Purdue Profiles: Michael Witt

November 9, 2010

Michael Witt, assistant professor of library science and interdisciplinary research librarian. (Purdue University photo/Andrew Hancock)

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"As-Salamu Alaykum," a common Middle Eastern greeting, can be heard every day in Michael Witt’s West Lafayette home. Witt, assistant professor of library science and interdisciplinary research librarian, was recently named a Fulbright Scholar, and his family is learning Arabic in preparation for their January departure to Alexandria, Egypt.

Witt will research and lecture at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and along with his wife and four of their children, will absorb the Egyptian culture. His 3-year-old son has already started picking up the language, greeting even the family cat with the Arabic hello.

How do you feel about receiving a Fulbright fellowship?

It’s amazing. Fulbright is the flagship international educational exchange program of the U.S. government. It is designed to increase mutual understanding between Americans and people of other cultures through the exchange of students and scholars.

The Library of Alexandria is perhaps the most famous and significant library of ancient times. My host institution, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, has recaptured the spirit of the old library and has become one of the world’s eminent libraries in a very short period of time since its construction in 2002. To be able to visit and do research there, as a librarian, is unbelievable. The support from the dean of libraries and Office of International Programs at Purdue has been terrific. I’m looking forward to contributing to the University’s global outreach and the opportunity to exchange ideas with librarians in Egypt.

What inspired you to apply for the fellowship?

Every Thanksgiving my wife and I invite the international graduate students who work in my lab to our house for dinner. We have a large family, so adding a few more chairs to the table is no problem. Two years ago, one of my Egyptian students returned the gesture and invited us to his family’s Iftar.

Iftar is a feast after sundown during Ramadan, which is the month of fasting practiced in Islam. It was one of the most wonderful meals I’ve ever eaten, and it was special to share it between our families. It was a great cultural experience and part of my inspiration for applying.

How does your family feel about moving to Egypt in January?

The kids -- ages 12, 6, 5 and 3 -- are excited. We check out books from the local library every week and read about Egyptian history, society and folklore. Together we’re learning about everything from mummies and the pharaohs to modern Egyptian and Muslim culture.

Our hope is that the experience will broaden our kids’ view of the world. They’ll learn more in five months living abroad than they would in a semester in a classroom at home, so it was an easy decision to pull them out of school.

Do you have any expectations going into this move?

We’ve lived most of our lives in the Midwestern United States, so we’re going with as few expectations and preconceptions as we can. I’ve never been to the Middle East, and most of my children have never traveled outside of the country before. We’ll make an effort to integrate as best we can. We’re living in a regular apartment in a residential part of the city. We won’t go to McDonald’s -- we’ll buy our food from the local market. Of course, we’ll do touristy things like ride camels and visit the pyramids and museums, but we really want to adapt and have a genuine experience. We want to get to know our neighbors and for our kids to make friends.

There are misconceptions about Americans because of the way we are portrayed in movies and the media. The same is true in the United States about Muslims and the Arab world. I hope that we’ll be able to interact directly with as many people as possible, to better understand each other from firsthand experiences. I believe there are more similarities between typical American and Egyptian families than differences.

Can you describe your research and teaching?

When people think about libraries, they typically think of buildings filled with books and bookshelves.  Books are important, but the majority of scholarship is now taking place online. My research is generally in the area of digital libraries and specifically in the development of tools and new practices for collecting, organizing, and stewarding electronic information in nontraditional formats such as research datasets. I belong to the Libraries’ Distributed Data Curation Center, which focuses on the role of library science and librarians in data-driven, interdisciplinary research. I will pursue this research in collaboration with Egyptian colleagues in the context of electronic resource management and access while giving a series of lectures on related topics.

What do you think about library and librarian stereotypes?

First, let me say that nobody will “shush” you in a library at Purdue. Our campus libraries are dynamic and comfortable spaces for studying, doing your research and collaborating with others. Our librarians are library science faculty who collaborate in information literacy instruction and on sponsored research in all subject areas at Purdue. They're familiar with the latest information sources, and they’re always available to help both students and faculty with research and teaching.