Last summer, negotiations seemed to be moving along between the U-M and the Authors Guild of America, which represents some 8,000 authors. The guild was concerned that books still in copyright might be improperly shared through HathiTrust, an online archive housed at the university. “We had scheduled a visit,” recalls Paul Courant, head of the U-M library system. “They were going to come to Ann Arbor and talk to us and help us design a process.”

“And then one day [last September] they called us up and said they were going to sue us instead.”

Once again U-M’s name was dragged into a lawsuit over copyright infringement—not the kind of media buzz an academic institution seeks. In 2005, the Authors Guild sued Google, claiming that the mother of all search engines had violated its members’ copyrights when it announced plans to scan millions of books in the libraries of the U-M and other schools.

As U-M provost from 2002 to 2005, Courant negotiated the agreement with Google for what is now known as Google Books—a factor that played into his surprise selection as university librarian in 2007. He now reports to provost Phil Hanlon, who used to report to him. But it’s Courant who’s making news in academia, through his work to reshape U-M’s vast holdings into a prototype for the libraries of the twenty-first century—libraries with more digital resources, many fewer books, and much of their space repurposed.

But the technology that lets scholars do their reading and research on computer screens instead of paper arrived before important legal and ethical questions were decided. That’s why writers, editors, publishers, and academics are watching both lawsuits closely. In its 2005 lawsuit, the Authors Guild argued that the scanning process itself amounted to “a brazen violation of copyright law.” The new litigation was triggered by plans to share those digital volumes: in a press release, guild president and best-­selling writer Scott Turow zinged HathiTrust’s intention to let students and faculty download books that are new enough to still be in copyright but whose authors could not be tracked down. Witheringly, Turow pointed out that as soon as the archive released a list of these “orphan work candidates,” guild members and others quickly located many of the works’ authors or their heirs. The purported orphans’ parents, Turow sniped, included “authors who are signing ­e-book agreements and the literary estates of Pulitzer Prize winners.”

Courant, sixty-four, looks unhappy as a reporter reads that quote aloud. A voracious reader whose librarian mother still volunteers at the New York Public Library, he does not relish being attacked by the country’s largest writers’ union. In a press release, he called the lawsuit “misguided and unnecessary.” But he says he can’t talk in depth about the suit while it’s pending, wryly joking, “They don’t allow me out without a university lawyer!”

The litigation is all the more galling because Courant is proud that U-M is a national leader in the greatest change in information retrieval since the invention of the printing press. Although his overall affect is cool, his passion is evident when he announces, “We’re not very far away from being able to make almost everything that’s ever been published usable by almost everybody who can read. I think that’s a tremendous boon to humanity when we get there—and I want us to get there!”

Courant’s spacious office on the eighth floor of the Graduate Library—nice view—is sprinkled with family pictures. (He and attorney Marta Manildi have a son at Earlham College; Courant also has two sons from his first marriage, and a young granddaughter.) A vintage children’s book, So You Want to Be A Librarian, is displayed on a shelf.

A short, striking-looking man with wavy silver hair, Courant looks sharply at you through narrow glasses. An online biographical statement rolls out the credentials you’d expect for a distinguished U-M prof—”authored half a dozen books and over seventy papers”—but unexpectedly closes, “He rides a BMW R115OR motorcycle.”

Courant grew up in a household of high expectations. His father, Ernest, is a prominent physicist, while his German-born paternal grandfather wrote what Courant describes as “the most widely used calculus textbook in the world.” Fired early in the Nazi era because of his Jewish heritage, Richard Courant relocated to New York University; Grandma Nina, a pianist, adored Eleanor Roosevelt. At family dinners, “the social conscience department was hers,” recalls Courant. “The math and science tough questions were his.”

Courant majored in history at Swarthmore, adding a master’s and doctorate in economics at Princeton. His research focuses on public economics: he’s written on tax reform, the economic impact of the Great Lakes, and university finances. Lately, not surprisingly, he’s concentrated on academic libraries.

He arrived in Ann Arbor in 1973, and, apart from a short stint working for Jimmy Carter’s Council of Economic Advisors, he’s been here ever since. He held various leadership positions before being appointed provost and vice president for academic affairs in 2002. Though it’s not clear why Courant wasn’t reappointed at the end of his three-year term, a common speculation is that then-new president Mary Sue Coleman wanted to choose her own person for the job. (His immediate successor, Theresa Sullivan, is now president of the University of Virginia.)

