Monday, November 18, 2013

Whatever It Takes

“‘She was a quiet, brilliant thinker,’ said Diane Geraci, interim codirector of libraries at MIT, who added that Ms. Wolpert ‘worked harder than anyone I knew.’…When Ms. Wolpert wasn’t staying late in her office, she traveled widely giving speeches and sharing ideas with librarians around the world.” — Melissa Hanson, obituary for Ann Wolpert in The Boston Globe

I never had the opportunity to meet or work with Ann Wolpert, the late director of libraries at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. What I know of her I learned by reading her obituaries. Reading those, I wondered what rock I’ve been hiding under for the past seventeen years. Why was I so unaware of her and her work? I felt chastised by my ignorance.

At the same time, I felt challenged by her legacy and by the observations of those who knew her best. I was especially drawn to those comments quoted above which spoke to her work ethic and energy. One of my colleagues, now working on the East coast, once described me as the hardest working archivist he knew. I was pleased by the comment at the time. But I think anything I might have offered, then or now, pales in comparison to what Ms. Wolpert accomplished during her career at MIT.

Inexplicably (or not, as the case might be), I thought about Ann Wolpert ten days ago, while in the woods of central Minnesota. I was deer hunting with my eldest son. On opening morning my son downed a large buck. Unfortunately, the buck expired in the middle of a swamp. Yards and yards of boggy water, some of it up to our thighs, separated us from the deer. Leaving the buck was not an option; it needed to be retrieved, brought to dry land, field dressed, hauled back to our truck, and eventually taken to the meat market for processing. It was not easy work, but we needed to do what any responsible hunter would do: tend to our quarry and bring it home. Nearly three hours later, soaked to the bone by chilly water and wind, exhausted by the long haul—some of it across a recently disked and muddy farm field—we lifted the buck into the back of the truck, drained our boots of water, put on warm socks, and rested. After a short interval, I headed back to the woods; there were more hours to hunt and my field lunch awaited me at the base of a tree.

This might seem like a strange juxtaposition—thinking about an influential member of my profession at the same time I was engaged in the struggles of a sport some might question (or object to). My purpose here is not to argue the benefits of a hunt (or the rich bibliographic trail such an activity engenders). Instead, what I am asserting is that my recollection of Ms. Wolpert’s legacy in the middle of a Minnesota swamp made—and makes—perfect sense when thinking about our work and profession. There are times when what we do, and how we do what we do, demand attention and action. Moments will confront us, as they did for Ann Wolpert (and me in the swamp), when the time for talk ends, when we must act. Inaction is not an option. To do nothing, or to ignore the situation presented to us, is unacceptable. We need to move, act, and accomplish the thing set before us.

There is more than a hint of this inexorable confrontation (and how it should be faced) in the obituary of Ms. Wolpert written by Nate Nickerson of the MIT News Office.

Wolpert began work at MIT just as the Internet was emerging, and her tenure was marked by her passionate response to the opportunity and upheaval that resulted for research libraries. In scientific, research, and university communities around the world, a debate, still unresolved, came to the fore: how the decades-old system of peer-reviewed scholarly journals ought to operate in the digital world.

Wolpert became a leading voice in that discussion; she argued for unrestricted online access to journal articles. In a February 2013 essay in the
New England Journal of Medicine, she not only made the case for such access: She also called it an inevitability. “There is no doubt,” she wrote, “that the public interests vested in funding agencies, universities, libraries, and authors, together with the power and reach of the Internet, have created a compelling and necessary momentum for open access. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be inexpensive, but it is only a matter of time.”

I have argued with myself in the past, and in these posts, about expectations—those set for us by others and those motivated from within ourselves. I objected to what I felt were unreasonable or unjust expectations, of being told that my work was more than forty hours a week, that I needed to do “whatever it takes” to accomplish my job. I still object to a life that does not allow necessary re-creation or rest, what some ancients called Shabbat, a Sabbath (or an occasional sabbatical of study and writing). And I reject a lifestyle and profession that puts work above all else. Such priorities are out of whack and out of place.

But what Ann Wolpert taught me, even in her passing, is that there are certain times and places—even within the twelve to seventeen hour days I have occasionally endured in the last weeks—when you need to recognize certain imperatives demanded by our profession, by our work, and by situations staring you straight in the face. In those moments it is time to double down, buckle down, and get the job done—whatever it takes. “It won’t be easy, and it won’t be inexpensive, but it is only a matter of time.”

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Bound Fragments of Time

“One seeks those objects which reflect his interests. He awakens to the possessive urge to gather them about him. He treasures them for those qualities which bespeak his interest, often far better than his own words. They form the historical background of his present cultural environment. He, in effect, becomes a collector.” — James Ford Bell, "Bound Fragments of Time"

I thought I would devote this week’s post to a little history and an important library collection. One of the more notable events on campus last week was a celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the James Ford Bell Library. The celebratory party was held on Wednesday evening featuring a short program, good food, and the opening of an exhibit to mark the event. The exhibit, “Bound Fragments of Time: 60 Years of Collecting at the James Ford Bell Library” will run until February 1, 2014 in the T. R. Anderson Gallery on the fourth floor of Wilson Library, West Bank Campus, University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.

