Remembering Judith Caruthers

Joining a new community with ties to my past

Tight close-up on a threads of different colors lined up

The threads of my life are coming together in unexpected ways.

As you read in last week’s post, I delivered the Leiter Lecture at the Medical Library Association’s annual meeting. I opened the lecture with a brief introduction to me—nurse, industrial engineer, consumer health information advocate, technologist. Sensing those in attendance needed to better understand my bona fides for serving as the NLM Director, I also spontaneously reflected aloud on my own graduate school experience and the librarians I knew then.

It was a fortuitous and meaningful tangent.

During my graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I hung out with librarians. And not just any librarians. These were some heavy hitters: Charley Seavey, Bob Martin, Wayne Wiegand, and the indomitable Judith Caruthers.  Judith, Charley, and I (and a few others) met in Frank Baker’s class on statistics in educational psychology. We bonded together to interpret regression coefficients, calculate variance explained, and absorb the mysteries and utilities of the general linear model. Beyond beers and homework sessions, we shared the philosophies and mysteries of our chosen disciplines: me from industrial engineering, Judith and Charley from library science, and Diana Pounder from educational administration.

Little did I know those Friday afternoons on the terrace were helping to form the basis upon which I would build a career leading the National Library of Medicine.

Judith came to graduate school as a grown up. She was already the research librarian for the Louisiana State University Medical Center in New Orleans and had taken a leave of absence to work on her doctorate.

To those of us waiting to start our careers, Judith was a sophisticate, and she taught me many things. Her dissertation exploring metadata in what was then known as ProCite introduced me to the systematic study of curation. She helped me to reason through how information engendered perspective and to see that the job of an information professional, whether librarian or engineer, was to preserve meaning and afford access. She also taught me to think of my career and my job as intertwined but never identical.

Judith and I became great friends, establishing a deep connection forged from mutual affection and compatible intellects. Judith taught me to eat crawfish, and I introduced her to Wisconsin brats. And every year, as the Mardi Gras krewes gathered in New Orleans, Judith oversaw the northern version of the king cake celebration, making sure her southern traditions warmed our Wisconsin winters.

Judith died in 2001 after a valiant battle with cancer. She left me before I was ready to let her go, and I think of her often—her gorgeous smile, her southern drawl, and her engulfing hugs.

So what a great surprise and gift it was to me that my spontaneous reminiscences at the start of the Leiter Lecture were greeted with tweets and hugs from members of the MLA community who also knew Judith—one of her LSU colleagues, a librarian whom Judith had guided to graduate school, another friend and colleague who worked with her.

I came away from the MLA meeting realizing not only have I encountered a new and vibrant professional community but also an amazing and welcome connection to my past. I can’t help but look forward to the tapestry created from the weaving of these long-connected threads.


Postscript: Judith’s good friend and LSU colleague Wilba Swearingen wrote more about her in a lovely tribute following her death.

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

1 thought on “Remembering Judith Caruthers”

  1. In my mind, your story about collaboration is a perfect example of the benefits of multiple perspectives that catapult education and its impact. Happy that you had that experience.

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