Seeing It Through

By Kevin Tankersley

Q&A with Pattie Orr

For 10 years, Pattie Orr was vice president for information technology and dean of university libraries at Baylor. Under her watch, the Baylor libraries moved into the realm of digitalization, making virtual copies of rare and valuable items in its holdings available to scholars around the world. She was an early and strong supporter of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, an effort spearheaded by professor Robert Darden to digitize songs from the Golden Age of Gospel Music.

“I never believed it was fate that led me to meet Pattie Orr on her first day at Baylor,” Darden said. “Since then, she has been the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project’s greatest advocate. I’m convinced that the groundbreaking partnership Baylor now has with the [Smithsonian Institution’s] new National Museum of African American History and Culture is due, in great part, to her visionary leadership. Whatever successes we have had have always been joint successes. While the BGMRP will miss her terribly, I’m delighted that I’ll always be able to call her friend.”

Orr graduated from Abilene Christian University with a degree in education and then did graduate work at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the University of Massachusetts Boston. Orr and Wacoan writer Kevin Tankersley met on a recent afternoon in the Graduate Research Center in the W.R. Poage Legislative Library Center. The research center was Orr’s capstone on her career at Baylor, a final project she wanted to see through to completion before retirement. Their conversation ranged from gospel music to Stephen King to Orr’s ability to tow a 747 aircraft.

WACOAN: It wasn’t that long ago that you retired, was it?

Orr: May 31. I was here 10 years exactly. I got here June 1, 2007.

WACOAN: Did you plan that or did it just work out?

Orr: It kind of worked out. I almost retired the year before, actually. My husband and I were in a really bad car accident the year before, and it was really hard getting back together again. I was in physical therapy and all that stuff.

I had hoped to stay 10 years, but I really wanted to work toward this Graduate Research Center. It’s part of the Poage Library. The international students group was here. They were planning to move to the renovated Hankamer [Academic Center], and that gave us access to space here in the library to make these changes. I really wanted to stay and finish that.

WACOAN: What prompted you to create this space?

Orr: Well, for years, we had hoped to reacquire the space because we had been growing and growing. Our student body when I came was [about] 14,000. Now we’re at 17,000 students. When Moody [Memorial Library] was built, it was about 6,000 students.

Things have continued to grow, and we needed space. I knew that ultimately this space would be available, and I wanted to raise the money to make changes so that we could renovate it and make it available for the grad students.

At Moody, there is the Moody [Library] Study Commons. That’s the first project that I did in the first couple of years that I was there. There just wasn’t these open spaces that incorporated technology the way that students needed to work. I raised all the money for that from our very generous donors and friends. We completely renovated that and created the digitization center that we’ve used so successfully all across the university.

And Baylor has never had a separate space for graduate students. We did have some carrels back in the day. Professors or a person writing a Ph.D. might have a carrel. But we went from a very small number of grad students to about 2,500 graduate students.

What I learned is that students today don’t like being locked in a study carrel all by themselves. They tell me they like to be in a group. They like to have their headphones on. They like to be around other people who are working. They like natural light. They don’t want to be locked up in a little cube. That’s what I needed to do when I was in grad school, but I knew that wasn’t going to keep serving them, so we needed to do something different.

This was my final project I worked hard on when I was here at Baylor. There’s this one big room for the grad students that is informally called the incubator. It’s a beautiful space that will accommodate about 60 students. It’s a really nice space.

At my retirement party, they announced they had solicited funds from donors and it’s going to be named for me, the Pattie Orr Graduate Research Commons. That was a surprise.

WACOAN: What are some of your other accomplishments during your 10 years at Baylor?

Orr: The Moody Study Commons, which was really important for our students as well.

There are two that I think will have very lasting impacts. One of those was the sustainability project. When I came to Baylor, I was carrying these [plastic] bottles everywhere. Other than a few little blue bins in the library that the librarians had gotten and one or two maybe in Rogers [Engineering and Computer Science Building], there were no place to [recycle] these bottles or paper or anything. They were doing some recycling of paper, but they didn’t have a regular truck for it. They were just fitting it in between runs. It was not well known and it was not well used.

When I first came, President [John] Lilley asked me to take on a project to help us develop a sustainability program. We were only like 35 years behind every other university in the world. I came from the East Coast — I had been at Wellesley College for 15 years — and the schools up north had been doing recycling a long, long time.