On October 30, 1953 Bell formally gave his collection to the University. In an address given on that day he noted: “What I have collected has been carefully chosen and is, I think, of a quality and an extent to form at least the nucleus of a library which…may help to make the generations of students that will pass through the University of Minnesota good trustees for posterity of the boldness, confidence, vision, and wisdom which these books contain as gifts from the past.” The establishment of the Bell Library in 1953 and the Kerlan Collection of Children’s Literature in 1949 marked, in essence, the beginning of what would become an amazing assemblage of collections now under the rubric of archives and special collections. Other collections—the Social Welfare History Archives (1964) and the Immigration History Research Center (1965)—added valuable research materials for scholars and students.

In an historical sketch I wrote some time ago for an exhibit at the Weisman Art Museum, more of the story becomes apparent.

In the beginning days of the library, curiosities and rarities were part of the domain of the University Librarian. It was the Librarian who made book-buying trips to England and the Continent, or who arranged to meet with dealers and purchase items in the fields of history or literature that might both strengthen the curriculum and add to the prestige of the library….In the mid-1920s Walter Library was built and its rarities found a new home—a small safe and a locked, fireproof vault within the library…. At about this same time, Minneapolis Journal publisher and bibliophile Hershel Victor Jones donated his collection of seventeenth-century newspapers to the library. During a tour of the new library, Jones asked to see his gift, was led to this small sanctuary, and was comforted by the security and respect shown his collection. That distinctive collection of Stuart tracts and newspapers was expanded through the efforts of James Thayer Gerould and scholar/dean
Guy Stanton Ford into an English history collection numbered in 1921 at more than forty-five hundred items.

History and literature—English and American—continued as subject strengths in the collection building that laid the foundations for Special Collections and Rare Books. As the collections in Walter grew, the outlines of a future department began to take shape. Additional reading room space was secured in the Upson Room and, with the addition of another rare book collection in 1953, the James Ford Bell Library, the library devoted more attention to rare materials. But it was not until the mid-1960s when the term "special collections" began to be used in the library.
With the hiring of a curator of special collections…and the building and occupation of the new Wilson Library on the West Bank campus in the late 1960s, the notion of a separate department of special collections and rare books took form. And with this new form, the collections that were firmly rooted in history and literature begin to expand into other areas such as art, philosophy, religion, and science.

Bell was a “leading figure in the American flour milling industry and founder of General Mills, Inc.” He was born in Philadelphia 1879. At the age of nine his family moved to Minneapolis, where his father became a general manager for the Washburn Crosby Company. (The initials WCCO, now attached to our local CBS television/radio stations, find their roots in the same company.) Bell graduated from the university in 1901 with a degree in chemistry and then joined the Washburn Crosby Company. “During World War I,” so a brief biography on the Bell Associates website reads, “he was appointed chairman of the Milling Division of the U.S. Food Administration and in this capacity accompanied President Herbert Hoover on his European Hunger Relief Mission in 1918.” Bell “became president of the Washburn Crosby Company in 1925; three years later he was responsible for the founding of General Mills, a consolidation of many western and Midwestern milling companies. He became chairman of the board of directors of the company in 1932, an office he held until his retirement in 1947. Throughout his life, he was active in national and international affairs and in the growth of his community.”

The Bell Collection has grown from James Ford Bell’s original gift of around 600 volumes to a collection “of more than 30,000 items in the form of books, maps, manuscripts, pamphlets, broadsides, and assorted printed documents. It ranges in scope from invoices for rope, ships' logs, and gilt-edged trade treaties between Western and Eastern monarchs to diaries, travel narratives, and missionary accounts. The items in the collection currently date between 400 C.E. and 1825 C.E.”

I served for a year as interim curator of the Bell Collection, following the retirement of curator Carol Urness in 2001. In a way, it was the repayment of a favor: Carol served as the interim curator of Special Collections and Rare Books until I arrived in 1998. Four years later, thinking a career move might be worth considering, I was one of three finalists for the Bell curatorship. I was unsuccessful in my bid, but it was all for the best. Current curator Marguerite (Maggie) Ragnow joined the staff in 2005 and is a valued colleague. The Bell’s original curator, John (Jack) Parker, was an inspiration to me. Shortly before his death in 2006, I wrote Jack a short note of thanks, which included these words:

I say thank you because, to a large extent, I am what I am, and am doing what I am doing, as a result of you, your life, and your work. I still remember, with some awe, the feeling I had as a graduate student in the library school when I paid my first visit to the fourth floor of Wilson. I felt as if I had entered “the holy of holies.” Your care for the collection, your scholarship in support of (and through) the collection, and your welcoming presence into the collection has stayed with me to this day. I want to provide the same care, and encourage the same level of scholarship, and to be as much of a welcoming presence to the collection, as you. To paraphrase a marketing slogan from some time ago, “I want to be like Jack.”

The Bell Library—and its curators—occupy a special place in my heart. I have enjoyed knowing and working with all of them, and celebrate with those still present the anniversary of a remarkable collection.