NEWPORT, R.I. - At first glance, the new library director at the U.S. Naval War College, Allen Benson, looks like your typical academic librarian. On the standard checklist of prerequisites, Benson has a Ph.D. in Information Science and a 20-year career in library management.
But what you probably don’t know—and wouldn’t think to ask him—is that his professional background includes a lot of self-employment. In addition to a freelance percussionist and real estate broker, he was also a writer.
His education is no less diverse; he has studied in the Midwest, mid-Atlantic, the Deep South and the Northeast.
Starting at the University of Minnesota, he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in music performance and education, and later a Master of Library Science from the University of Alabama, and his doctorate was earned at the University of Pittsburgh.
He also attended graduate school for music at New York University.
“What is most interesting to me in life is the learning process,” Benson said. “And it begins to slow as you know a profession better and better. I begin a new field for the endeavor and the challenge of looking at new study.”
While living in Arkansas, Benson undertook an introspective crossroad, living in a self-built cabin in the woods for three years.
To prepare for the journey, he studied architecture, agriculture and engineering to build the cabin, raise chickens and manage crops, and create a water pressure system to allow for indoor plumbing which was achieved by tapping a mountainside fresh water spring.
“The first year I was really scared,” he said when asked about the experience.
“When you see a rattler this big,” he said, using his fingers to draw a shape the size of a softball, “your instinct is to kill it, which I did. But after a while you learn that you’re part of this ecosystem. The snakes are part of the circle of nature […] and I learned to work with the snakes and around them.”
It was during his Thoreau-like life in the woods that he became interested in libraries and information systems. His last two years in the cabin, he got a job as a library director in a public library system, in Seracy County, Ark., and thoroughly enjoyed the work.
Public libraries attract the entire spectrum of people, Benson said. Children have story time, college and graduate students are busy studying, and senior citizens read and socialize.
“The whole planet earth comes into the public library system,” he said. “So the constituent base is broad.”
After leaving his first position as library director, Benson earned a Master of Library Science.
During his doctoral work, Benson became interested in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Ontological Engineering (OE), and particularly their ability to solve library and information science challenges. His goal is to enable a computer to derive meaning from search queries, a far cry from the surprisingly simplistic nature of current search engines.
Typically, when a user enters a search term, a computer tries to find what the searcher is looking for by matching letters in the search with known information located somewhere else using a process known in computer science as an algorithm.
Benson and researchers in the AIOE field are trying to design a search engine that will try to synthesize sets of information bodies, rather than simply matching terms.
“It starts to work like the human mind,” Benson said. “You think about all this stuff implicitly, it’s all inference.”
Benson’s doctoral dissertation, which he successfully defended in May, provided a framework for an empirically-based method that captures how humans express relations among entities. This work is important, Benson argues, because we are generating more information than is humanly possible to sort through and determine relevancy, so we will increasingly rely on machines to do this work for us. In a current project, Benson is building a model of the factors that make a photograph.
On a chart, he has constructed an immensely elaborate diagram with hundreds of arrows and text boxes showing what characteristics make a photograph: everything from animate to inanimate objects, styles of photography, colors and countless other variables.
His technical expertise will soon be changing the War College library.
“We have the talent, the knowhow, and the initiative to carry forward,” Benson said.
The first of four initiatives Benson and the library are taking is to provide services to the distance education students at NWC. Ideally, a librarian will be using a computer to provide real-time research assistance to students all over the world.
Secondly, Benson cited Sue Cornacchia for her idea to build a digital asset management and preservation system. Here, library officials are aiming to preserve the College’s electronic media and organize it.
Thirdly, the library is hoping to build an online, accessible database of the Naval Historical Collection. While some material is classified, library staff want to take archives material and make it accessible to researchers worldwide.
“It’s the online environment where I believe we can be world leaders,” he said. “All we need is digital technologies, telecommunications, and the desire to succeed and we can compete globally, no problem.” The biggest challenge we face is fusing online spaces with the physical facilities of the Learning Commons—a library redesign plan already underway.
Finally, Benson said the library staff will continue to assist NWC faculty in producing research of the highest quality. Despite rapid changes in information science, Benson said he was intrigued by the relatively unchanged integration of libraries and professors.
By Tyler Will, NWC Public Affairs
Posted by Cmdr. Carla McCarthy