March 14, 2006

Ross Atkinson, associate librarian and digital publishing advocate, dies at 60

Ross Atkinson, associate university librarian for collections, died March 8 at his home at the age of 60, from complications of leukemia.

Atkinson, who joined the Cornell University Library in 1988, had been a major force in the creation of digital online collections and an outspoken advocate of open-access, online publication of scholarly and scientific work.

His message for librarians nationwide is summarized in his "Six Key Challenges" presented to the 2005 Janus Conference on Research Library Collections, a meeting of higher education librarians convened at Cornell: To digitize objects now available only in traditional form; to ensure that future objects are available in digital form to begin with; to standardize the "core collections" that libraries should hold in each discipline; to negotiate collectively with publishers for the best access to journals; to ensure long-term preservation of both traditional and digital materials; and to create a network of publishing structures that scholars can use as a supplement or alternative to standard scholarly publishing channels.

"It was Ross' goal that [the challenges] would also result in significant action," said Sarah Thomas, the Carl A. Kroch University Librarian at Cornell, noting that a group within the American Library Association has been moving these issues forward, and the Council on Library and Information Resources has also proposed to contribute to their advancement. "Ross was insistent to me that it was important to move from local solutions to collective action. We plan to continue in that spirit," Thomas said.

According to J. Robert Cooke, professor emeritus of biological and environmental engineering and chair of the University Faculty Library Board, Atkinson played a major role in establishing Cornell's D-Space, an online repository in which Cornell scholars are encouraged to make their work available. D-Space currently houses a growing collection of Cornell history, graduate theses and books by Cornell authors.

"He helped me work my way through some sticky political problems and never lost faith in the possibilities that lay ahead as a result of the digital revolution and its potential value to the future of the research library," Cooke said. "He doggedly avoided publicity, but in my opinion he has been one of the truly great members of the Cornell community."

Prior to coming to Cornell in 1988, Atkinson worked at Northwestern University from 1977 to 1983, when he became assistant university librarian for collection development at the University of Iowa.

Named the Academic/Research Librarian of 2003 by the Association of College and Research Libraries, Atkinson was described by Thomas in her nomination as "one of the foremost thinkers in collection development in libraries, and he is renowned for his originality. ... His influence is deep and far-reaching."

Atkinson is survived by his wife, Carole, of Dryden; son Andy, of Queens, N.Y.; and sister Lindy Matalone, of Sacramento, Calif. At his own request, there will be no funeral or memorial service.

"He told me several weeks ago that he wanted to be here one day and gone the next," Thomas explained. "Our collections will forever bear his mark, and our scholars and students will be served for generations to come as a result of his direction."

Donations can be made in Atkinson's honor to the Namgyal Buddhist monastery in Ithaca or to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.