News obituary

Ann Wolpert, director of libraries, dies at 70

Ann Wolpert, MIT’s director of libraries since 1996, has died after a brief illness. She was 70 years old.

Wolpert was a pioneer in digital stewardship, bringing to the MIT community a deep understanding of scholarship, of research, and of the library’s broader mission to preserve and disseminate knowledge. Under her leadership, the MIT Libraries developed DSpace, a milestone in digital libraries that catalyzed the institutional repository movement.

Wolpert began work at MIT just as the Internet was emerging, and her tenure was marked by her passionate response to the opportunity and upheaval that resulted for research libraries. In scientific, research, and university communities around the world, a debate, still unresolved, came to the fore: how the decades-old system of peer-reviewed scholarly journals ought to operate in the digital world.

Wolpert became a leading voice in that discussion; she argued for unrestricted online access to journal articles. In a February 2013 essay in the New England Journal of Medicine, she not only made the case for such access: She also called it an inevitability. “There is no doubt,” she wrote, “that the public interests vested in funding agencies, universities, libraries, and authors, together with the power and reach of the Internet, have created a compelling and necessary momentum for open access. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be inexpensive, but it is only a matter of time.”

Though Wolpert made her case forcefully, she was not dismissive of concerns about how open access might work in practice, and she upheld the value of peer review. “The fact,” she wrote, “that faculty members and researchers donate to publishers the ownership of their research articles — as well as their time and effort as reviewers — does not mean that there are no expenses associated with the production of high-quality publications. For all its known flaws, no one wants to destroy peer-reviewed publication.”

Hal Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at MIT and founding director of both Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation, remembers Wolpert as “one of the great intellectual leaders at MIT.” She fused, he says, a mix of business experience from her earlier career with serious academic curiosity and integrity. “Ann was funny, warm, caring, and remarkably fair,” Abelson says.

“She believed in open access, but it went deeper than that,” he adds. “Her central insight was that in the age of the Internet, a great research library could serve not only as a window into scholarly output for given members of university and research communities, but also as a window for the world at large into the scholarly enterprise. That was a great and thrilling idea, and she pursued it deftly and with great respect for the full spectrum of faculty views.”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif, in his previous role as provost, worked closely with Wolpert. “I knew her to be very dedicated to MIT, and she thought carefully about how our library system could best serve the Institute and beyond,” he says. “She was an excellent steward of our scholarship — and a very dear colleague. I will miss her very much.”

As director of libraries, Wolpert managed the MIT Libraries and the MIT Press. The MIT Libraries — with five major subject collections, the Institute Archives and Special Collections, and a staff of 170 — support the research and teaching needs of the Institute community. The MIT Press publishes around 30 journals and 220 books each year in a wide range of subjects.

Wolpert also served on MIT’s Committee on Intellectual Property, the Council on Educational Technology, the OpenCourseWare Faculty Advisory Committee, the Deans’ Group, and Academic Council. She also served as chair of the board of directors of MIT Technology Review.

In 2000, Wolpert helped lead the MIT Libraries’ collaboration with Hewlett-Packard to build DSpace, an open-source digital archive for faculty output that has been adopted by more than 1,000 institutions worldwide.

In 2009, Wolpert was instrumental in the conception and passage of the MIT Faculty Open Access Policy, whereby faculty authors give MIT nonexclusive permission to disseminate their journal articles for open access through DSpace@MIT. It was the first institution-wide policy of its kind in the United States. Open sharing of MIT scholarship has given readers around the world access to the results of MIT’s research.

Wolpert continued to be a player in other “startups” that have the potential to transform the way research institutions and their libraries collaborate to solve problems big enough to call for a collective response. She referred to these as “solutions at scale.” Among them is the Digital Preservation Network (DPN), to whose inaugural board she was recently appointed. DPN was created to ensure that the scholarly record is preserved for future generations by using a shared, national preservation ecosystem composed of several federated, replicating nodes containing redundant copies of all deposits to protect against catastrophic loss.

Wolpert was a leader in her field. “Ann has been a trailblazer in defining the new roles of libraries in an era of data-intensive scholarship,” says Cliff Lynch, executive director of the Coalition for Networked Information. “Her work in the development of institutional repositories as a means of curating and making public the research contributions of universities has fundamentally reshaped strategies for managing scholarship at a national and international level. She will be greatly missed.”

Prior to joining MIT, Wolpert was executive director of library and information services at the Harvard Business School. Her experience previous to Harvard included management of the information center of Arthur D. Little, Inc., an international management and consulting firm, where she also worked on various consulting assignments. More recent consulting assignments took her to the University of New Mexico, Cornell University and Adelphi University in New York, the campuses of INCAE in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, MASDAR in Abu Dhabi, the League of European Research Libraries in Amsterdam, the National Library of China, and the Malaysia University of Science and Technology.

In 2005 Wolpert served as president of the Association of Research Libraries and was most recently a member of its Influencing Public Policies Steering Committee. She served on the boards of directors of the Boston Library Consortium, the National Academies’ Board of Research Data and Information (BRDI), DuraSpace, and DPN, and on the steering committee of the Coalition for Networked Information. She also served as a publications advisor to the Massachusetts Medical Society.

Wolpert received a BA from Boston University and an MLS from Simmons College, where she was an honorary trustee and a member of the board of advisors of the PhD Program in Managerial Leadership in the Information Professions at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

Wolpert is survived by her husband, Samuel A. Otis Jr., and a large extended family.

Reprinted with permission of MIT News: