Maura Marx: A Renaissance Woman
in the Digital Stacks
By Sasha Nyary, Dean's Editorial Fellow
The career of Maura Marx ’04LS is a perfect example of the old adage about luck being preparation meeting opportunity, along with a little follow your bliss thrown in there as well. “It’s something like, you think one thing, and you let it unfold,” says Marx, the 2011 winner of the GSLIS Alumni Achievement Award, in a recent phone interview. “It is fun for me! I get up every morning, and I think about the work we’re doing, and I love it so much. It’s such a passion, and isn’t really work — it merges into life.”
As the executive director of the Open Knowledge Commons, Marx is currently working with a wide assortment of library professionals, computer experts, authors, publishers, educators, government representatives, private industry, cultural organizations, and others as they pull the Digital Public Library of America into being. To “improve public access to comprehensive online resources” as its mandate states is a big, complicated, unwieldy task. But, as Candy Schwartz, her former professor, says, Marx is “a Renaissance woman — well versed across a broad spectrum of knowledge, fluent in several languages, and equally at ease with politicians, academics, and practitioners at all levels. She is an unsung-hero kind of leader who makes things happen, often from behind the scenes, and with 24-7 effort.”
The follow-your-bliss part of Marx’s background was visible early on: Interested in languages, she chose to get her B.A. at Notre Dame because it offered an excellent study-abroad program; she spent semesters in Austria and Germany. After college she got a master’s degree in Italian through Middlebury’s program in Italy, where, as she puts it, she “got interested in looking at old books. I got interested in bindings, and thought, wouldn’t that
be fun, to work on that.” So she went to London and knocked on doors of rare book specialists asking for work; antiquarian book dealer Bernard Shapero hired her.
She learned a lot working for Shapero and taking courses in book bindings. She learned that her new trade wasn’t lucrative: “A little bit of book binding doesn’t pay the rent.” And that’s when the luck and opportunity part first kicked in: A friend tipped her off that the Guggenheim Museum was looking to open a museum in Salzburg, and was hiring. Marx was prepared with the necessary
languages and the hands-on experience, and she got the job. “That’s when I started working in the whole cultural heritage thing,” she says. The museum had thousands of paintings that they could never show because they didn’t have enough exhibition space. “The issue was about bringing art to the broadest group possible,” Marx says. After that job ended, she stayed in Austria and started a business consulting with galleries and institutions
trying to raise money or exhibit their works.
The technology piece fell into place for her when she moved back to the United States. It was toward the end of the dot-com boom, and Marx landed in the unlikely environment of a New York City start-up that built technology for mutual funds. “I was supremely uninterested in finance,” she says, “but I liked the technology, and I had an inkling I was interested in digital libraries. I thought, how do you merge technology and cultural heritage? I came to the conclusion that the answer was digital libraries. I had no idea what that meant in practice, so I thought, let’s see where this goes.”
When the start-up folded, Marx found herself at library school at Simmons. “I loved being back in school,” she says. “It was a totally different experience to be a so-called grown-up studying in pursuit of a passion. And library science is a craft, it’s a skill, it’s something you can learn. Languages, you learn how to speak them, but they’re not a tool you can wield. Not like library school. It was a lot of fun to be able to study these skills. I think that’s why the profession holds together so well — people recognize people who have these skills. That was when the economy was imploding all over the place, and I liked the idea of being able to do something.”
Marx tried to get as much practical experience as possible at Simmons. When she took cataloging from Schwartz, for instance, she arranged an internship cataloging the personal books of Isabella Stewart Gardner, under the auspices of the museum next door to Simmons. Then, as she was finishing her degree, Marx applied for a job at the Boston Public Library (BPL) working with John Adams' personal library.
The job was to administer a grant that had a digitization component to it. “This was a chance to work with amazing primary source material,” she says. “Adams had written copiously in the margins. Even David McCullough, his
biographer, hadn’t read all the marginalia. We had to take every single volume out, catalog it, see what was interesting about it. We saw that Adams had written essays in some of the margins! He really went at it.”
During the project Marx convinced the BPL to start a digital library program. “I had gained an understanding about what you need to digitize books, and I was there when Google announced that it was going to digitize the collections of five major university libraries. That was a historic moment, it got people thinking about digitization on a new scale. It was perfect timing, a perfect development. Boston realized it had to get moving.”
When Google decided to digitize materials from libraries and make them publicly accessibly with restrictions, the 20 libraries of the Boston Library Consortium, including the BPL, decided to digitize their materials noncommercially under “open” terms, i.e., without restriction. Working on that project was largely the inspiration for Marx to found the Open Knowledge Commons (OKC), a nonprofit organization that “works with libraries to create the broadest possible public access to knowledge” and is dedicated to bringing printed library material online. Its most recent focus is on forming a national strategy for a public access digital library.
Marx is now a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard. “It’s a fertile place to be,” she says, “because many people there are working on different aspects of the intersection of Internet and society. In the print world, it used to be that we librarians could tackle our own problems, but in the
digital world these problems are bigger and more complicated; we now need help from lawyers and technologists and others from beyond our profession.”
What has remained the same, and essential, she says, is access. “Access to information has always been the basis of all innovation and creativity. It’s necessary for innovation. And people get that; it’s not new to them. The intent of the Digital Public Library of America is to create a public resource, to create a public good. It’s very exciting.” Indeed.