Digital Pioneer: Martha Anderson

Martha Anderson – who is one of the driving forces behind American MemoryNDIIPPIIPC and NDSA – has an effect on most people she comes in contact with. Watch her work a room at a conference. People beam when they greet her and she relaxes them with her warmth and charm, even as she elicits a formal respect from them. Her effect shows in her dedicated staff, in collaborations with her colleagues and in the success of the many projects and programs she helped launch. It is not an exaggeration to state that Anderson has directly influenced the development of the Library of Congress’s digital programs and collections. And now she is retiring.

When I spoke with Anderson in October she was a little preoccupied with writing her farewell speech, even though her retirement date was months away. Radiating South Carolina graciousness and sincerity, she said, “I want to say goodbye properly. Anything less would be rude.”

In fact, when Anderson’s colleagues describe her character they repeatedly cite her graciousness as well as her skill at building relationships, her confidence and vision, her ability to nurture people’s strengths and build strong teams and her leadership in cutting through group dithering to get real work done. The list of complements goes on.

Anderson would never give in to such praise for a moment though. The way she tells it, over the course of her career she just happened to be in the right place at the right time, several times over. Anderson laughingly said, “I’ve always just shown up and things happened. Throughout my whole life, I never planned a lot.”

She began her professional career as a secondary school teacher and then spent twenty years as a military spouse.  She returned to school in the mid-1980s and then began working at jobs (“showed up” in response to job ads) that combined history and technology: a microform publisher, a CD-ROM publisher and then finally the Library of Congress’s National Digital Library Program.

1997 American Memory screenshot on

“The project looked really interesting,” said Anderson. “I knew what they wanted and how to do it. At the CD-ROM company, we worked in video and audio and I had worked on getting everything converted and into the right format. I knew the different platforms. And I had worked with descriptive records. On one project,  we marked up a published index and had it keyed, tagged and written to tape in MARC format. So, I felt really sure that I was going to get the Library job.” Anderson began working on the American Memory project in January of 1996.

Many American Memory staff did not have library degrees or high-tech skills, but they did have an aptitude for what needed to be done, a passion for the project and a willingness to learn. Liz Madden, a former American Memory staff person, is now a Library of Congress digital media projects coordinator. Madden said, “This was such new work that there weren’t really tools or known best practices for any of it. We all had to make do with what we had and make it up as we went along.” Anderson — with her multimedia experience, project management and natural fit for the job — helped guide the staff, shape the project and make it successful.

Abbie Grotke – another American Memory veteran and now the Library’s web archiving team lead — agrees that Anderson’s diplomacy and leadership style was one of the reasons for American Memory’s success. She said, “Martha has a natural ease with people that smoothed out relationships with Library staff. And she could talk about the high-level picture while at the same time talk comfortably at the technical-detail level.”

By 1999, the digital library had grown and the Library faced new challenges. In 2000, Congress chartered the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. “When the opportunity for the NDIIPP program came up, that’s when I made the decision that I would spend the rest of my career at the Library,” said Anderson. “I decided I would stay and see it through. It was a great challenge and it was actually the logical flow from having digitized all that stuff. And it was an opportunity to work with all these terrific people.”

2002 NDIIPP screenshot on

NDIIPP ratcheted up the technical and social challenge for Anderson. Where American Memory was a unique collaboration among internal groups at the Library of Congress, NDIIPP was the Library’s unique collaboration among numerous external institutions. The common goal of the collaboration was to research and utilize practical digital-preservation solutions.

Again Anderson rose to the challenge. Throughout NDIIPP’s first decade, Anderson helped lead and nurture the program, facilitating often-difficult but crucial collaborations among the hundreds of institutions, laying a solid foundation of proven best practices for digital preservation and helping build a distributed digital preservation infrastructure.  And after NDIIPP’s first decade, Anderson helped carry the work forward into the development of the National Digital Stewardship Alliance.

Kris Carpenter-Negulescu, of the Internet Archive, said, “I think in many respects she has the makeup of an entrepreneur. What she built at the Library of Congress and NDIIPP is similar to what often happens in a Silicon Valley start-up. She helped to raise funding, in this case from Congress. Then she worked with a loosely defined body of needs and requirements to develop programs, even though there wasn’t a lot of support or understanding within the Library or even within the broader community at the time.”

Grotke said of Anderson’s guidance through the groundbreaking, often experimental work of the NDIIPP partners, “She has an ability to lead when things are uncertain or unknown and assure everyone that things are on course.”

Origami by Martha Anderson

Of all the projects that Anderson has worked on, she is fondest of the International Internet Preservation Consortium, which was formed in 2003. “It was a can-do kind of group from the very beginning,” said Anderson. “The people attending the meetings would say, ‘We don’t want some big organizational overhead on this because we’ve seen how, if people put that first, nothing ever happens. We just want to get to work.’

“And they have so much integrity and people are respectful of each other. If you put out a question on the IIPC list, you get thoughtful, careful responses, very respectful of the question. They are smart and passionate but yet are willing to learn from each other. And they are the people who are willing to take a risk in their own institutions. They are doing the odd thing in big, traditional libraries.”

Carpenter-Negulescu said that Anderson is a natural compliment to the IIPC. She said, “Martha’s a master at bringing together communities of unlikely interests. She builds bridges between individuals with extreme personalities and differences of opinion. She’s able to connect with people, engage people, make them feel included, welcome and attended to. She inspires them to act and actually get things done. She was the one person who, without offending others, would speak up and politely say, ‘Can we get back to the issue at hand and try to come up with a resolution here?’”

Anderson’s staff at the Library of Congress appreciates the respect that she shows for each individual here, especially how she seems to hone in on peoples skills and nurture them. Abbey Potter, program officer at the Library of Congress, said, “Martha recognizes and develops people’s strengths. She’ll challenge you if she thinks you can handle certain tasks. She makes it so that you’re happy in your work.”

Anderson developed a tight, efficient team by helping people figure out what it is they really would like to be doing and how it is they can best contribute. When asked about that, Anderson said, “That’s just my old classroom teacher habit. You learn to do that with students, leverage their special gifts.”

Origami by Martha Anderson

Across the library a lot people just plain enjoy Anderson’s company. She tells a great story and seems to say what’s on her mind. She is equally comfortable talking about her grand-kids or politics or gardening or origami or new technologies or publishing models.

As she prepares to leave the Library, winding down in these final weeks, Anderson said, “There is joy and sorrow. The joy is that I have had the opportunity to work with all these people to and do these neat things. All of you people feel like my family to me. And this team is the greatest team. They work the hardest. They’re the smartest as far as I’m concerned, across-the-board. The managers in OSI are really good and I consider them my friends. In some ways I’ll miss seeing these people every day. And the sorrow is that it’s time for me to move on.”‘

Grotke said, “It’s good for her to move on at this stage of her life, even though it’s too soon for the rest of us.”

Anderson shook off the solemnity, smiled and said, “Remember, I am not a planner, so I am basically just showing up for retirement.”

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