We created a University Sustainability Committee. Every area of the university had representatives who worked together to figure it out. After a couple of years, we had about 800 different containers on campus [for recycling]. When we built McLane [Stadium], we added containers.

Then the libraries have done a lot of great projects, but I think the [Ray I. Riley Digitization Center] was probably the most important thing I did because it helped so many groups. My real favorite, of course, is the black gospel music project and being part of the new African-American museum at the Smithsonian. Preserving that music has been very important work. And it’s been great for all of our libraries.

Having been at Wellesley, where we had a nice collection of Elizabeth Barrett Browning love letters, and coming to Baylor, which had almost everything else [from Browning], it was nice to be able to have all of our letters digitized. And we did a project with Wellesley to do their letters, so we actually host their letters and our letters and several others from other universities, such as Oxford.

WACOAN: What all does the digitization center do?

Orr: They were really accomplishing things in digitization well before I came to Baylor, but they didn’t have a space. It was kind of in various spaces in the library. They had put the recording booth [for the gospel music project] down on the garden level. It was put there to eliminate sounds from vibrations and things like that.

That whole area was all book stacks in the basement except where the recording booth was. I decided to build this digitization center around the booth, and then use the rest of the space for a space for students to study that’s open 24 hours.

The digitization center does a couple of important things. First of all, Baylor has incredible special collections. The Texas Collection is unbroken archives since before the state of Texas began. We’ve got all of that stuff. We’ve got the Armstrong Browning collection. The Poage Library has a tremendous political collection, including a lot of Kennedy material. We’ve got Bob Bullock’s archive. We have [materials from] many politicians from Texas through the years.

When we get materials that are rare like that, one of the most important things to do is to digitize it to preserve it, because they are degrading. They are not going to last forever. Even with great care, they’re not going to last forever. That was job one.

The second [job] that we do is make it accessible. We put copies of that online, and behind it is what librarians do best, which is metadata. So it’s not just the picture of something. It’s, what is this? Where did it come from? When was it digitized? Where was it created? All the details of it are behind the scenes so it’s highly searchable and available to the world.

And beyond that, I was the vice president of IT when I was here at Baylor. I’m really from an IT background primarily. I’m not [a Master of Library Science] librarian, although I’ve worked in libraries for 25 years. But the digitization and technology was one of my strengths.

One of the things that we really have done a good job of is not only digitizing it, making it available to the world, but putting it in what we call a dark archive up in the cloud, multiple copies of it, so that we’re sure that nothing will ever happen to Bob Darden’s [collection of gospel] music. It will always be available.

If one server fails, it’s been replicated in various ways. That was not really true when I came. We did it in servers and tapes, then we moved to the cloud. Now do we not only have it in the cloud, we have it in multiple iterations of it so it will always be safe. We do that for all the different collections that we have.

The digitization center, I think my fingerprints are all over that because of my background in IT and the libraries. Most libraries, unless they’re at enormous universities, have just a small collection of special things. We have buildings full of special things here at Baylor, and it’s such a strength. I think we’ve expanded our national reputation because of the work that we’ve done through the digitization center.

WACOAN: Why is the gospel music project important to you?

Orr: One reason that it’s important to me is because this music is on LPs, and it is not going to last. It’s deteriorating every single day. There’s a real urgency to preserve it, or, in the future, no one will be able to hear that music.

The other thing is that most universities collect various types of music, and a lot of universities do jazz or other types of music. But the thing about black gospel music is that there’s not really a commercial value to it. Jazz is still valuable commercially, so a lot of companies are preserving it. A lot of institutions want to have a great jazz collection if they happen to have access to it.

But at Baylor, we love the music and the message [of gospel music], so we really are uniquely positioned to take care of it and love it and share it and be proud of it and preserve this [part of] African-American culture that we have come to know about working with Bob.

Being part of the Smithsonian was another thing. My last year, that 10th year, I knew that all of our things were being premiered there at the new museum and that we were going to have an opportunity to go and see that and be part of it. I’m so glad I didn’t miss that.

WACOAN: You mentioned the Armstrong Browning Library. How significant is it that Baylor has that collection and the building where it’s housed?

Orr: It is a huge deal because we are really known internationally for what our collection is there and the support we give to scholars who study Victorian literature, not just the Brownings, but all aspects of Victorian literature. It’s very well known.

