Everybody's Libraries

March 24, 2009

Gloriana St. Clair: A brief appreciation

Filed under: awards,libraries,people — John Mark Ockerbloom @ 10:50 pm

The organizer of today’s Ada Lovelace Day, a day to celebrate women in technology, says that women need female role models they can emulate.  I’d add that men can use female role models as well.  There are at least two obvious reasons. First of all, we get a wider range of inspiration when our role models aren’t limited to half the population.  But also, people can be rather clueless about groups of people that they don’t normally see much, and that cluelessness can hold people back needlessly.

I don’t recall being consciously sexist when I entered grad school in computer science, but I wasn’t the most clueful person either.  When I noticed that there were only 4 women in our entering class of 36 (a ratio unfortunately not too far off the one I saw in undergraduate computer science), one of the first things I blurted out to one of those women was something like “gee, there’s going to be a lot of romantic competition for you four,” thinking about them more as potential dates than as fellow computer science colleagues.

I was fortunate, however, to have multiple female role models to learn from in my time as a graduate student.  Mary Shaw inspired me and many others to gain mastery over all kinds of challenges, from software engineering to bicycle trekking, through systematic and rigorous information gathering and analysis.  Jeannette Wing contributed some of the key technical  foundations to my own dissertation work (in her work with Barbara Liskov on type substitutability), and as a member of my dissertation committee repeatedly challenged me to write more clearly and logically, helping ensure that my ideas were sound and understandable.  And I don’t have the space here to enumerate, or express full thanks for, what I’ve learned from Mary Mark since I met her.

I also found another role model who I’d like to talk about today: Gloriana St. Clair, dean of libraries at Carnegie Mellon.  Unlike the other women I’ve mentioned above, she has no “technology” degree, but she’s played very important roles in bringing together technology and librarianship, to the benefit of both.

She has long emphasized the importance of digital technology to the future of libraries, featuring it prominently in strategic plans and library organization, and cultivating people with the skills and knowledge to design and improve the digital library.  (And not just her own staff; she encouraged me, while still in the computer science department, to get out to library conferences to find out more what people were doing and thinking, and even gave me a ride to a CNI forum in Washington, DC.)

She’s also helped educate technologists about the important roles that libraries and librarianship play in managing information.  While at Carnegie Mellon, I got involved in a computer science-led project to build a massive digital book collection, where much of the early thinking seemed to assume that the problem was largely a matter of committing enough technology and funding.  I was very happy to see Gloriana get involved and show how sound librarianship could make that project, as well as other digital library initiatives I’d dabbled in previously, much more effective, usable, and preservable than a purely engineering-oriented project would have been.

She’s also been unafraid to take a leap into a new area or initiative when called for.  Not content to settle for an MLS degree as a librarian, she went on to get a PhD in literature, and an MBA that she’s used both to help manage libraries and teach others about library management.  And when a commercial publisher bought the library science journal she edited and raised its prices, she organized a mass exodus of editors to a new, lower-cost journal founded under the auspices of SPARC.

My own career jump, from a computer science department at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh to a library at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, was made easier in a number of ways by her help and example.  Indeed, after I got more acclimated to library culture, I  gained a better appreciation of how well she accomplished one of the great functions of librarians: to build bridges and spread knowledge among a variety of different disciplines.  I also grew to appreciate the importance of building such bridges for librarianship itself.  Librarians can be another set of folks that many faculty and professionals don’t see much of, and that they can be correspondingly clueless about.  If libraries and their users are not to be held back needlessly, we need to build better bridges between each other.

I’m not alone in my appreciation for Gloriana.  Just a few weeks ago, the Association of College and Research Libraries named her Academic/Research Librarian of the Year.  To their award, I’d like to add my own personal and professional thanks.  And thanks as well to the many other women in technology who have, knowingly or not, given me knowledge, inspiration, encouragement, and some helpful clues.  I hope I can make a suitable contribution in turn.

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