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Michael Healy

Executive Director, Google Book Rights Registry

Michael Healy First, tell us a bit about yourself (hometown, current locale, family, hobbies, community involvement?). What is your current job?

I was born in London and moved from the UK to New York in 2006 with my wife and sons (aged 5 and 9). We live in easy commuting distance of New York City, in a delightful town called Pleasantville, NY. We love living there, and although it’s sometimes tough being so far away from our families we’ve made lots of great friends, and after three years our British accents are no longer considered so exotic. We’re trying to explore as much of this wonderful country as we can, so we love to use our downtime traveling far and wide. Coming from a country as small as the UK, we’re still amazed by the breadth and variety the US has to offer and we feel so fortunate to live here and to have been made to feel so welcome. The demands of work and of a young family have made it tough to find time for anything else, but one thing I’ve really enjoyed doing this year has been giving a little time to the graduate publishing program at Pace University, where I have a visiting Professorship. Working with the students and faculty there has been very rewarding.

Describe some of your responsibilities, and how you or your organization fit into the scholarly communications web.

In October 2009, I started working full-time as the Executive Director (Designate) of the Book Rights Registry, although I was working in a part-time capacity for approximately 6 months before that. Once established, the BRR will be a not-for-profit organization set up to administer key parts of the Google Books Settlement. The BRR can’t be fully and formally established until the Settlement is finally ratified by the court, so my work right now is mainly focused on specifying the systems and processes the BRR will need to meet its obligations under the Settlement and to get everything ready to make the organization operational as quickly as possible once the legal process is completed.

As everyone knows, the Settlement has been headline news in the book world for more than a year, not just in the US, but around the world. My work brings me into close contact with an extraordinary variety of people – publishers, agents, authors, librarians, and, more than occasionally, with lawyers. That variety, combined with the challenge of building something “from the ground up”, makes the role very exciting and stimulating. We’re living through such an extraordinary time, when every facet of the world of scholarly communication is under review and where anything seems possible. I have been part of the digital publishing industry for twenty years and it continues to fascinate me, perhaps more so than at any time in my career.

What career path led to your current position?

After graduate studies in information science at the University of London in the 1980s, I was fortunate to land a job with the British Council, which at that time operated libraries in more than 100 countries. This gave me the great privilege of spending six years installing library systems and training users in dozens of countries like Iraq, Kenya, Malawi, Australia, and Mexico. I have been a dedicated globe-trotter ever since. In 1990, I moved into electronic and database publishing, working with pioneering companies like SilverPlatter, Chadwyck-Healey and Nielsen, and spent more than 15 years in editorial and sales management roles, before being invited to move to New York to lead the Book Industry Study Group (BISG). In the course of my publishing career, I had worked in a lot of standards-related initiatives (for example, I led the ISO group that developed the ISBN-13), so my experience was very relevant to BISG, a non-profit membership body that aims to improve the efficiency of the industry’s supply chain through standards, best practices, research and education. I spent three great years with BISG before I got the call asking me to take up the role at the Book Rights Registry. I guess I can’t resist a challenge!

Where do you see scholarly communications heading, and what new directions interest you most?

I watch very closely the profound changes affecting book publishing, so whatever insights I have about the future of scholarly communication are inevitably shaped by my observations of that industry. The impact of technology on book publishing has been extraordinary in the last few years, but we’re only at the very beginning of a process of transformation. That transformation will affect every facet of how scholarship is undertaken and disseminated and it will force every participant in the process of scholarly communication to review their traditional ways of doing things. That may be unsettling for everyone, but it ought to be terrifying only for those who can’t see the extraordinary opportunities that technology is offering us or who can’t see how technology is affecting the expectations of readers.

Given my current role, it’s probably no surprise that I am especially interested right now in issues related to the future of how content is owned and licensed for use on the network. Many are questioning the traditional framework of copyright and there is a rich and energetic debate going on about what it means to own and use digital content. That debate will intensify. It’s tough to know where it’s headed, but it’s clear that many of the models in place today are failing us and will give way in time to much more flexible and intuitive tools for sharing content.

And who isn’t interested in the future of reading and what that future will reveal about the nature of scholarship? I am intrigued to see what will happen with traditional immersive reading of long-form narratives; how it is being affected by the use of digital reading devices, the ways we search and retrieve content, and the pervasiveness of audio-visual information. I am also interested in whether attitudes to quality are shifting and what the role of “content curators” will be in helping us recognize what we really need from the mass of information that’s readily accessible.

What advice would you give to people interested in a career in scholarly communications? What new roles or opportunities do you see emerging in the field?

My advice is simple—don’t think too hard about your career. After all, your career is what you have when you look backwards at the end of your working life. Focus instead on what you love. A real passion and commitment for what you do—combined with an openness to change and to learn – will take you much further than any conventional career management will do. One of the greatest benefits of technology today is how it exposes us so easily to the insights of the smartest minds in our community. We’re surrounded by thought-provoking, inspiring leaders. All we have to do is listen carefully, think critically, and apply what we learn wisely. And don’t forget to have fun along the way. Do all of that, and the career ought to take care of itself.

Profiled January 2010