July 21, 2024

Today We Are Poorer

A "friendly" debate.

A “friendly” debate.

Last night I heard about the untimely and sudden death of a professional colleague and personal friend for whom I had only the utmost respect. Tragically, Rich Wiggins is with us no more. And we are so much the poorer for it.

There will be others who will write a better biography. There are others who will write a better remembrance. From me you will get my personal perspective — the story of someone who saw him not frequently, but enough to have formed a lasting opinion.

Rich and I were contemporaries on the professional stage when the Internet was just breaking into the consciousness of most people. While I was at UC Berkeley, Rich was at Michigan State. We each made our contributions to the early days of people learning what about the Internet. I co-authored Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook in 1993, while Rich published The Internet for Everyone: A Guide for Users and Providers shortly thereafter.

Each of us went on to make our professional mark — Rich more in information technology but also bleeding over into librarianship, and me in librarianship exclusively. But we also intersected at various points, and perhaps none more directly than a debate that first happened virtually at Internet Librarian in 2001, then in person at the 2002 Computers in Libraries Conference. It was a keynote session advertised as: Digitizing Legacy Collections: Potential or Waste?

I love the fact that we were described as “friendly, but feisty” as that was always our relationship. See a description by Rich about it (sorry about the broken links, I wish they were still there). We didn’t always agree, but we always respected each other and we could debate a topic with a friendly disagreement that invited more actual reflection than dissent. We didn’t really disagree about the desirability of digitizing everything, only about the practicality. Thanks to the good folks at Information Today (thank you Bill Spence!), here are my slides and Rich’s.

In this debate I was completely wrong and Rich was completely right. I felt like the job was simply too expensive with not enough actual will and money to make it happen. Meanwhile, Rich was more the visionary, and he saw the possibilities that I had not imagined were possible. Google, in the end, made him right.

And then recently (last year), Rich posted on Web4Lib this gem:

Why have library cards at all?  Why not just use the driver license as the library card?

Why, indeed.

And I suppose that is what I will hold onto in my grief. First, I can’t imagine that he is gone. But knowing that I must face up to that fact, I want to take a piece of him with me into whatever future I have left. And the piece I will take is his good-hearted vision that saw human possibilities that I could not. He knew more of our potential than I could admit. And he debated me about it, and won. And I don’t mean winning in a “more points”, “convinced the audience” kind of way. He really won the day. 

So today, I crouch here, not wanting to admit what I cannot deny. Rich is gone. And we are so much the poorer for it. Perhaps one day I can come to terms with that. But not today.

Roy Tennant About Roy Tennant

Roy Tennant is a Senior Program Officer for OCLC Research. He is the owner of the Web4Lib and XML4Lib electronic discussions, and the creator and editor of Current Cites, a current awareness newsletter published every month since 1990. His books include "Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anne Grodzins Lipow" (2008), "Managing the Digital Library" (2004), "XML in Libraries" (2002), "Practical HTML: A Self-Paced Tutorial" (1996), and "Crossing the Internet Threshold: An Instructional Handbook" (1993). Roy wrote a monthly column on digital libraries for Library Journal for a decade and has written numerous articles in other professional journals. In 2003, he received the American Library Association's LITA/Library Hi Tech Award for Excellence in Communication for Continuing Education. Follow him on Twitter @rtennant.


  1. Judy Matthews says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful thoughts and memories about Rich. It means the word to me.

  2. RIP Rich, just saw this, didn’t know. Wonderful heart-felt tribute Roy, and those “debates” were the stuff of legend.. real passion, off-the-cuff, no cue cards.. he was an original, and I shall miss my friend.. we shared more drinks and talk at the conferences than probably with anyone, and I never missed a chance to shut up, and listen to him…

  3. Burt Bargerstock says:

    Roy, thank you for sharing this. I share your grief and really appreciate your eloquence. Peace be with you.

  4. Ida Jane Benke says:

    He made us see the vision when we didn’t have one. We will all miss him.

  5. Jane Patrick says:

    Rich’s High School Classmates are hoping to get in touch with Rich’s ex-wife or any of his close friends in the Lansing area. Many of us have recently reconnected with Rich through our 40th High School Reunion Facebook Group Page. One of our classmates presided over Rich’s wedding and funerals for his brother and parents. If anyone can provide some contact information, we would appreciate it. Please contact me at jpatric30@gmail.com

  6. Thank you so much Roy for sharing.

  7. Avi Rappoport says:

    I just saw this information and join the community in sadness, Rich was always enthusiastic and inspiring to me.