“The future is right now,” says longtime University Librarian Robert E. Hudson. “You don’t stop. It’s happening.”
After decades of overseeing the BU libraries and their transition to the digital era, Hudson is retiring from the University, effective next summer. A University search committee has been formed to seek his successor.
Looking back on his BU career, he says that computers and digital media have transformed libraries, vastly improving access to information, but at the same time raising new issues. “One of my favorite examples is the Beowulf manuscript,” he says. “There’s only one; it’s at the British Museum. You could never touch it, but they’ve got a digital copy online, infrared images, all these things you could never do as an individual, and they have made that available to the world. But all the scholarship around it now depends on that one website, so there’s a tension there.”
In recent years, Hudson has been a prime mover in implementing OpenBU, an open access repository aimed at providing the widest possible archiving, online sharing, and dissemination of research and scholarship by BU faculty, staff, and students. Key steps have been adoption of an Open Access Policy in 2009 that makes scholarly work by BU faculty and staff available online for free as long as the authors are credited and the scholarship isn’t used for profit, and a shift in policy from one that requires faculty to opt in to provide open access to their scholarly articles to one that requires them instead to opt out if they don’t want to allow open access, adopted in 2015.
“Research shows that open access articles are more widely cited. They expedite the passage of the information through institutions, academies, professions,” he says.
Hudson has worked in various library capacities at BU since 1979. He was appointed director of University libraries in 1992 and has been University Librarian since 2007. The University libraries comprise 23 libraries containing more than 4 million physical and electronic titles and 58,000 periodical subscriptions, both physical and electronic. The “monumental task of documenting everything we have digitally and keeping it going” is one of the key challenges going forward, he says.
The fast pace of technological advancement—and the rapid obsolescence of each iteration—raises difficulties for librarians trying to keep up. “A stone tablet from 5,000 years ago is still here and probably will be here for another 5,000 years,” Hudson says. He holds up a couple of floppy discs, noting they contain the library’s budget from 10 years ago. “There’s no machine anymore that can read them—probably there’s not anything on this disk because of physical deterioration anyway.
“Where’s this stuff going to live? How much is it going to cost to keep it going, and the machines, the formatting, to make sure it lasts more than 5 or 10 years?” Those are the kinds of questions, he says, that librarians everywhere are wrestling with.
Hudson began his library career at Hampshire College in 1971, when data entry was done via reams of punch cards. “I have a graduate degree in medieval history, so I take sort of a long view,” he says, noting that it’s been more than 500 years since the printing press became the standard and books are still around. “Let’s give the digital age 500 years and see.”
“For nearly three decades, Bob has been an exemplary steward of Boston University’s libraries,” says Jean Morrison, provost and chief academic officer. “He has helped to implement a host of important initiatives to digitize and improve access to our scholarly collections and strengthening collaborations and partnerships with library consortia and professional organizations to better share resources across institutions. We are grateful to Bob for his leadership and steadfast service to BU.”
During his tenure, Hudson says, technological advancements have led to a dramatic shift in the layout of the libraries’ physical space, making for more inviting places to study and conduct research. “The 1980s were spent building stacks and taking away seating, and now it’s the reverse,” he says. “We’re taking away stacks and building student-friendly areas. One of the biggest deals was when we put electric outlets down the middle of the tables for charging devices so you didn’t have to jump over cords everywhere.”
One of Hudson’s proudest accomplishments has been the staff of 135 that he’s built. “I think I’ve gotten a little smarter and hired good subordinates,” he says, “and I give them all the credit in the world.”
The University has appointed a 12-member search committee comprising faculty and librarians, chaired by Tracy Schroeder, vice president of information services and technology, to find Hudson’s successor. The committee is scheduled to recommend two or three qualified applicants by March 30, 2018, with final selection to be made by Morrison and Robert A. Brown, BU president.
A celebration of Hudson’s career will be held in the spring. He says he will remain on the job until his successor is named and has committed to staying through the end of the fiscal year in June if necessary.
Hudson plans to settle full-time in western Massachusetts, where his wife is a small-business entrepreneur. He says he may do some library consulting and continue his hobby of watercolor painting. This far ahead, he says, retirement is “in my peripheral vision. I’m not looking directly at it.”