Reprinted from the Fall 2011 edition of InterCom
"It's going to be a long drive to Louisiana."
Dr. Robert. V. Williams, retired professor of the School of Library and Information Science, jumped in a van with about a dozen graduate students to caravan to this year's American Society for Information Science and Technology conference in October. He was traveling with the students to not only attend the conference, but also to receive the prestigious Watson Davis Award. The juried award is given to members of ASIS&T for outstanding, continuous contributions and dedicated service to the society.
"It's a really nice recognition, principally because it recognizes that the society values history and historical research," Dr. Williams said. His primary research focus has been on oral histories of information science.
Even though Dr. Williams has been retired for seven years, he actively contributes to research in the field. Since retirement, he has written several articles and two books, one of which is Covert and Overt, Recollecting and Connecting Intelligence Service and Information Science. The book displays the contributions by intelligence professionals in the CIA, British agencies and the US armed services during World War II and the Cold War. It also examines the historical relationship between information science and intelligence work.
In 1985, Dr. Williams launched an oral history project, South Carolina's Library Heritage, which emphasized interviewing African- American librarians to document their stories. He organized a group of people to identify the most significant figures in the history of information science and interviewed about 10 of them.
"They had fascinating stories to tell about going to schools during the 40s and 50s and having so few books," said Dr. Williams. "Seeing how those folks managed to survive with that and the discrimination — it's really interesting what they were able to do."
The tedious project has taken 25 years, but Dr. Williams received help from students in transcribing and organizing the information onto USC's website. Some of the interviews lasted up to eight hours. He has also put together a chronology of the history of information science.
Before coming to USC, Dr. Williams worked at the Ford Foundation as a service manager and archivist. He earned a Ph.D. in library and information studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While earning a master's degree at Florida State University, he met his life-long mentor, Dr. Martha Jane Zachert. She was at USC when Dr. Williams began teaching and, together, they still write articles.
"Dr. Zachert is about 90 years old and she still edits my papers," he said.
Since 1978, Dr. Williams has been associated with SLIS. He helped create the undergraduate program for information science in 2008, which is continuing to grow. He has also served as the research director and currently teaches one doctoral class a semester at USC.
Not only has Dr. Williams received the Watson Davis Award, but he has also won the 2003 award for mentoring and teaching by the Special Libraries Association. In regards to winning the Watson Davis Award, Dr. Williams humbly says he owes 99 percent of it to SLIS director, Dr. Hastings, who nominated him. He stressed the significance of the award, explaining that library and information associations tend to be present-oriented and not as interested in history because most of the members are working on the latest technology.
"I hope that with my research, people will take a deeper interest in history."