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].