Ross Atkinson Remembered

Ross Atkinson Remembered

Whereas Ross Atkinson, Deputy University Librarian at Cornell University, passed away at the age of 60 on March 8, 2006, after a long and arduous illness;

Whereas he was a universally admired colleague whom many of us in the library profession had respected for many years;

Whereas his library career was devoted to building and strengthening the collections of three great research libraries: Northwestern (1977-1983), Iowa (1983-1988), and Cornell (1988-2006);

Whereas his work was ever devoted to collection development as the heart of the library;

Whereas his integrity, good judgment, intellect, and other personal qualities made him a natural collaborator among leaders;

Whereas one of his last professional contributions was to give a keynote address at the Janus Conference held at Cornell in October 2005, wherein he gave a call to collaboration, cooperation, and partnerships in the future before us;

Whereas librarianship as a profession is the poorer for being deprived of his insight and his voice;

Whereas his friend and colleague, Ann Okerson has written the attached tribute of a life well lived and of a colleague who will be deeply missed;

Resolved, that the American Library Association recognizes and acknowledges the lifetime achievement and contribution to librarianship by Ross Atkinson;

Resolved, that the American Library Association expresses and conveys its deep and sincere sympathy to the family, friends, and professional colleagues of Ross Atkinson.


Ross Atkinson's friend and colleague Ann Okerson wrote the following tribute:

Ross Atkinson, Deputy University Librarian at Cornell University, passed away at the age of 60 on March 8, 2006, after a long and arduous illness. No one who knew him was surprised by the courage, the dignity, and the resolute commitment to his family and his profession that accompanied him through his last difficult years. While we dreaded the loss and hated the fate that would take him from us, we recognized in him each step of the way the universally admired colleague we had respected for many years.

Ross's library career was devoted to building and strengthening the collections of three great research libraries: Northwestern (1977-1983), Iowa (1983-1988), and Cornell (1988-2006). He came to librarianship and leadership in libraries as one already habituated to the stacks. Before and after service in the US Army (not surprisingly, in military intelligence) he had earned a distinguished Ph.D. in German literature at Harvard and his first professional articles explored the works of Gerhart Hauptmann and Heinrich Heine. He never lost his affection for German literature and remained lifelong a denizen of the stacks as well as a manager who filled and cared for them. Indeed, his entry to the profession came in a scholar-librarian program at Northwestern, which created a role exactly suited to his Ph.D. and his MLS, letting him work closely with librarians and scholars to integrate the Library more deeply into the research and teaching of the university. From there, his work was ever devoted, more and more deeply, to collection development as the heart of the library.

No one who knew Ross will fail to speak of his integrity or the personal qualities and good judgment that made him a natural collaborator among leaders. He could move a community or a group not by authority or by command but by his aptitude for shaping a common conversation in ways that brought understanding we would never have achieved on our own. One of his first bosses, a leader who went on to great achievements himself, spoke of these qualities in him: "the ability to frame complex issues for others and lead groups to common understanding and focused action; intellectual boldness, quiet wit, and generosity of spirit; his intense focus on the task at hand and nearly inexhaustible energy; his ready comprehension of organizational issues; his respect for other people and ability to build on the best talents of his associates; and his resolute commitment to excellence."

And every colleague will speak with rare and genuine admiration of his intellect. Above all else, Ross Atkinson was a leading thinker and writer. He had the signal recognition of seeing his collected writings published by ALCTS in 2005 ( Community, Collaboration, and Collections: The Writings of Ross Atkinson, edited by R. Alan and B. MacEwan). Those writings trace his intellectual and professional development through the landsliding and tumultuous age that has brought the printed book and journal well and truly into a digital world that few would claim to understand fully. Some of those articles - including ones now required reading in library school courses -- won him many prizes the profession has to offer, but the influence of his writing lives even more vividly in the memories of those who knew him. Time after time in the last weeks, colleagues have remembered this or that conference, this or that talk, when this articulate but quiet colleague intervened in ways memorable beyond the usual boundaries of our conference-going. The last such memory clings to the Janus Conference held at Cornell in October 2005, where Ross gave a keynote address that reads also as a summation of his career - a summation in the sense of a wise survey of the challenges at a moment when his life was drawing to a close and a call to collaboration, cooperation, and partnerships in the future before us:

We speak often and rightly of a crisis in scholarly communication. That crisis is not a matter of egregiously priced science journals; disastrous as such excessive pricing is, it is really only a symptom of the so-called crisis. . . . No, the crisis is rather a result of the fact that there is now a level of technology available to each player on the line [from author to publisher to reader], such that each player can assert its will and compete with other players much more effectively. What any player on the horizontal line can do is therefore now heavily contingent upon what other players can and want to do.

He went on to speak of a world in which new dimensions of competition were opening up between old colleagues - among the very research libraries to which he had given his career. We are the poorer for being deprived of his insight and his voice at a moment that requires a navigator's skills, a pilot's keen sight and instincts, and a visionary's sense of the destination. We had that navigator, pilot, and visionary in Ross Atkinson.