GURU INTERVIEW: DR. PÉTER JACSÓ
Dr. Péter Jacsó, a professor of Library and Information Science at the University of Hawai'i at Mãnoa, and a prolific contributor to information science literature, is interviewed by Marylaine Block. His web site, http://www2.hawaii.edu/~jacso/, offers links to his published and web-born research and analysis.
MB: First, just to make it easier for people to discuss this interview, could you tell us the correct pronunciation of your name?
PJ: Pronunciation is very easy as it SOUNDS like nacho with a 'y' as if it were written as "yacho." But make sure that you spell it as Jacso, not as Jasco, thank you very much.
MB: I'd like to start by asking about your early career in Hungary. Could you talk about your decision to become a librarian?
PJ: As always, with good luck and more than a little help from friends all along. I was educated to be a lawyer, I got my Ph D in political science. My father was a much respected defense attorney. I felt that as a lawyer I would remain the Jacsó Jr. I got interested in computers, started as an operator of a mainframe computer [ed.: in the early 1970s]. The bonus was that I got extensive training in Germany and England. I taught computer courses with many talented, competitive young Turks fresh from the university. Then I became the operations manager of a state of the art computer facility at the International Computer Education and Information Center (ICEC) in Budapest, a joint project between UNESCO and the Hungarian government.
One of our visiting experts, Tom Kurtz, the co-inventor of BASIC and the director of the computer center of Dartmouth College invited me to spend 4 months in his computer center to chisel my research on computer performance measurement. It was an incredibly enriching experience. I split my time between the computer center and the library, and I knew that I wanted to deal with library automation.
Returning home I had the good luck to be promoted to be the director of the library and information center, which included librarians, indexers, systems analysts and sharp programmers developing online public access catalogs, bibliographic and factographic databases. I also dived into providing online search services from a number of American and European hosts. I enjoyed it tremendously and it also gave me the chance to travel widely, to work as a UNESCO consultant and to speak at international conferences.
MB: Did Hungary's government place any special burdens on public access to information?
PJ: The usual Eastern European ones (although Hungary was far the most liberal in the block, being behind a velvet curtain in my salad days, so I can't play the iron curtain card, and reminiscence about Archbishop Mindszenty). Interestingly some of those burdens the current U.S. administration also seems to adopt and adapt.
MB: Why did you choose to become an educator of future librarians, and what have the rewards of that career been for you.
PJ: I kept teaching computer courses on the side at ICEC, and an advanced postgraduate library automation seminar at the Eotvos University for librarians together with a brilliant guy, Eric Vajda, who was the library automation guru and was as effective and fluent in teaching in three foreign languages as in his native Hungarian. He was mightily inspirational and so was John Eyre, a senior lecturer at North London Polytechnic School of Information Studies. I took a few special courses from him and wanted to be like John. The rewards were to see students "get it" as the courses progressed, to hear about their successes: good jobs, promotions, juicy scholarships and much coveted awards after graduation.
MB: Tell us about coming to the United States, and your decision to remain here.
PJ: As always, it has been the goodwill of people around me and my sheer luck Joe Price, who was the chief of the Science and Technology Division at the Library of Congress, heard me talking at a conference, and asked if I would be interested in teaching at an American University. What a question. A few months later I got an invitation for an interview at Columbia University. It did not go badly, and I got an offer to teach for two semesters as a visiting faculty member. My very supportive bosses at home approved an unpaid leave, then approved an other 6-month period when I got a scholarship through Princeton University International Scholarly Exchange program to do some research at University of Hawaii (on and off the beach) under the supervision of Carol Tenopir, whom I have known from her Online Databases column in Library Journal. She turned out to be also a magnificent teacher and a splendid mentor, along with Mike Koenig (who supported me in more ways than one from the moment I got off the boat when at Columbia and ever after). Then I got an offer to extend my stay at University of Hawaii. Who can say no to such an offer? Even my bosses at home understood my decision and remained friends.
MB: How have your library school's curriculum and requirements changed over the past 5- 10-15 years?
PJ: Beyond Carol's beginner and advanced database searching courses, UH had a strong library automation track by excellent senior faculty members like Jerry Lundeen and Larry Osborne, so we had a good basis and we just needed to add some new information technology courses, and to enhance traditional courses with IT-components. I was very lucky as the faculty fully supported my efforts for trying new courses from 1989 onward, and some of those (such as Digital Librarianship, and Database Evaluation) became a standard part of the curriculum. We also increased the credit requirements from 36 to 42, a very reasonable increase even at that time, given the many additional new materials, which should not and did not replace the classic courses without which the new ones just would not be so valuable.
MB: You have won several awards for your writing and teaching, were very active on the conference circuit, and you do an extraordinary amount of professional writing, both in mainstream professional journals and on your own web site. What do you think are the benefits to you and your readership of both these formal and informal means of communication?
PJ: It is kind of you, but it is not the whole truth. I could not have written and presented as much if my wife of 30+ years, Judit Tiszai, a computer systems analyst would have not done the bulk of the research, the analysis, the illustrations, if she had not organized splendidly and relentlessly my life and her life around my deadlines and around the incessant needs of our boys. As for the web site, she created and maintains it, which happens to bear my name on the top in size 14 font, and her one at the bottom in size 8.