That’s the reason I felt we needed to move forward on digitizing and making our material available online, because you can always come to the library and enjoy the beauty of Elizabeth’s own hand. She wrote very, very small. Tiny little writing on tiny sheets of paper. But you could come and enjoy that and work with our librarians. But there are only so many people who will ever have that opportunity.

Making it available all over the world so that junior high students can find the love letters and study them if they’re doing a report about Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Scholars can look at original letters and add to the research that’s being done. Many scholars still come to Baylor to see the letters, and we have a whole series of fellowships that we make available to scholars.

We have a scholar-in-residence right now who’s doing a talk this week. He’s here for a semester with us, but we bring about six scholars a year, for a month each, to come from all over the world to study with us.

There’s always the fear that if I digitize it, nobody will come to the library anymore. No. If you study Elizabeth Barrett Browning, you want to see the real thing and you want to work with it. Let’s say there’s a grad student who’s going to come here and spend a month working in our library. They can spend hours with the material, looking at them and researching before they even get here. Then they can make the most of their time here.

A lot of the letters will have marginalia, or things written around the edges that no one really knew about. They had seen a translation of it, but they hadn’t actually seen it long enough to really compare. With the electronic tools, they can put one beside another and make a comparison. Invert black on white. Use all kinds of color to bring out text.

We have some letters in The Texas Collection that are from the Civil War that are perpendicular writing. They wrote one way [on the page] in one color and another way in another color because paper was super rare, and that was written by a soldier during the Civil War to send home, and we have that letter and have it digitized. But the thrill to actually come and see it is really exciting.

The Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning material, we are the library of record from the Brownings. We are internationally known for that. The same is true now for the black gospel music project, because being part of the Smithsonian and all of the work that Bob has done, doing interviews and shows, and now having it all available for listening. People are just loving this project.

It’s important to save it and it’s important to make it available, but I also feel like there’s a lot of reconciliation that can happen for us through Baylor’s working, showing that we — a university that may have a storied past on some of the relationships with our African-American colleagues here in our city — can really throw ourselves into preserving a culture that ought to be saved and ought to be told.

WACOAN: Tell me about the gospel music project at the Smithsonian.

Orr: The newest museum in Washington, D.C., is the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. We’re on the floor with all the music. We’re in an area that’s made like a little record store. There’s an all-digital table where you can click on things and bring up music and listen to it, and our music is part of that.

WACOAN: Didn’t one of the libraries just receive a pretty hefty grant?

Orr: It was Moody, which was built in 1968 and, starting in January, will be in its 50th year.

One of the things I encouraged the librarians to do was to work together and put together a grant application to the Moody Foundation. We submitted the application and did receive a $100,000 grant to build space on the main floor of Moody. And the goal is to renovate that whole main floor. That’s the next thing. The garden level is done. The graduate center is done, but I had to leave the main floor for them to finish.

If you go into Moody, it’s got this enormous circulation desk, and we only need a smaller circulation desk. But back when Moody opened, everything was done on paper. There would be six people or more working at a time at that desk. We still have the desk, but we don’t need six people working at the desk.

We want to renovate that space and do a fixer-upper. Blow it out, open it up and make it more open to the students and make the beautiful windows more visible. We’re so thankful to the Moody Foundation because they gave this grant for the first part of the project, and that’s always important, getting that first gift.

WACOAN: You kind of touched on this when you said the circulation desk once had six people working at it and now you don’t need that many. How can libraries remain relevant to students when everything is being digitized?

Orr: All you have to do is walk through Moody pretty much any time of the day and see that we still have tons of people in it, and it’s because we have resources for them to use and highly trained individuals in both technology and the research materials to assist them.

Also, it’s kind of a place for collaboration. When I was in school, I just needed my carrel and needed to put my head down and do my work and turn it in. Many of the assignments today involve working with a team, working with other people. If you look through what we’ve been doing in the library, it’s meant for collaboration. It’s meant for working in small groups.

In addition to making those resources available, there’s expertise because there is so much information and to make sense of that, working with a librarian who’s an expert in your field can help you find materials that will be the best for what you need to do.

We serve the whole community because we’re a public access library. Many, many schoolchildren come here with their parents or teachers to do projects or research, and we’re available all during the day. But when it gets to be evening, then you only come in the library by [Baylor ID] card access. We don’t kick anybody out, but we keep the doors closed so it’s a safe study environment for a 24-hour student body.

