Dartmouth College Library Bulletin
Margaret Otto: Quiet Contributor
Merrily E. Taylor
Most of us would agree that time goes more quickly as we grow older, and as we live in the present, we begin to accept it as 'normal,' often forgetting the realities of our early lives.One of the realities of life in the 1960s, when Margaret Otto and I became academic librarians, was that-in a profession dominated by women-women seldom rose to high administrative office in libraries. Most certainly, they did not become the directors of Association of Research Libraries libraries.Today, at a time when a significant percentage of ARL directors are female, that old reality is easy to forget.It is appropriate to note, though, that when Margaret Otto assumed the position of Dartmouth's Librarian of the College, female ARL directors were highly visible, and each directorship gained by a woman was seen as a triumph for feminism and the beginning of an era of opportunity. The downside of this visibility was that each of the first female ARL directors was, willingly or not, a representative for every woman librarian who aspired to higher position. In 1979, we were still very much in a time when women who succeeded were characterized as 'just as good as a man,' and women who failed were offered as evidence that all females were ill suited for senior administrative positions.
Remembering that, Margaret Otto's successful twenty-one-year tenure as Librarian of the College assumes even greater significance. Margaret came to Dartmouth after fifteen years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries, where over time she had risen from Assistant Science Librarian to Associate Director. MIT is a very different place from Dartmouth; as qualified as she was to assume a directorship, she must have wondered if the transition would be a successful one, good both for her and for Dartmouth. She need not have wondered. Between 1979 and the present, the Dartmouth College Library has not only enhanced its reputation as an institution with superb collections and a talented, committed staff, but has also set an example when it comes to bold and innovative use of new information technologies. Academic institutions around the world look to Dartmouth as an example of successful collaboration among librarians and computer scientists, to build an environment where a host of resources on the campus network facilitate the daily lives of students and faculty alike. The most significant thing about this, perhaps, is that Dartmouth has done this while continuing to recognize and support the centrality of the Library to campus life, both through commitment to collections and, most recently, to an ambitious renovation and expansion of Baker Library. In a world where many people are inclined to believe that all meaningful information can be gained through the Internet, Dartmouth's commitment to a new library building conveys an important message, and one for which Margaret Otto deserves a good share of the credit.
In the various professional associations and library consortia with which she has been involved, Margaret has never been one to call attention to herself. She has simply gone about contributing her expertise in a low-key and invariably sensible manner. While others embroiled themselves in professional association politics or took upon themselves the mantle of 'library leader,' Margaret led by common sense, a balanced perspective, and most of all by running one of the best academic libraries in the country. It is a matter of some interest that, while others talked about building the 'wired campus' and 'the library of the future,' Dartmouth just went ahead and did it, something that is very characteristic of Margaret Otto's style.
Margaret was active professionally within the region, serving on the NELINET Board and in various capacities within the New Hampshire library community. She contributed her expertise to library visiting committees at Brown University and at the University of Rochester. Within the Association of Research Libraries, she was involved in a dozen different groups. At a time when a national preservation program for endangered library collections was just getting under way, she served on ARL's Preservation Committee (twice!), Microform Project Committee, and Preservation Planning Committee, helping to set policy and develop ARL's strategy for advancing the preservation cause. She was a member of the Collections and Access Committee, and devoted her time to two of the Association's most demanding committees, Statistics and Scholarly Communication (which dealt with, among other things, the thorny issues surrounding copyright in a digital age). Margaret also contributed to the effective internal operation of the association, serving on a search committee for a new executive director, joining a Task Force on Membership Issues, and subsequently chairing the Membership Committee. Her colleagues recognized her contribution by electing her to the ARL Board of Directors, where she served from 1985 to 1987. Service on the board requires a substantial commitment of time and sensitivity to a wide range of issues affecting research libraries, and Margaret represented the concerns of our community well.
Duane Webster, Executive Director of ARL, wrote about Margaret: have always found Margaret ready to contribute whenever ARL called. Her leadership skills are widely respected and she knows how to contribute thoughtfully to a broad range of issues challenging the success of research libraries. She is a talented colleague who will be greatly missed by her ARL friends.
