Forty Years of Dr. Linda C. Smith – A Tribute to Her Living Legacy

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Dr. Linda C. Smith

The following was written to be included in a memory book offered to Dr. Linda C. Smith on the occasion of her 40th anniversary at the iSchool at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (formerly known as the Graduate School of Library and Information Science). She received her memory book at a recent faculty meeting, and so I am now happy to share my contribution from that volume with the rest of the world.

To write on the career and impact of Dr. Linda C. Smith is a significant challenge. A forty-year span of contribution to the scholarship of Library and Information Science, alone, would be enough fodder for a lengthy essay listing her visionary intellectual accomplishments. To be sure, in an era of “artificial intelligence” gracing headlines on a daily basis – and frequently assumed to be the province of men – we must acknowledge that Dr. Smith was engaging with it in theory and in practice over four decades ago. Her early uplift of Vannevar Bush was prescient, too, and she has continued to be a prolific scholar on her own and in conjunction with colleagues, throughout her periods of extensive and unrelenting university service.

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Dr. Smith, always in the vanguard, watching Sir Tim Berners-Lee demonstrate the World Wide Web (on a NeXT) at the ACM Hypertext 1991 conference, Austin, TX  (photo credit: CERN)

Indeed, particularly in her role as Associate Dean of the Information School at Illinois, Dr. Smith has been extraordinary. She has overseen innovation in this role, including being key to the creation and sustaining of the much-lauded online Master’s program in Library and Information Science, vanguard in its time and at the top of the field throughout its existence. Along with faculty colleagues, she has supported numerous initiatives that have generously benefitted students, the research program at Illinois and the field in its entirety. One with which I am intimately familiar is the Information in Society fellowship, a multiyear grant that Dr. Smith won from the Institute for Museum and Library Studies, to support future faculty interested in an interdisciplinary social studies of information. As the recipient of one of the Information in Society fellowships, I can affirm that it was life-changing, and indeed put me on the path to the career I now have.

Yet Dr. Smith’s support for students goes well beyond these examples of institutional support. She has successfully shepherded so many students through their doctoral dissertations that we now constitute a community of our own. Many have gone on to oversee their own students through the process in their turn, meaning that Dr. Smith’s reach goes on to new generations and is dispersed across the globe. I recently viewed a network visualization of this reach and although it only goes up to 2011 (meaning it excludes many of my peers and me), it is astounding. Dr. Smith’s keen insight into how to successfully complete academic research in LIS, coupled with her insider knowledge of process and procedure, made her an incredible Ph.D. supervisor to have. Many students flock to her after having negative experiences with other supervisors who are intransigent regarding proposed research interests or negligent when it came to supporting their students. For those of us planning for a career as academics, Dr. Smith modeled an ethical, compassionate, responsible approach to supervisory duties that was, above all, eminently humane. To be sure, whenever I engage with students at any level in a supervisory or mentorship capacity, I ask myself, “What would Linda do?” When I follow this compass, I can be assured of being on the right path. And this approach has borne much fruit: because of her willingness to support students with unorthodox research ideas, Dr. Smith has been the chair of a number of remarkable, groundbreaking dissertations that have pushed the boundaries of LIS in a positive way. It takes a visionary who is completely secure in her own scholarship and intellect to provide this kind of support. I believe that accurately describes Dr. Smith.

Throughout it all, Dr. Smith takes a quiet approach to her achievements. She is not one to take the spotlight, but often prefers to quite literally stand to the side and watch the events in which she has taken a key role successfully unfold. I understand that that is her personality and comfort zone, which is why reading a testament like this may even push on her boundaries. But while I write this recognition primarily for Dr. Smith, I also write it in order to document her lasting, indelible legacy on the field of Library and Information Science. In all quarters and in all my travels around the world, the mention of her name brings on a response of respect and admiration. There is not another scholar with whom I am familiar who provokes such a similar, universal response of reverence and high regard. Her impact will last for lifetimes to come, through students like me, who will train our own students in her image.

Thank you, Dr. Smith, and here’s to you.