Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Only the Good, &c.

Simmons College, the library community, and the world at large have lost a man who epitomized the phrase "a scholar and a gentleman". Allen Smith - who was, among other things, a longtime professor in the Simmons library school, a well-known farrier, and a reference expert par excellence - died on Saturday 2 August following a shockingly brief illness.

In an email sent this afternoon, Simmons president Helen Drinan writes "In his life at Simmons, Allen’s contributions were many and his dedication was great. Allen joined the GSLIS faculty in 1978, served as Associate Dean from 2006 to 2007, and was recognized just this past spring for 30 years of service to the College. He lectured in reference, humanities, oral history, and computer programming, and was devoted to those he taught. An integral part of Simmons, he was fondly considered by many 'the parliamentarian of the GSLIS faculty.' One faculty member remembers him by saying 'He loved Robert’s Rules.' Allen was also a member of the Simmons Breakfast Club for the past 15 years, a group who had early morning coffee together in the College Center. Allen was highly accomplished professionally, having earned his Masters at the University of Denver and his Ph.D. at the Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies, University of Leeds, England. He lectured at the College of Librarianship in Aberystwyth, Wales, for nearly ten years prior to his time at Simmons. His publications include Directory of oral history collections (1988) and Catalogue of pre-revival Appalachian dulcimers (1983), as well as serving as column editor of 'Guide to the Professional Literature' in The Journal of Academic Librarianship."

I only had the opportunity to take one class with Allen at Simmons, but boy what a class it was! His Reference section was regarded as the toughest, but also the most interesting and worthwhile. I can personally testify that it was all of those things (the sixty-page syllabus was enough to scare off more than a few potential students every term). He knew reference materials inside out, backwards, and upside down, and he loved sharing his knowledge about books, databases, and other sources - I think he really enjoyed watching over the course of every term as his students discovered just how many sources are out there, the different ways to use them, and as they slowly come to grasp the all-important lesson that there will always be new sources out there that you didn't know about. Like me, he enjoyed watching the progression of reference sources through history; one of the papers I wrote for him was about lexicographical histories, and it is no exaggeration to say that receiving words of praise from him for that paper was one of the highlights of my Simmons career (because I knew that if Allen liked it, it must have been up to snuff).

Allen was a fan of Webster's Second (the second edition of Webster's New International Dictionary, published in 1934), bow ties, motorcycles, and sailing. He abhorred exclamation points (one quote I have written in my notes from his class reads "If you were born before 1960, you have three exclamation points to use in your life; if born after 1960, you have six, because of inflation").

That's one of a great many pithy and memorable quotes from Allen Smith, every one of which was good advice. For reference services, he liked to say, "it all comes down to 'be nice to people.'" And it does. On librarianship: "The best part of being a librarian is, everything counts. The more you know, the better you're going to be." And I will never forget his take on management: "get to know everyone, make sure they know what they're doing, make sure you're doing what you should be doing, ... and get everyone bagels now and then. They'll appreciate it."

Perhaps Allen's favorite and most oft-used reference-exhortation, though, was "Make it smoke." He (strongly) encouraged his students to test out the databases or reference books we were examining by trying to answer tough questions in new and different ways, by stretching the capabilities of the indexes and search tools to their very limits. So, in Allen's honor, go out and make it smoke (I'd use an exclamation point there, but I'm all out).

The world of reference has lost a giant.

[A farrier friend of Allen's has posted reminscences here. Details on memorial services are not yet available].

15 comments:

Rachel said...

Such sad news. I never knew him, but that quote about exclamation points is right on.

-rachel
-fadetheory.com

ima2 said...

Allen Smith was my favorite professor at Simmons. I took refernece with him and, although I wanted to be a medical librarian (which I am) I thought it would be wise to branch out and took Literature of the Humanities. I loved his sense of humor. I am stunned to hear of his death.

Chris

JamesAt10enginesDotCom said...

i was lucky enough to have been in the last reference class (just this spring) and was hugely inspired by Allen... had planned to take his oral history class in the spring (was one of the reasons i started this degree at simmons) and i am really gutted...

"if the guys at the fire department don't know who you are, then you aren't doing your job..."

there are a million classic quotes...please share.

meaghan said...

Hi Jeremy -

There's a Facebook group called "Remembering Allen Smith" where a lot of people are posting memories, quotes, and photos (I linked to your post on the group).

Dave Dwiggins also has a wiki page where people are contributing quotes from their 407 notebooks. You can find it here: http://gslis.simmons.edu/wikis/dwiggins/Allen_Smith_Quotations.

FYI, Allen requested that there not be a memorial service. Dean Cloonan and Candy Schwartz are working on an appropriate tribute, but we don't know what that will be yet.

Best,
Meaghan

calebtr said...

thanks for this

Liam Hegarty said...

I took literature of the humanities with Prof. Smith in 2001. Instead of a paper he let me construct a three dimensional model of a citation analysis of the book Neuromancer, by William Gibson. It was a 3'x3'x3' wooden cube with horizontal criss-crossing wires at inch intervals (each inch being a year). Wires rose from the center bottom. The further out from the middle you were the more citations. It was scalable, in that I had room for five more years. It was also portable as I mounted it on shopping cart wheels. Although Prof. Smith seemed genuinely pained by my carpentry skills, he enjoyed the concept. I can't imagine anyone else letting me do that. That was the funnest class I had at Simmons and I was learning all the time. What a great man.

rockinruby said...

Thanks for a lovely tribute, Jeremy. I believe we took Reference together in the Spring of '07.

It's really gratifying to see how many others were touched by Allen as I was - I have always heard a lot more from those that were scared of him and the coursework.

A giant, indeed.

- Jill Martin Clements

Justine Shaffner said...

I had Allen for Reference in 1995 and it was so much fun I took the Humanities Reference too. I adored the classes and became a reference librarian as a result, so thank you Allen for 11 of the happiest years of my career. Reference instruction will never again reach this level. You will be greatly missed.

Jill Erickson said...

Thanks so much for this blog on Allen. I had him for reference way back in 1983. He has always been my reference hero. I've hired two of his disciples for my ref staff, as I know I will have quality reference librarians if they loved his class.

Jill Erickson

Karen said...
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Karen said...
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Karen said...

I'm devastated by this news, despite the fact that it's been over 11 years since I took Reference with Prof Smith.

I went to Simmons to be an archivist, but after that darned reference course, he had turned me to the other side, and reference became my career path.

I remember the final exam in that class...the only one I had in grad school. Match 100 reference sources with their descriptions. Did he still do that? We all came in with our cards and stacks and notes and furiously matched away.

I also have him to thank for my foundational training in Dialog (which he probably didn't do anymore, right? a shame). I don't do dialog anymore, but I can think in nested boolean phrases like nobody's business.

Karen Governale Gelles, GSLIS '98

Karen said...

oh yeah...
long live margaret knight!

srqtalk said...

I, too, am proud to say I am a product of Allen Smith's reference class(Hi Jill and Jeremy). It was THE class that confirmed my decision that traveling from Florida to Boston to attend Simmons GSLIS was a sound one. He made the pursuit of information exciting, invigorating, and,at times, frustrating, but always rewarding. He instilled a lifelong love of reference in me and may his name be forever linked with the words "make it smoke." Farewell Allen.

Cynthia Peterson, GSLIS '07

russ said...

Allen was the most inspirational teacher I ever had, and not just in the classroom, but in the way he lived his life. I wanted to be him. I still want to be him.

My favorite quote: "What's the ideal reference interview? You know the answer."

Russell Miller