When I started thinking about writing this post, the tricky part was who to write about. I thought of people like Julie Virgo, Linda C. Smith, and Martha E. Williams, all of whom I admired in my early career. Instead I decided to write about the two women who really opened my mind to a passion for technology.
I never meant to become either a geek or a librarian. I practically lived at the city library growing up, and the librarians told me they’d marked me as one of their own, to which I replied (with a notable lack of enthusiasm), “Thank you very much” while thinking “not if I can help it!” Similarly the Kuder Career Interest Profile said I should be in computers, an idea to which I violently objected, having other ideas and wanting to not be like my DadTheGeek. But here I am, a geek librarian! How did this happen?
I had wanted to be some sort of creative genius – not art, but music, dance, poetry. I wasn’t completely without talent, with an undergrad dual degree in music composition and psych, and then turning down a fellowship in creative writing to instead go to library school. The idea at that point was to get a job that would allow me to support my kid as a single parent, but wouldn’t be so distracting as to interfere with my primary duty to write poetry on my own time. (I can hear people laughing – stop that now!)
So I entered library school with the idea that computers were easy, and this was basically to fill the gaps. I had no real enthusiasm for the profession, and was marking time. What I wanted was a good job, and grad school in librarianship and automation was just a way to get there. Then I met two women who changed my mind.
Maurita was my boss, sort of. In grad school I worked as one of the first two people in the Library Associate program at the UM library school, with my position being within what was then the Engineering Transportation Library. Maurita was up the chain of command a bit, but always took brief moments to touch base with us lowly grad students, find out what we were interested in, just kind of keeping tabs on us. She was the most exemplary professional I have ever met, serving both as a wonderful mentor and setting an example of how to rationally and humanely manage a balanced personal and professional life. I am still in awe of her, and have given up hoping to achieve the balance and level of professionalism she exhibited on a day to day basis.
My duties were mostly to serve as one of the reference librarians, some special projects, and was also the liaison for Artificial Intelligence. The artificial intelligence bit was really interesting, especially since Maurita was married to John Holland, the father of genetic algorithms. I felt it behooved me to do a little better than simply know my sources, and made a point of especially tracking the AI literature on learning theory, expert systems and neural networks – a background which has served me well.
Maurita’s own area of research at the time was in technological gatekeepers and the influence of social networks on information flow and technology transfer. She, as a head librarian, was enough of a name in this research area that while I was there we had visiting scholars from Saab, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe who came to work with her on researching this, partnering on some fascinating studies. I still remember one of them fondly – Kirsten Dahl. At the time, and probably even today although less so, it was unusual for either a woman or a librarian to achieve that kind of notice in a truly technological field.
When I had my first term paper assignment, Maurita walked by on her way into the office, and I asked her what she thought would be an interesting and useful topic. She didn’t take very long to think about it, and said, “How about you do something on technological gatekeepers?” When that term paper won the ASIS Student Paper Award, she helped me buy a dress to wear for the award ceremony.
While I’m telling the story of how Maurita influenced my life, you mustn’t think this was anything unusual. Maurita mentored many students, both in her tenure as head librarian and later when she became a faculty member at the School of Information. She was a leader in the study of the interface between technology and communication, using the findings both to improve corporate effectiveness and also to work for social good. She didn’t preach about why we need to do good; she just did it. She also had a real life outside of technology, with annual piano concerts, rich friendships, and a lot of books. Not to mention that she was elegant and graceful and always feminine. She was the first person to ask me about whether there was much science in poetry, setting me off on a lifelong journey to collect poems revealing either the life, process or substance of science. Maurita is a marvelous model of a woman in technology, and I have been honored and graced by her influence in my life.
Remember that paper I wrote on tech gatekeeping? Well, that was for a class taught by Judy Weedman. Judy taught what was basically an Info Sci 101 class. I had never really heard or thought of information science, and this was not part of my mental world when I decided to come to library school. I think I thought librarians bought books, shelved books, filed cards and answered questions, then went home and read books. The idea of an underlying intellectual infrastructure was not something I had figured out.
In Judy’s InfoSci class, we read some really great articles. I came out with my eyes sparkling and my brain feeling swollen with the fervor of new neural connections. Literally. I had never imagined that anything about librarianship would excite me so profoundly. Talk about the lightbulb going ON! I felt almost as if I’d been newly born, as thoroughly inspired as I had ever felt about anything else, and probably more so. What a gift that was!
After that class, I never took another class from Judy. Instead I stopped by her office all the time, and we would talk and talk and talk. I needed someone with whom I could think through these ideas, the ramifications, significance, processes, etcetera. Someone who could be my science friend.
Like Maurita, Judy set a wonderful example of a real woman working in technology. Before coming back for her doctorate, Judy had worked in public schools and as a secretary. She had learned computers late and told stories about her boss laughing as the blasted automated system bleeped every time she made a typo. She had a gift for mentally deducing a understandable framework and structure to organize the knowledge, and then cloak it in something that seemed as ordinary as blue jeans. Judy made the tech seem accessible and a part of human life, which wasn’t often the case in the mid-1980s. Like me, she had fascinations, odd quirky interests she would track down and collect (like resumes at one point). She would distill interesting trends and patterns, and was delighted to share thoughts, observations and ideas with others. She looked explicitly for ways to connect tech to making life better for people.
Both Maurita and Judy were powerful influences in shaping my own love of technology and approach to research, but in very different ways. Between the two of them, there was a broad scope and range, and I could see not only a passion for the ideas but also niches into which I might insert myself and hopefully be useful. I cannot express how grateful I am to have known them both.