After he stepped down, Courant headed the search committee for a new university librarian. In an unexpected twist, Sullivan asked if he’d be interested in being considered himself. He replied in the affirmative, resigned from the committee, and a few months later was offered and accepted the position.

If this seems like a slide into obscurity, Courant begs to differ. “If the library was one of the schools and colleges, it would be the fifth or sixth largest,” he says. “It employs a lot of people; it touches the lives of almost everybody on campus. The library has over four million visitors a year and then several [million] more electronic visitors.”

Courant’s willingness to take the library job was a “stroke of luck,” says Margaret Leary, recently retired director of the law library. His scholarly accomplishments and experience as provost, she says, gave him instant credibility. Barbara MacAdam, who was associate director under his predecessor, Bill Gosling, praises Courant as a “visionary.”

Still, some library staffers grumbled about giving a non-librarian the top job. His hiring, and especially his emphasis on digitization, demoralized some older librarians, hired in the era when books were everything. “They feel like they’re invisible,” says one sympathetic former employee.

Although Courant did some good-will shifts on the reference desk, MacAdam says, it’s not his role “to actually manage and lead the library on a daily basis.” He’s sufficiently removed from day-to-day operations that at one point he escorts an Observer reporter and photographer to see the Grad Library’s Audubon Room, only to find that it’s closed for renovation. “No one told me,” he says a bit sheepishly.

“I’d be the first to admit that that the librarians who report to me know a lot more about libraries than I do,” Courant says. “But I know about universities. That turns out to be a very useful thing to know about when speaking about the future of libraries.”

Courant is the big-picture guy. He serves on the steering committee planning a “national digital library” that would include public as well as university libraries. He frequently flies to conferences where confused and anxious academics and librarians try to make sense of a world where scholarship no longer depends on easy access to physical books.

Former U-M president Jim Duderstadt, an early apostle of digital everything, calls himself one of the “older guard,” because he still has shelves of books in his office. Many of his fellow engineering profs, he says, haven’t touched a library book in years. And undergrads have never known a non-digital world. English prof June Howard says that a few of her students seem never to have checked out a library book.

A dozen years ago, former U-M librarian Gene Alloway saw something that stopped him cold. A Grad Library employee was wheeling out about a dozen boxes of nineteenth-century American history books. Their covers had been ripped off, and they were headed for the Dumpster.

“I confronted them about it,” recalls Alloway, emotion evident in his voice. “They had been guillotined!” The books had been scanned and put online as part of the “Making of America” project, a collaborative effort between U-M and Cornell that digitized primary sources from 1840 to 1900. After arguing with a library official, Alloway was able to stall the volumes’ destruction—but only temporarily. The books were destroyed in the end. (Alloway now co-owns Motte & Bailey, a scholarly used-book store.)

Not everyone mourned the books’ demise. “A lot of them weren’t in very good shape,” recalls one former librarian. “They were going to fall apart anyway.” But Alloway’s gut reaction reflects the deep emotions books arouse. Although MacAdam enthusiastically championed Courant’s changes, she understands that books can be both beloved objects in themselves and powerful symbols of education. In a sense, she says, “the library is the cathedral of the university.” The books displayed in its “beautiful spaces … make real the world of research and scholarship and teaching.”

For people born before, say, 1990, the choice between physical books and digital text is not clear-cut. Courant himself uses a Kindle, but he bought one of his sons a volume of Yeats’s poems for Christmas and still subscribes to magazines delivered by mail, including the New Yorker, the Economist, and the New York Review of Books.

But in the dozen libraries he oversees, the slow retreat from print is clear. In the past five years, the number of items checked out from the “MLibrary” system has dropped 12.5 percent, from 548,580 to 479,888 items annually. More than 200,000 books and periodicals have been withdrawn from the libraries’ collections, with duplicate back issues of scientific and medical journals among the first to go.

Owning fewer books and periodicals has benefits that go beyond the average $4 per item the university pays in maintenance and storage fees each year. Physical space is precious at U-M, and as books are withdrawn, more space becomes available for other uses. In the Duderstadt Center on North Campus, this has meant room for production facilities for student-made films. In the undergrad library, a donation from U-M alum Bert Askwith, class of 1931, helped turn an area once devoted to bound magazines into “Bert’s Café,” where students line up to buy bagels, sandwiches, and coffee. (Askwith, now 101, recently dined with Courant’s parents in New York.)