WACOAN: What’s the biggest secret of Baylor libraries that you wish more students knew about?

Orr: Let’s see. I have to think about that a second.

WACOAN: Here’s mine. I like sending students to the Crouch Fine Arts Library and getting them to listen to some new music, something they’ve never heard before.

Orr: There are so many. If you’re a graduate student, I would want you to know about the services we have in this new space. The one thing that’s really awesome is the room with the screen that is 20 feet wide that you can put your data and projects up on to teach and learn and research in a new way that a lot of people have never done. A lot of undergraduate students, if they need quiet, they think, ‘I can’t go over to Club Moody because it’s too noisy.’ The Prichard [Quiet Study] Commons is a great space that is completely quiet.

WACOAN: There are signs designating it as a totally quiet space.

Orr: Yes, and we don’t shush people these days, but we do want to make spaces that are quiet and peaceful to work in. A little-known thing, too, is that the reading room at The Texas Collection and the reading room at Armstrong Browning Library make very quiet, nice places to study.

The best kept secret is that whatever discipline you’re in, there’s a librarian that’s a specialist and is assigned to you. You can make appointments with them and get one-on-one help. Something I use a lot is chat. On the main site for the library, staffed until 1 a.m., you can chat and ask any question that you want to know from the research librarians, which is just great.

I often do that. When I was writing a paper or grant late at night and I really needed help on a citation or something, I could chat and ask a question and they write right back.

WACOAN: Do the research librarians know who they’re chatting with?

Orr: I think you log in with your username, so I think they know your email address.

WACOAN: So the librarians knew they were chatting with you when you were asking questions at midnight.

Orr: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think so.

But one thing that is sad to me is that our students don’t use our resources early [in their research]. Because they need to start early and begin to talk with the specialist who is assigned to your area and begin to look at the tools. A lot of these rare documents can make really interesting things to add to your paper if you have time. I’d really encourage students to come over early and often and take advantage of all those great resources.

WACOAN: You said you worked at Wellesley before Baylor. Where did you work before that?

Orr: You know, I’ve had an interesting career. I’ve been in higher [education] libraries and IT for 25 years. I have a degree in education, so I taught special education for eight years.

Then I worked for American Airlines for a couple of years. I was an airport agent in Midland. American had decided that instead of just having big hubs, they wanted to have more airports in smaller cities. It was a whole new picture because in a big airport you’d have someone who was a specialist in selling tickets and you’d have somebody who was a specialist in baggage and a specialist in this and that. At Midland, we did it all. ‘Airport agent’ means you did it all.

We moved to Midland in July when my husband got a job at First National Bank of Midland. July isn’t a great time to get a school teaching job. I got the job there at the airport and went to American Airlines Academy in Dallas for a month. And that’s how I ultimately ended up in computers. They were fully networked back in the early ’80s.

But we sold tickets, we checked tickets, we worked the gate. I’m fully certified and trained in how to tow a 747, and I’ve towed many of them. They call them tugs. You would go and unhook the nose gear and hook up to that. You had to turn on the auxiliary power and balance the fuel because you don’t want the plane to tip when you get going. Then you’d tow it into position.

I had my own [coveralls] and a hat. I’d sell you your ticket, and as people were going up to wait, then one of us would go out and hook up the plane and move it over. Then I’d come in and try to wash the grease off my hands, then go work the gate. It was a crazy job.

I worked at the airline for a couple of years, and I knew everyone at the airport, and one of my expertises was catering. I ordered all the catering for the airline at that station and managed it. So I put in a business at the airport and for four years had an airline catering business. I did private planes.

My first job was at the [Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired] in Austin, and I taught there for a couple of years. Then I taught home economics. Then I taught in public schools in Bryan. I followed my husband’s job. I loved the catering business, but when the oil bust came, there weren’t a lot of private planes flying. It got very, very slow.

Then I taught five years in Odessa, at Odessa High School and Crockett Junior High and enjoyed that.

At the airline, I had learned about computers, and then when I started my catering business, I bought a personal computer to do all my books. When I went back to teaching, none of the teachers had computers, but they had one in the office. The principal would always get me to come help the ladies in the office.

I said, ‘I’ll help the ladies if you buy me a computer for my classroom.’ So he got me a computer for my classroom. Then it was, ‘I’ll help the other teachers if you’ll give me credit for an in-service day.’ I then wanted to do my graduate work in computers and education.

