My work in the library

We have a new incoming dean of libraries, arriving in May. She asked every library employee to respond to several questions. Here are my responses.

How do you contribute to University Libraries?

I tell stories that connect people with the wonderful, humane, creative, instructive and ongoing story of science and scientific culture. Libraries are not only about curating and communicating information, they are also places of meaning. Stories provide meaning. Stories invite participation, and the construction of new stories.

Here’s an example of what that looks like in practice: We had an exhibit in 2015 about Galileo. As a result, I held full-day workshops for several years for teachers in a NASA space grant program. One elementary teacher who had participated was working with a second grade student who could not yet read. The teacher shared with the girl stories about the stars. They inspired her so much that she created her own story about the stars, about a constellation she called “Hoot the Owl.” Then the girl wanted to learn to write in order to make her own book about her new constellation. “Hoot the Owl” is now my favorite constellation; you can read her story, “How the Constellation Hoot the Owl Began,” just the way she wrote it, with her family’s permission, here: Without doubt, my favorite outcome of the Galileo’s World exhibit was that it inspired this 2nd grade student in El Reno to learn to read and write.

What do you like most about your job?

The variety of people I encounter. Here is an example, expressed as a contrast between two libraries:

I remember one summer day I arrived at the front door of the —- Library in —, –. It was before 8 a.m., so that I could make best use of my one day visit. The moment the doors opened, I was invited inside and began the registration process, which was expedited for me, both because their history of science curator was a friend of mine and because I had visited the library (but not the reading room) before. Yet after I completed all the forms, answered all the questions, sat for a mug-shot, and signed a contract to credit them in the publication that would result, it was more than two hours later when I saw the inside of the reading room.

That very same summer, on a rainy day, a massive six-foot-four construction worker, perhaps in his mid-50’s with grey hair flowing down to his shoulders, a full grey beard, and a round cheerful face that would do credit to Santa Claus, walked in to the History of Science Collections. Whenever his construction site would close due to weather, he enjoyed coming in to see if we could bring him anything in Anglo Saxon. With no university education, he had taught himself to read it and translating it was his passion. He would spend all day translating whatever it was into his beloved paper notepad. Whenever I walked by our reading room and saw him there, it was as if a bard from the age of Beowulf was come back to life. Yet he would never have been allowed entrance to the —‘s reading room. Instead of an elite and exclusive private institution, we are a public research university library that welcomes all.

What UL accomplishment are you most proud of?

There are two that stand out head and shoulders above all others: open access and archives.

1. When I began working for the libraries in June 2000, image requests that came in during my first month on the job made clear to me how many creative uses images from our books could be put to by resourceful researchers, artists, and lay persons in unexpected pursuits. Since that time, it has been my goal to make serving these needs a distinctive ambition of the OU History of Science Collections. That service appropriately reflects our home within a public research university library. Yet it is also an advertising and promotional strategy that money can’t buy. Open access increases the visibility of a special collection located obscurely in a flyover state by giving us an international reach. That very summer, a PBS documentary on Galileo began production that would eventually list us as the first institutional credit. Fast forward to 2011, when the most important book on Copernicus to be published in a generation included this sentence in the preface:

“I wish to register special thanks to the University of Oklahoma History of Science Collections for its enlightened policy of making available free online use of visual material from its rich collections of rare primary sources.”

At that time, we had roughly 60,000 images online available for download for free in print-quality resolution. (In contrast, our current repository does not yet support direct downloads of print-quality images.) But while we had an opinion from OU Legal that agreed to direct downloads, the images were copyrighted, and the question of their continued availability always seemed precarious. In 2014, Rick Luce became Dean of Libraries, and the very first month on the job he visited Berlin to open a collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science to co-develop an open access academic series of primary source editions. Under Luce, OU Legal approved a blanket policy of open access applied to all of our images, including the History of Science materials in the repository.

2. The History of Science Collections have long held interesting archives, including the papers of Jens Rud Nielsen (who studied with Niels Bohr before helping to found the physics program at OU); papers related to meteorology (including the National Severe Storms Laboratory here in Norman); papers relating to geology (such as the Alexander Ospovat Collection on Abraham Werner and German mineralogy in the 18th century); and papers on technology (such as those on the development of RAM memory and other computer technology during the post-WW2 years). The problem was that these archives were not processed and therefore not available to scholars. We also stood on the sidelines when important archives went to other institutions or languished unpreserved. All that changed just about three years ago. We are now beginning processing, learning ArchiveSpace (thanks to Bailey Hoeffner!), and have launched an initiative that I believe is a strategic and mission-critical priority for us: a new History of Geology Archive. A distinguishing feature of this archive is that it offers a home for the papers of historians of geology that will benefit future researchers. This year the archive will begin to be available to the public featuring the papers of the three most prominent and distinguished historians of geology in the world (measured by lifetime achievement awards from the geological societies of America, England, France, and Russia)…. Before the pandemic, we already had two visiting scholars use the archive even as it was being processed. Once we begin to publicize it this coming fall, it will solidify our place as one of the leading centers in the world for research in the history of the earth sciences.

These seem to me truly to be the two most significant achievements for the History of Science Collections in my career.

What is your favorite UL memory?

When you walk into the Marilyn B. Ogilvie Room on the 5th floor, take a close look at the portrait that hangs on the wall. Marilyn was the second curator of the History of Science Collections (Duane Roller was the first). I was blown away when she asked me one day if I would be interested in becoming her assistant. I jumped at the chance, and with Dean Sul Lee’s offer I turned down pursuit of an opportunity to go to the university in my home town, although I am very close to family there. Marilyn was one of my chief mentors academically; she served on my dissertation committee. But more than that, I remember as a graduate student (spending inordinate time in the Collections) the moment she became curator, for that was when the atmosphere of the History of Science Collections opened up to be a safe and welcoming place for all of us, and for visitors of all kinds, including external school and community groups. I came on board in 2000, and became curator myself in 2009, but those precious years of working side-by-side with Marilyn will always mean more to me than my own tenure as curator. Marilyn is truly the “face” of the OU History of Science Collections. For in all I do in the Collections, I do out of gratitude for what Marilyn and Ken Taylor and Duane Roller and a few other mentors here at OU have meant to me. Gratitude is why I came to the Libraries, and that is why I am still here. Here is a photo of the painting and an interview I did with Marilyn:

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