23 April 2003
I could summarize what the loss of Skip's services will mean to me by cataloging the array of his contributions to projects we've collaborated on in the past few years, and the list would include R.E. Lee projects, GIS development, databases for many purposes, and a broad variety of experiments in pedagogy. Personally, I am losing access to expertise that has been very important to my activities in library and classroom. Our experiments with the active Web, with relational databases, with digital library development, with .NET, with ArcIMS, and with innovative uses for servers in collecting and delivering materials for teaching and learning and research... all of these relied upon his expertise. The "R&D" side of my work comes to a screeching halt.
The institution needs good advice on how to automate and use computers and data in new ways, and needs the services of someone competent to consult and explore and build prototypes. It is essential, and not simply a luxury, to have people working on the frontiers of application development, but where should people "working on the frontiers" be located within the organization? There are no easy answers, and most of the conventional locations and job designations act to restrain the freedom of the innovator. That has been a constant problem for Skip, in great and small ways that I happen to know about anecdotally, and certainly contributed to his decision to leave W&L. He interested himself in an extraordinary range of problems, talked regularly with a broad cross-section of people on the campus, worked both collaboratively and independently, and acted as a solution-finder for problems that most people hadn't even noticed yet. His expertise was available to people who were grappling with novel problems, especially those involving data.
I gather that there are no plans to hire a replacement with analogous programming skills and the breadth of knowledge Skip has provided to the community. That he is himself 'irreplaceable' is obvious but largely irrelevant: it's more important to recognize that Skip's departure means the end of collaboration between library and computing in exploratory development in information technologies, notably image databases and digital libraries. This is short-sighted, especially at a time when the technologies are developing so rapidly, and when so many aspects of the teaching and research mission of the institution must make informed decisions about technologies.