It’s all how you look at it. It’s either a tapestry or a checkered past. When you look back, it all looks so sensible. But at the time, it’s kind of crazy. I was all over the place. I was flexible, so I just used the skills that I had.

I think people, like myself, who went into computer before there was a major in it, before there were classes in it, we’re just the most lucky people because our avocation became our vocation. Then all day long, it was just like playing all the time. I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed doing the technology. Of course, I love the library and all the resources it has.

WACOAN: So what all have you been doing since you retired?

Orr: Retirement is awesome. I am so chill. I can’t even tell you how chill I am. I did not set my alarm for 30 days. I’ve never, ever done that, but it was great.

We’ve been on these trips. We did an East Coast-New England tour and spent a month there immediately after I retired. Then we spent the summer here in Waco because we love Waco. Waco is a great place to retire. There are so many resources.

One of the things I’m dying to do is go out to TSTC and eat lunch at the [Greta W. Watson Culinary Arts Center]. I still haven’t ever done that. We’ve been going to lots of things at Baylor. Of course we love sports. But when I was working, I didn’t have time to go to a lot of the lectures and things that are so wonderful in our town.

My sister came down and we spent the whole day at Magnolia. I had the time of my life at Magnolia. Then we went and explored all the new shops on Mary Street. We had a great time there.

The most recent great thing, about a week ago, Steve and I decided we would go check out the new East Riverwalk. It is magnificent. It is so beautiful. How lucky we are to have things like that in Waco to enjoy. We walked down to the bridges, and it goes all the way to Cameron Park. It’s beautifully lighted. It has LED lights. That was really fun.

One of the things that I decided before I retired was that I wasn’t going to say yes to anything new for a year. I was going to do well the things I was committed to but nothing new.

One thing I’m very committed to is KWBU. I’m the chair of the board this year. I’ve been busy doing KWBU work. We just brought [NPR special correspondent] Renee Montagne to Waco. Our listeners loved hearing her and meeting her. My husband is on the board for The Cove, a new nonprofit for homeless youth, and he’s been very busy with that, so we each have our thing we’re working on.

Retirement is a real transition. It is completely different than working, so you have to take a little time to get through that. I’m trying not to fill it up with a whole bunch of things. I’ve been asked to be on a lot of boards and different things. I could be really busy right now, but I think it’s more important to make this transition. And a year from now, if they still really want me, they’ll come back. And I’ll be finishing up my tenure as chair at KWBU at the end of December. I’ll do one more three-year term, so I’ll be sticking with them and help them tell local Waco stories.

We both had decided that we didn’t want to retire before we could afford to do it, but when we could afford to retire, we were going to be ready to do so and have a great time together.

WACOAN: Are you reading anything good right now?

Orr: I just started a new book. I saw a clip about it. ‘Anxious for Nothing: Finding Calm in a Chaotic World,’ by Max Lucado. He had published an excerpt right after the Sutherland Springs shooting happened.

I went to college with Max Lucado. He was a year younger than me. We’ve known him all these years. He’s been a great friend to the libraries when his daughter Sara was here.

I read this excerpt he had written, and it gave me so much encouragement. As Christians, we really have to work at not being anxious. That’s something the Bible teaches, and it was highly encouraging. I’ve just read one chapter, but so far, so good.

WACOAN: What’s your favorite book?

Orr: Well, I don’t know if I have a superfavorite. I love a variety of things, and I read a lot of nonfiction because I love technology stuff, so I read a lot of that.

I like all the classics. I love mysteries. I love Stephen King, all of Stephen King. I think “The Stand” is my favorite all-time book if you ask me for one because it’s such a good-and-evil story. It’s an older one, but I really like that book.

WACOAN: Have you seen “It”?

Orr: I just can’t. I’ve read part of the book and I’ve seen the previews and I’ve tried to watch the old movie, but it’s about children and I just can’t. It’s pretty horrifying.

For a while, I read everything that Stephen King had ever written, but then I got behind. I got to “It” and it did me in. But I love “Salem’s Lot,” and I love all the short stories that were made into movies, like “Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile.”

The thing about Stephen King that’s interesting is that, most of the time, it’s not the big boogey man, it’s our own evil. Those are the ones that I really love. They’re examining evil, the good versus evil, and then what gives people hope. How people survive something and come out successful when they’re in difficult circumstances.