A Local Life: Paul Wasserman

U-Md. Library School Founder a Man of Many Handwritten Words

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 7, 2009

For more than four decades, Paul Wasserman was a major figure in library studies and education. In 1965, the year he established the University of Maryland's School of Library and Information Services, he published an influential book, "The Librarian and the Machine," that foretold the growing importance of computers and automation in libraries. He traveled the world, from Bulgaria to Brazil, from Sweden to Sri Lanka, teaching librarians the latest developments in information management and technology.

Yet he never learned how to use a computer.

He wrote or edited hundreds of articles and books about librarianship and compiled dozens of thick reference books, composing them all with pen and paper. Among several books he produced since he retired from the University of Maryland in 1995 were a 458-page memoir and a cranky book about language that distorts or conceals the truth, "Weasel Words: The Dictionary of American Doublespeak."

"Paul was a Luddite," said Don Hausrath, the co-author of "Weasel Words" (2006) and two other books with Dr. Wasserman. "All his books were done by longhand, and a secretary would type them up. Every week, I'd get these fat envelopes of stuff he'd written."

Judging from "Weasel Words," Dr. Wasserman may have had second thoughts about the fast-moving information age he helped create in his earlier life, when he urged librarians to embrace modernization and change. After all, one of the terms skewered in "Weasel Words" is "information society."

"While it is true that the Web allows access to massive collections of printed matter in electronic form, cognition requires the investment in time to receive and ponder," Dr. Wasserman and Hausrath wrote. "Now there is no time . . . to consider, no time to digest information into knowledge."

Throughout his long career, Dr. Wasserman -- who was 85 when he died May 8 of pneumonia and an infection -- was known for things that take time: scholarship, the nurturing of students and the slow acquisition of wisdom.

He found his profession almost by accident, taking a job reshelving library books when he was an undergraduate at City College of New York. He interrupted his education at the outbreak of World War II, joined the Army and nearly died when his troopship, the SS Leopoldville, was sunk by a German torpedo in the English Channel on Christmas Eve 1944. He leaped from the deck into the freezing nighttime waters below.

"My teeth chattered and my hands grew numb," he wrote in his memoir, "The Best of Times."

"It was only through sheer determination that I managed to keep my head above water. A boat drew near; I tried to reach up but lacked the strength. . . . A sudden swell carried me right up to the boat's side. A strong arm reached out and firmly grasped my hand. With the next swell, I was yanked out of the water and heaved over the shoulder of a Coast Guardsman. I landed flat on my face. The last thing I remember is the smiling face of a big sailor who said, 'Welcome aboard, soldier, and Merry Christmas.' Then I passed out."

Almost 800 U.S. servicemen aboard the Leopoldville died that night. After recovering in a French hospital, Dr. Wasserman fought in the Battle of the Bulge and came home with two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star Medal.

He returned to City College, then went on to Columbia University, where in 1949 he was in the first class to receive master's degrees in library science. A year later, while working full time at a public library in Brooklyn, he received a second master's degree in economics.

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