digitize the current books in our collection.
Our partnership with Google – and their new technology – will allow us to accomplish this Herculean task in about six years!
Why now? My answer to that is, “why not?” This next step in technology is inevitable, and the University of Michigan will lead the way, just as it has done in so many fields.
And most important to us – as a public university – the information in our libraries will be available to anyone in the world who has access to the Internet.
Just as Google transformed itself into a major corporation and a household word, we will be transforming our university and our society by providing access to libraries and books on an unprecedented scale.
In the nineteenth century, the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie made a profound statement about the need to have access to knowledge.
He said, “There is no such cradle of democracy as the free public library, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration."
Most of us have no concept of a life in which libraries are private, or restricted in their access – but that was the case for most book collections until about 100 years ago, and is even true in many countries today.
Dean John King of the School of Information described it this way: In medieval times, books were so precious they were chained to shelves. And even well into the 20th century, access to many of the world’s most distinguished libraries – especially those at universities – was restricted to people with the special privilege of being students and faculty members.
Andrew Carnegie carried out his vision to democratize information by establishing over 2500 public libraries, which created an entirely new world of access to books and knowledge. One of those libraries stands on our campus.
Working with Google, our initiative is going to have an even more radical impact on access to knowledge – allowing anyone, anywhere in the world, to look into the pages of our collections, and permitting scholars to identify relevant sources in minutes rather than months or years.
Andrew Carnegie opened thousands of doors to knowledge for hundreds of millions of people.
We are going to provide an exponential amount of material to billions of people, simultaneously. This is an extraordinary moment in history.
Many people who have heard of this have said it is “unimaginable” – and that is almost true – except that we are not only imagining it, we are making it real.
Extraordinary implications and complications will swirl around in the midst of this monumental change. Each of you will be pathfinders as you take your place in a yet uncharted digital world that is exploding with ideas and information.
For instance, consider how important it will be to know how to navigate through an overwhelming volume of data.
Certainly, you will need to teach your children how to discern the difference between knowledge and information, and our schools will have to do the same.
Some of you will write books, and many of you will create new ideas and new knowledge. In a world of such universal access to knowledge, we have to understand that the free exchange of ideas serves a public good – ideas are much more than a commodity. As we protect these ideas, we need to make sure they are not overly restricted by intellectual property laws that prevent one idea from igniting the next.
Some of you might invent technologies that help us push the digital boundaries in ways not yet imaginable.
Our own School of Information stands at the forefront of these issues, telling us the transfer of human knowledge into digital form is occurring far more quickly than anyone thought possible.
But every field of study represented here today, from Engineering, to Art, to Social Work, and more, will be learning to harness the power of this knowledge, and to always, always, take it one step further.
So this is a remarkable week on many fronts. Today, you start the next chapter of your lives, and our campus is starting a new chapter as we open Michigan’s library to the world, page by page.
As you follow this discussion, I want you to remember a quotation from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson.
He wrote: “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”
Think of this in terms of our ceremony today. We are lighting the candles of each of you from our central flame of knowledge. Our flame will continue to burn just as brightly, but much more importantly, the world will be far more bright because of the light that each of you takes away.
We want you to go forward asking the questions that will change lives and ideas. You can be proud of your alma mater as it continues to demonstrate what it means to be the Leaders and Best, and we are very proud of you as you take Michigan’s special flame out into a world that is waiting for your light.
Congratulations, and Go Blue!