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Welcome to new students from the LIS program Chair  

About a half hour drive from our School is the birthplace and early home of Rachel Carson, internationally renowned writer, scientist and ecologist.  Her home is one of the many important historic sites in the Pittsburgh region, but it may have special significance for students entering in the MLIS or LIS PhD program.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964) is best known for the publication in 1962 of her book, Silent Spring, challenging the increasing use of chemical pesticides because of their damaging impact on the environment.  Reconsidering the publication of her book, nearly a half-century after its appearance, as some scholars have done (see Priscilla Coit Murphy, What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring [Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005]), falls squarely within what our programs are about and what our students study in preparation for their professional careers in the information fields.  

We learn from Priscilla Murphy, in her assessment of Carson’s work, that some of the chemical companies are still reluctant to answer queries about the book and the furor it caused more than four decades ago.  Murphy also informs us that it is difficult to do research about the book’s publication or the media’s reception of it because these industries have done so little to protect their own documentary heritage.  The book’s 55 pages of scientific annotation and cases gave the book its power in spite of many other scientific, government, and corporate leaders initially criticizing the message of Silent Spring. Most of all, however, we learn about the power of a single book to influence public opinion and change public policy; the fact that Carson’s Silent Spring remains in print today, is still frequently cited, and is often mentioned as one of the most important books of the twentieth century all suggest the power of the word and print even in our digital era with access to the World Wide Web. Murphy, in her analysis, believes, and I certainly concur, that Silent Spring is testimony to the enduring power of the book in our culture, considering the publication of Carson’s book as “something of a cultural ‘perfect storm,’ in that it enjoyed a confluence of circumstances that made the episode [it’s publication] a landmark not only in environmental history but in book history as well.”

What matters emerge, in considering Carson’s beautifully written treatise, are the themes and issues students pursue during their studies here.  The power of information to transform the lives of people and affect society is a topic that will be debated and dissected in many courses.  Different concepts of information sources, from rumor to rigorous scientific data to discussions in small book clubs or on television news shows, also are prominent in the publication history of Silent Spring.  The contentiousness that access to, or denying access to, information may cause is another matter of importance to our faculty; information professionals do not live like monks in monasteries or work underground or invisibly behind the scenes.  Preserving the evidence found in records and information systems is another topic that can’t be ignored; many people believe that libraries and archives save everything, but, not only is this not the case but there are many obstacles to achieving this even if it were possible.  The continuing complexity presented by intellectual property, an aspect of information work that has become far more complicated today than it was in Carson’s day, is yet one more example of the kind of issue that will be prominent in many of our courses.

I have taken this rather leisurely approach to an official welcome to provide a sense of the richness of our courses, faculty experiences, and faculty commitment to educating individuals to assume important roles in the information professions.  It is easy to argue why our program is highly regarded, discuss rankings, and describe various professional tracks we support and students can participate in.  Most new students have figured out such matters, and it is why they are here. However, what I want to stress is the rich intellectual experience students will participate in and the hard work students will face to meet the expected course and program requirements.  In this vein, I have described elsewhere about writing and research tools that students may want to acquire as they come into the program and, as an extra bonus, I even offer some reading students might want to do before they start their program, enabling them to begin to gain a sense of the nature of their studies in our program.

Mostly what I want to do here, as part of my sincere welcome, is to issue an invitation and a charge to students: first, to wrestle with their own reasons for coming into this graduate program; and, second, to challenge faculty (nicely, of course) about the mission, theories, methods, principles, and practices of information professions that they will be introduced to when they are here.  Students need to see this as an opportunity to engage in intellectual inquiry and personal development.  Adopt this attitude, and I guarantee that you will have rich and fulfilling experiences while you acquire the knowledge and skills you need.

There is a lot at stake for how and what students learn while here with us.  In her recent book, Sacred Stacks: The Higher Purpose of Libraries and Librarianship (Chicago: American Library Association, 2006), Nancy Kalikow Maxwell states, “If librarians believe . . . that their institution can save individuals, communities, and society at large, they have a responsibility to speak out.”  As an archivist, I can argue the same about the responsibility of archivists and, I am sure, so can those identifying themselves as working in other parts of the information professions.  We are doing important work in educating students to be librarians, archivists, and information professionals and students are wisely spending their time (and money) here in getting ready for such careers.  After all, who is going to ensure that Rachel Carson’s landmark book or the personal papers and organizational documents about her book will be available to inspire the next generation?  And students can begin practicing being advocates for their professional careers and mission in our classrooms.

I hope this will be a time that students always remember with fondness and look back on as a rich and useful experience.  And, as much as possible, my door is open if you want to talk about any of these issues.


Richard J. Cox
Professor and Chair, Library and Information Sciences Program


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For more information about the Library and Information Science Program,
please call 412.624.9420 or e-mail Debbie Day

School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh,
135 North Bellefield Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Tel: 412.624.3988 | Fax: 412.624.5231 
For information about Admissions & Financial Aid, please contact
Shabana Reza at 800.672.9435

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