Dartmouth College was an early and committed member of the Research Libraries Group, Inc., and here, too, Margaret made quiet but lasting contributions. A long-standing member of the Board of Governors, she chaired the Governance and External Relations Committee for four years, was a member of the Executive Committee, and served on the Computer Systems Development Committee, the Committee on Strategic Planning in Information Technology, and the Programs Committee.The years that Margaret was most active in RLG coincided with some of the consortium's most dramatic contributions to the research library community. Through her work in RLG at that time, Margaret was involved in the foundation of information systems and products and their evolution toward the Internet, and the development and execution of Ariel, CitaDel and Eureka as well as SHARES (RLG's resource-sharing program).Ariel is software for the digital delivery of documents via the Internet, now in use in libraries around the world; CitaDel and Eureka both enable convenient end-user searching of RLIN, the Research Libraries Information Network, as well as document delivery.All of these services were fundamental to RLG's basic purpose, that is, the facilitation of scholarly work by faculty and students not only in RLG institutions but also around the world.
The early RLG was truly member-run and member-driven, and the directors who brought their institutions into the consortium at that time were committing not only their own time and talent but also that of their staff's as well. There was some risk involved; no one knew whether the enterprise would succeed or to what extent each member institution would truly benefit. For each institution joining RLG, both money and reputation were on the line. Thanks to the work of leaders like Margaret Otto, RLG established a model for the joint accomplishment of important national objectives, especially in preservation, that resonate to this day and from which our users continue to benefit. It is certainly no coincidence that, during this time period, Margaret was involved in preservation planning both within RLG and ARL.
Another important contribution made by RLG during Margaret's service on the Programs Committee was the development of the Archives and Museums Information System (AMIS), one of the first endeavors to facilitate online cataloging of non-book materials, such as manuscripts and art objects. The AMC (Archival and Manuscripts Control) system was especially important to many research libraries, since prior to the development of this software there was no practical, widely-available mechanism for entering the records of manuscript collections in library online catalogs. The work done by Margaret and her committee, in cooperation with special collections librarians and archivists from varied RLG institutions, was revolutionary at the time and to this day benefits scholars by making these unique materials accessible around the world. Indeed, the cataloging done via the AMC system was an essential building block in our current efforts to digitize manuscript materials for use on the Internet. The presence of catalog records in many cases enables a scholar not only to locate a collection, but also to view it online through a link to the appropriate Internet site.
Of course, a list of Margaret Otto's professional contributions, however lengthy, cannot really capture the pleasure of working with her as a colleague. For those of us who followed her as library directors, she offered a model of competence, dedication, and openness. Margaret has courage, endurance, persistence, and a sense of herself that does not depend upon her position. Those who knew ARL in earlier years sometimes speak of it as stuffy, a 'club,' not particularly friendly to newcomers; Margaret was one of the ARL directors who changed that. She was, and is, friendly and unaffected. Since I first came to know Margaret through RLG, she has been a source of good counsel, a faithful friend, and a delightful traveling companion. (On a joint Brown-Dartmouth Friends of the Library trip to England, the two of us sampled not only the high points of English literary culture, but also the tea room menu in many of the stately homes.) She has also been a pleasure to work with. Not one to speak quickly in meetings or to try to dominate a discussion, she nonetheless always had something valuable to say when she did speak. And when an issue or an injustice finally disturbed Margaret's celebrated equilibrium, she was a TIGER, as one or two individuals could testify. Not the least of Margaret's memorable qualities is her frankness! Margaret also has a delightful and somewhat wry sense of humor. Some years ago, when Brown was in the midst of bringing up our first online catalog, we asked Margaret to speak to our staff about Dartmouth's experience along that line. One of the truths that Margaret shared with us that day was that, regardless of good planning, expert predictions, and hard work, every large scale technological project would end up being more complex, and taking more time to complete, than anyone had thought. Her shorthand for this was, 'It takes longer than it takes.' Thanks to Margaret, we were not only better prepared for the frustrations in our own project, but also learned an expression that has been in constant use at Brown ever since!
Over her years at Dartmouth College, Margaret Otto has served the College community conscientiously and with skill, and she has further enhanced the College's reputation beyond the borders of its campus. For those of us who have worked with her in the world of research libraries, she has been the most delightful of colleagues, generous in recognizing others, straightforward, hard-working, and faithful to her word. She will indeed be missed, but will be long and fondly remembered.