Citation for Hugh A. Blackmer

Associate Professor and Science Librarian

on the Occasion of His Retirement

June 2005


                There are two descriptors which appear again and again as one talks to people about Hugh Blackmer, or reads what colleagues have written about him.   One is “curious;” the second is “humorous.”   (Indeed, I’m told a third might be “sweet tooth,” but that relates to his ingestion of multiple desserts while at his interview lunch, and probably should be allowed to fade into legend.)  

                Ever since Robert Bolt popularized it in his play about St. Thomas More, the expression “a man for all seasons” has been somewhat over-used, but Hugh is one of those rare people for whom it is appropriate.   As most of you know, Hugh is an anthropologist, having received his PhD from Stanford in 1976.   He is also a librarian (Simmons 1992), a Peace Corps veteran, a musician, instrument builder, haiku poet, photographer, and hiker.   The courses he’s taught at W&L include Human Geography, Cross-Cultural Studies in Music, Anthropology of East Asia, History of Technology, Digital Libraries, History and Prospects of Humanity Computing, and Information Visualization.   These would represent range enough for most people but do not include the many courses for which he’s provided bibliographic instruction, and those extend from chemistry to English to West African women novelists to mitochondrial DNA (and many more).   I suspect that Hugh already knew something about each of the topics before he started working on his class lecture.  From his earliest days at W&L, Hugh’s service has been broad-based.  We should not forget that in addition to the other things we’ll mention here, he served on the Global Stewardship Committee and interviewed students for Watson fellowships.

                Hugh came to W&L in 1992 as a Reference Librarian, and in 1996 was chosen from a strong pool to be the first Science Librarian and head of the Telford Science Library.   These positions – which include everything from traditional reference service to developing the science collections, print and otherwise - would be demanding enough for one who defined them in a more traditional manner, but Hugh’s service to the University has gone well beyond the words on his position description.    This is where that curiosity comes in.   Hugh was lured into librarianship by the infinite promise of the new information technologies, but even more by his own vision of what a librarian is.   He once wrote, “librarians…have a unique vantage point on lifelong learning, since they are called upon daily to stretch what they know.”  A librarian’s basic duty, Hugh said, was “to help people continue to educate themselves.”   What a beautiful match of personal inclination with professional obligation!

                Hugh says that his “long-run interests center on the practical uses of digital technologies,” and his ability to see over the horizon and to spot the promise of an emerging technology has benefited us all in untold ways.  Hugh was instrumental in developing W&L’s presence on the internet, starting with a “Gopher” system when that was cutting-edge and moving on to establish the first University webpage as well as the processes for individuals to set up personal and departmental web pages.  Through the Associated Colleges of the South, Hugh was also an early promoter of GIS and an advocate for librarians to support it on their campuses.   One fan remarked that Hugh “has done more to promote faculty use of the internet than any other employee of the University.”

                When each new electronic resource in the Sciences came along, W&L was earlier than most in signing up, less because of our adventurous nature than because, in Barbara Brown’s words,  “Hugh was always pounding on my door for money…we probably bought more of those sooner that we otherwise might have given his persuasive arguments.”

                Hugh’s curiosity and desire to learn drives his own relentless study, but he is a teacher first and foremost.  He wants to help you learn, as well.   He wants to help you learn even if you think you don’t have time or see the immediate advantage of the technology he’s taken by. One of Hugh’s colleagues remembers having first heard about the Worldwide Web when Hugh brought it up at a staff meeting, and continues, “Most of us didn’t quite understand what he was talking about, but it didn’t long for him to brow beat us into taking this seriously.”  Hugh’s boundless and good-humored enthusiasm for learning and teaching has made us all better teachers, scholars and librarians.  He has been called variously “a catalyst in preparing his fellow librarians and the campus community for the electronic information age,” “an enthusiastic and engaging prophet of  change,”  and “a great catalyst for the use of information technology in academic research and teaching.”  A colleague in the Library may have captured it best when he said, “Thinking of Hugh's retirement leaves me sad because there is literally no one else like him.  He has excelled in the continuing education of his colleagues…Hugh is conversant with the cutting edge of technology and its application to the flow of information and on hundreds of occasions he has passed along articles, new web sites or blogs that advance our understanding.”

                Of course there’s nothing worse than being harangued about A Better Way to Do Things by someone who is deadly serious and superior, or who conveys his impression that you’re an idiot for not understanding something as well as he does.   The reason that so many of us are saddened to lose Hugh, while wishing him a happy and well-earned retirement, is that his enthusiasm is joyous and infectious.   His approach to new technology is never “What are we going to lose through this?” or “Good grief, what now?”, but rather “Wow, can you imagine what we can do with this!? Can you see the possibilities?”  Just as he never tires of sharing what he’s learned, he’s also willing to devote the time to help you understand it, or to make it work for W&L.   Although he sometimes may wish that as an institution we could move faster or be closer to the cutting edge, with individuals he’s kind, patient, and funny.   He’s been described by those who know him as “an excellent teacher and communicator, a kind colleague, and a committed librarian,” “an enthusiastic and engaging prophet of change,” “a stimulating delight to be around,” and “a great colleague in every way.”  I would probably not be the first to remark that Hugh is special not because he’s a change agent or a delight to be around, but because he’s both.

                Finally, it should be noted that Hugh was among those who first saw the shape of the “Library outside the walls.”   In 1997, which was still the infancy of the Web, he wrote, “The physical setting of spaces, shelves, work surfaces and computers (in the Library) is just the matrix.  What we do to animate the matrix is the important thing, and that rests on the outreach of the Library into classrooms, labs, residences, and the processes of information use that support teaching and research activities.”  In writing this, Hugh anticipated a wave that gathered force in libraries only recently, namely the conviction that librarians can no longer sit in their libraries and wait for the users to come to us.   Just as our collections are now ever-available in cyberspace, so must librarians be meeting faculty and students where they live, in classrooms, labs, residences and wherever teaching, learning, and study happen.   Certainly Hugh Blackmer is the prototype for this new sort of peripatetic, ubiquitous, and we hope irresistible, librarian.   

                It’s typical of Hugh that he’s departing W&L in the same style as he’s lived here, by conceiving a new tool to engage emeritus faculty.   Hugh has postulated a “virtual geezer box,” namely a portal for emeritus faculty who’d like to maintain, and extend, their web presence.  Hugh sees our retired faculty blogging, podcasting, and sharing virtual space with their colleagues in an online version of the Emeritus Faculty Lounge in Leyburn Library.   As Hugh puts it, “I’m only the first of the retirees who has a substantial web presence, and there will be others.  What can we do to preserve and encourage the repurposing of such digital legacies?...many emeriti continue to be active researchers, and would probably welcome conduits that keep alive their connections to the University.”  So like Hugh, to see an emerging need, draw it to our attention, and begin work on a way to meet it!  (And so like Hugh, with his enduring wit, to title it “A Virtual Geezer Box.”)

                Hugh, may your energy never flag and may your curiosity never be entirely satisfied.    All the best for a long, happy and productive retirement.


Merrily E. Taylor

Professor and University Librarian

May 26, 2005