Patricia M. Battin

National Humanities Medal


Her peers call her a pioneer and a missionary, a visionary and a leader. But, even after years of national and international achievements, perhaps the title that Patricia Battin feels most at home with is still simply, "librarian." After all, in a thirty-year career that began as a library intern and eventually led to her directing a digital communication project, Battin's driving force has always been the desire to help the folks at the library find what they need.

In 1964, as a mother of three and a faculty wife, Battin took a job as a library intern at State University of New York, Binghamton. She soon moved into more advanced library work. By the time she left SUNY Binghamton she was the assistant director for reader services.

In 1974, Battin joined Columbia University as the director of the Library Services Group. "It was around this time that I began to realize the intense impact the technology boon was having and would continue to have on libraries," says Battin. Columbia boasted (and still maintains) twenty-six libraries. In 1978, Battin was one of the first librarians to combine library administration with technology services when she took on Columbia's dual post of University Librarian and Vice President for Information Services. At a time when libraries were becoming more and more technology-driven, the new position gave Battin the opportunity to view the technology world close-up. She was somewhat alarmed. "I saw that library information systems of the future were being conceived and built by engineers, who, as university librarians know, rarely use libraries." This realization fueled what became and still remains Battin's loudest wake-up call to humanities professionals. "The central concern for the humanist in a technologically driven society must be a willingness to influence actively, persuasively, and eloquently the design of information systems."

When she left Columbia University in 1987 to become the president of the Commission on Preservation, Battin began what she would later describe as the most satisfying and perhaps most important work of her career--preserving books. "It has always been clear to me that the library of the future does in fact contain actual books," she asserts.

She successfully lobbied congress for increased preservation funding in the U.S. and worked with overseas groups to champion international efforts. Of her work with the Commission, a former president of the Council on Library Resources said, "In a very short time, she was able to bring together many different, diverse, and interested groups as well as bring the problem of preservation to the attention of many organizations that hadn't really thought of it as a major problem demanding attention."

Battin launched full-scale into the technology world when she became the planning director for Emory University's Virtual Library Project in 1994. The three-year project explored new ways of managing and sharing scholarly information using the capacities of digital technology and communication networks. It sought to achieve "an unprecedented collaborative structure," writes Battin. Dynamic in its goals and scope, the virtual library project was a trailblazer for the electronic library. Among many noteworthy goals, the project accomplished the development of programs to educate managers about digital information systems, the construction of the Center for Library and Information Resources to house both library and information technology activities, and the creation of long-term collaborative partnerships between institutions. Emory Chancellor Billy E. Frye said of Battin, "She will stand out as one of the key figures of the last half of the twentieth century because of the leadership she has brought to the area of information management in the country."

Having been retired for a few years now, she still keeps a very active hand in both library and preservation efforts. In 1998, she co-wrote The Mirage of Continuity: Reconfiguring Academic Information Resources for the Twenty-first Century, about the need to expand access to resources. In her leisure time, she enjoys traveling and her four grandchildren.

One university president used these words to describe Patricia Battin's work, "adapting old customs and habits to a new technology." May all of our old customs and habits be in such good hands as hers.

By Susan Q. Graceson

About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.