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.”

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