I would have not been able to publish ferociously and get paid for it without Tom Hogan, the president of Information Today, Inc. who not only put me on the map by giving me one then two columns in the eponymous monthly, then in Computers in Libraries and in Link-Up, along with sponsoring my workshop marathons at the National Online Meeting for ten years. Having been invited to speak at conferences took me from San Diego up to Rhode Island, from Australia to Portugal, from Thailand to South Africa. These were my great benefits.
As for the readers, I think it is better to ask them. I hope they could learn of the worthy resources as well as get rid of the ones which are an embarrassment of our profession. One thing I know, however, is that my writing has reinforced and enhanced my teaching, demanded me to be very up-to-date, and made me stand on my toes - luckily with the help of some excellent editors, such as Marydee Ojala, who not only endured me for a long time, and understood what I meant, not just what I wrote, but also has corroborated my findings, and corrected my errors before they became public.
MB: A clarification, if you would. Do you expect your students to read both types of professional literature? To read and/or participate in blogs and listservs? Are there circumstances in which, if your students referred only to the formal literature (or only to the internet-based literature), they'd have missed critical analysis and viewpoints?
PJ: Librarians in the trenches and students need most of the time the practical, informally written professional articles. These have as strong if not stronger peer review (although only after publishing) as academic articles in the pre-publishing phase, many of which are navel-gazing and philosophising, dumping at the readers a sea of intimidating statistical measures that the authors could calculate (and perhaps understand) only with help from a professor emeritus in statistics. These are hardly read and even fewer get ever cited.
Many of the academic articles are written for tenure and grant purposes, and readers just don't bother to write a letter to the editor to correct the obvious mistakes in them - at least not in our profession. Here may go my ASIS and ALISE awards, so I'd better stop.
The professional journals serving the practitioners do editorial peer review (which often turns out to be much more useful than blind review by peers in academia) before publishing, and if there is still some error or misinformation, the authors will get an earful from readers, and may not publish another one in this town to paraphrase a saying which would not fit to print.
I give students both kinds of articles, because luckily there are comprehensible and practical articles also in academic journals, such as every piece that Marcia J. Bates wrote for the top academic journals. The clarity, style and structure of her articles impress me mightily. The same is true for Tefko Saracevic, and was true for Michael Malinconico, Michael Gorman and Pauline Atherton Cochrane from academia when they were active in writing about their research with fascinating simplicity.
As for reading some of the most relevant blogs, I say: absolutely. Most of my fellow faculty members also require that from students, and even keep alerting them of the most relevant contributions. I not only teach and preach this but also practice it. Hardly goes a day by without reading Gary Price's Resource Shelf <http://www.resourceshelf.com/>, and I scan a couple of others regularly.
MB: What do you consider the most important personal attributes and professional skills for new librarians?
PJ: I could give a long answer with nice clichés, but so could anybody. When someone asks me this question here in Hawaii, I just gingerly advise: go to the reference desk when Susan Johnson, my best ever student, is on duty, watch her working for a while and then talk to her. She can handle with the same ease, competence and dedication the information needs of the laziest undergraduate students as those of the triple Ph.D. professors. She is sharp, she is motivated, she is internally-driven. She is equally well-versed in using the traditional, the new and the emerging tools of our trade. She never stops learning, she has a genuine, no-attitude attitude to patrons and colleagues.
I see very similar traits in Gary Price who much deserves to be the most well-known and most popular librarian (even though he had to give up working in a library because of his writing and speaking commitments). I think the above ones are among the most important personal attributes and professional skills. Some of it, of course, can't be taught in any school.
Thanks for the opportunity to share (if I may get away using a transitive verb as intransitive).
MB: And thank you very much for taking time out of your hectic mid-semester schedule to talk with me and my readers.
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“Real news,” said Richard Reeves “is the news you and I need to keep our freedoms.” I am reminded of that line from the news photographer in Tom Stoppard’s play Night and Day : “People do terrible things to each other, but its worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark.”
I have become a nuisance on this issue—if not a fanatic—because I grew up in the South, where, for so long, truthtellers were driven from the pulpit, the classroom and the newsroom; it took a bloody civil war to drive home the truth of slavery, and still it took another hundred of years of cruel segregation and oppression before the people freed by that war finally achieved equal rights under the law. Not only did I grow up in the South, which had paid such a high price for denial, but I served in the Johnson White House during the early escalation of the Vietnam War. We circled the wagons and grew intolerant of news that did not confirm to the official view of reality, with tragic consequences for America and Vietnam. Few days pass now that I do not remind myself that the greatest moments in the history of the press came not when journalists made common cause with the state, but when they stood fearlessly independent of it.
Bill Moyers. "Journalism Under Fire." A speech to the Society of Professional Journalists, September 11, 2004. http://www.tompaine.com/articles/journalism_under_fire.php. [He could equally have mentioned librarians serving the same cause, especially the documents librarians who maintain our access to the records of our government at work.]
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