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Jason Pontin

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In Memoriam: Ann Wolpert

At her memorial service at MIT, Jason Pontin, MIT Technology Review’s editor in chief and publisher, delivered a eulogy for MIT’s director of libraries, who died last October.

  • January 31, 2014

We go to work nearly every day. We go to work nearly every day, and although we say our hearts are at home, we spend more waking hours in the office or lab. We go to work, where we solve absorbing problems with people we love, and sometimes—maybe—we create useful or beautiful things. So when I say that Ann Wolpert, the chair of MIT Technology Review, was often in my heart, I’m not exaggerating.

Every month, Ann and I would meet for breakfast at the Marriott Hotel with Rick Crowley, our CFO, and Ann would pore over our finances and quiz us about our strategy. Her goal was to reassure herself that we were not ruining the Institute’s 115-year-old publication. At breakfast, she could be tart when we deserved sarcasm, but she was sweetly generous with her praise when we had earned it. Mostly, she was a wonderful mentor: wise to whether a thing was practically doable or should be done at all, able to swiftly communicate a concept we did not understand, and an experienced guide to MIT’s ways.

I recall how once, when I had not been at the Institute very long, I had a—well, a scheme is probably the most dignified description. The details don’t matter. I asked Ann whether I needed permission to do the thing, and she told me to inform the “stakeholders”—probably you, Kirk [Kolenbrander]—and then plough on regardless.

Really?” I asked. “That sounds … dangerous. That sounds like it could be bad for me.”

“Oh, yes,” Ann said. “At MIT, always take silence as consent. Then, if it goes badly, it’s your problem.” I took her real point, and abandoned the scheme. She meant me to understand that nothing permanent or good gets done at a university except with patience, and through true collaboration.

Ann’s great professional achievement and her lasting legacy is her answer to the question “How should research libraries respond to the opportunities and challenges of the Internet?” Her solution—the combination of DSpace, as an open-source digital archiving system, and the MIT Faculty Open Access Policy, whereby journal articles written by the Institute’s professors are disseminated through DSpace@MIT—was achieved only through that same spirit of patience and collaboration.

She was astute, innovative, supremely competent, and she possessed a deep knowledge of all the technical, legal, and economic difficulties—but most of all, she was patient and collaborative. It all took years: she began working on DSpace with Hewlett-Packard and IS&T in 2000. And it wasn’t enough to imagine the Open Access Policy: she had to persuade MIT’s Academic Council to embrace the idea, guide the deliberations of a working committee, and convince the faculty to pass the proposal.

But today DSpace is used by more than 1,000 institutions, and the Open Access Policy, the first university-wide policy of its kind, has been imitated by other institutions worldwide. Some version of Ann’s solution is now generally accepted to be the likely future of research libraries.

And in her work at the MIT Press, at OpenCourseWare, and at Technology Review, her capacity for patience and collaboration served the same animating, higher goal: to establish university publishing, in all its forms, so that it should be both economically sustainable and open and free to the world.

We go to work nearly every day. Nearly every day, for almost a decade, I’ve had to answer my own version of Ann’s question: “What will serious science and technology journalism look like in the era of the Internet?” Will it exist at all? If we have had any success in answering that question, it was because of Ann. Everything good we’ve done was achieved with her support and help. I couldn’t have wished for a better partner, and I don’t know what we’ll do without her.

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