In 2004, he had a nice life in Rochester, New York. He and his wife, Debbi, had three kids and his career path was solid. He was working as director of academic technology for the University of Rochester. Prior to that gig, he had been director of technology and music production at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester.
When he heard that a former colleague was retiring from the William and Gayle Cook Music Library at the IU Jacobs School of Music, he sent her a quick email to say “congrats.”
“She wrote me back and said ‘You should apply; you’d be great.’ Change is hard for me, though, and I hadn’t moved out of New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut my entire life,” he recalled. “But I decided to apply, and I figured if I get an interview at least I’ll get to visit a place I’ve never seen before.”
Here’s where the plot thickens. “I remember these dates distinctly,” he said with a laugh. “I applied in February 2004. On March 25, 2004, I fell off my roof and broke my back. No joke. The day I get home from the hospital, IU called and said ‘Congrats, you’re a finalist! Can you come out in the next week or two?’”
His doctor said he couldn’t fly due to a back brace he was wearing. Ponella convinced the hiring committee to rent him a car to be driven by his wife (“I couldn’t drive; I couldn’t even put my shoes and socks on by myself!”) accompanied by his three kids, ages 5, 7, and 9 at the time, who they couldn’t leave alone in New York. Long story short, he aced the interview and was offered the job. He politely declined. (Remember, change is hard for Ponella.) After more negotiation, the Ponella family decided to make the move to the Midwest.
Technology guru, with the heart of a musician
And that’s how Phil Ponella came to be the director of one of the largest academic music libraries in the United States. Fast forward 13 years, and Ponella is currently the Wennerstrom-Phillips Music Library Director of the William and Gayle Cook Music Library and director of Music Information Technology Services for the Jacobs School.
In these roles, he provides leadership and overall management of the music library, which includes a collection of over 700,000 catalogued items on 56,733 linear feet of shelves. And if that’s not enough, Ponella also manages and coordinates the use of technology (computing, audio-video, networked information resources, telecommunications) at the Jacobs School of Music, one of the world’s most acclaimed institutions for the study of music.
Ponella fits right in with the musicians at Jacobs. He’s been playing the clarinet since third grade, and eventually earned his bachelor’s and master’s degree in clarinet performance. His ultimate goal was to get a job in a symphony orchestra, but he soon realized he could better support his growing family by following his interests in libraries and technology.
One of Ponella’s first projects at IU was Variations, the first (and best, according to Ponella) example of a digital musical library. “Way before Windows media and iTunes, IU was leading the way with this ground-breaking project. You know, as a librarian I have tenure, and some people joke that I got tenure with that project. I gave talks all over the place: Poland, Norway, and all over the U.S.,” he said.
Working closely with UITS
Since those early days, Ponella has continued to grow the music school’s technology capabilities. He and his team live stream student performances so friends and family back home can watch their musician shine, and they’ve worked with UITS Collaboration Technologies to develop their strategies for live streaming and video conferencing. He stays on top of teaching technologies to continue the Jacobs School’s reputation as a top-notch place for musicians. On top of all this, Ponella makes sure the 1,600 students and 275 faculty and staff members at Jacobs have access to the IT support and resources that IU is known for.
He stays in the know as part of the 1IUIT Leadership Council, chaired by IU Associate Vice President for Client Services and Support Cathy O’Bryan. His UITS relationships came in handy during the Two-Step Login rollout, when he talked with Momi Ford (also on the 1IUIT Leadership Council and manager of the UITS Support Center) about having on-site help for Jacobs faculty, staff, and students. UITS folks came out to help—three times!
Ever humble, Ponella is quick to give his 21 employees—and IU—most of the credit for any successes. “We are capable of doing great things here because we have a very unique set of circumstances: a fantastic library, a fantastic school of music, and a fantastic IT infrastructure. These things really do matter. Thanks to these three elements, we can do things here that a lot of other places can’t even conceive of doing,” he said.
Technological innovation is exciting, for sure, but Ponella is a performer at heart. “Sometimes in IT projects, we’re not quite there yet, and we want more time to make everything perfect. Working at a music school, though, there’s a certain freedom in saying, ‘It’s 8 o’clock, and we’re going to do it now. The show must go on.’”