Polled at Bert’s, only three of seven students say they frequently check out books. So what are the others doing here? “This is probably the coolest library on campus,” a young woman in a Wolverine shirt says brightly. “A lot of people come here because it’s so social.”

Others say they come because they work harder when they’re at the library, and because it eases their sense of isolation when they’re studying. “I love to feel surrounded by people,” says Yue Bian, a grad student in education.

There’s a fairy-tale quality to the origin of the Google Books project. Former director Bill Gosling recalls how, about ten years ago, he and now associate university librarian John Wilkin shared a box lunch with Google co-founder Larry Page. The U-M engineering grad talked enthusiastically about how Google’s technology could “expand access to this information [in the library system] to people all over the world.” Kept under wraps while the company and university worked out the details, the project was announced in December 2004.

President Coleman professed herself “exhilarated.” “We were [at the] cusp of the whole world of books going digital,” says Barbara MacAdam. “It captured people’s imagination.”

“There had never been anything like it!” says Courant. Before the Google project kicked off, he says, the U-M had been digitizing about ten thousand books a year. Afterwards, the pace accelerated to “tens of thousands a week, sometimes, on a good day, tens of thousands a day!” (Google employees physically remove the volumes and scan them off-site). About five million books, most of the collection, have been scanned, but no end date is yet in sight.

Books published before 1922, and thus no longer copyright protected, are available in their entirety. Anyone, inside or outside the university, can read them. Most newer works are assumed to be still under copyright, and only a snippet is put online: search for “Google Books Portnoy’s Complaint” and you’ll get only the publisher’s description, links to websites that discuss the Philip Roth novel, and a sampler of the most common words in the text (including bar mitzvah, Empire Burlesque, Gracie Mansion, and a number of graphic sexual terms).

Obscenities aside, this summary seems no more threatening than an old-fashioned card catalog. So what’s fueling the outrage and the lawsuits? In part, growing unease about Google’s power. Robert Darnton, Harvard’s university librarian, protested in a New York Review of Books article that when the digitization project is complete, “Google will enjoy what can only be called a monopoly” in providing digitized texts. That concentration makes some people instinctively uneasy. “What if Google goes bankrupt?” asks former U-M library head Richard Dougherty. “You wonder what will happen to all that information.”

But the truly incendiary questions concern authors’ rights. The two Authors Guild lawsuits illuminate the complexities posed by libraries’ seemingly straightforward desire to make their books available online.

The first suit, in 2005, challenged the scanning, arguing that the creation of digital copies was in itself a violation of copyright. (The Association of American Publishers filed a similar suit.) In 2008, a settlement was reached—or so everyone thought. Google agreed to pay $125 million to the authors and publishers, to sell copyrighted works on their behalf, and to fund a registry to protect authors’ copyrights. But Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo, and other companies objected, and in March of last year, the settlement was rejected by a New York federal judge.

Just five months later, Courant was blind-sided by the news that the Authors Guild was again suing the U-M, along with four other universities and ­HathiTrust. Organized and led by Michigan, the trust now includes more than fifty universities that have agreed to pool their online resources to create one vast shared archive. The guild’s press release specifically cited the trust’s announcement that it would allow faculty and students at member schools to access “orphan works” that could still be in copyright.

Michigan was “bold” to take on the Google project, says former law library director Margaret Leary. “Other libraries were nervous—they just wanted Google to do parts of their collections.”

The Authors Guild shows no sign of backing down. The group recently asked New York federal judge Harold Baer to reject the schools’ argument that digitization is “fair use” of copyrighted material.

It seems safe to say that at some point in the twenty-first century, the millions of works Google copied will be available in their entirety with a click of the mouse—just as Courant envisions. But there are deep differences over how that should work, and unless Congress steps in, it appears they’ll have to be resolved in court.

Courant may be gone from the library by the time both cases are decided. Though his original five-year term was extended last year, he has already announced that he will step down in August 2013 to return to teaching, research, and writing.

“I’m thinking of writing a book about libraries,” he says. “When you jump up and down and say, ‘Hey, for a good time, come to the library,’ people don’t take you seriously. But that’s probably the working title of my book.”

This article has been edited since it appeared in the May 2012 Ann Arbor Observer. Courant’s undergraduate concentration, the decline in circulation at the libraries he oversees, and the number of books and periodicals withdrawn from their collections have been corrected.