The university was once a microcosm, a miniature world offering the whole of knowledge in a restricted arena. Every discipline represented had its professor who was the supreme local authority on the subject. That supremacy faded long ago as the growth of our great libraries over the last [i.e., the 19th] century brought the world to our door and students found more ways to learn about their subject than to sit and listen to the local professor, but the structure of our institutions of higher learning still reflects that origin. The old model may still be powerful and useful, and we should think carefully about how to adapt it to the future, while remembering that new metaphors can be useful as well.

The real roles of the professor in an information-rich world will be not to provide information but to advise, guide, and encourage students wading through the deep waters of the information flood.

James O’Donnell, Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace, 1998. I have been thinking about this passage since I first read it, about sixteen years ago.