Estelle and Melvin Gelman LibraryEckles Library at the Mount Vernon CampusVirginia Science and Technology Campus Library

In Memoriam: Janet Olsen

Painting by Janet OlsenGW Libraries and the GW community mourn the loss of our friend and colleague Janet Olsen. A native of Cleveland, OH and Florida, Janet worked at Gelman Library from 1995 until her retirement in 2013. As a reference librarian, Janet worked closely with the University Writing Program and its UW 1020 course, in which capacity she collaborated closely with several Writing Program faculty. But Janet’s generosity, creative intelligence, wry humor, and joie de vivre endeared her to colleagues and students both within the Libraries and across the university. She will be sorely missed.

Janet was also an accomplished visual artist in multiple media. In tribute to her collegiality and her irrepressibly creative spirit, what follows is a collaborative portrait of Janet, drawn by several colleagues and friends. Always willing to go “not only the extra mile, but the extra 100 miles,” Janet brought an intensity of dedication to her work with patrons that made her a model for her colleagues. As noted by a long-time veteran of the Libraries, “She was one of the best Reference librarians I've had the pleasure to work with. She was great at finding the problems before the student and advocating for their rights to tools that worked right the first time.” Janet was also a cherished mentor to junior colleagues; notes one, “When I just started working here I had a few reference desk trainings with her and she could do it like nobody else, with a great sense of humor and energy. Like a true artist she always had an unconventional approach to doing things.” Never content with pat answers or the complacency that masquerades as common sense, Janet inspired us with her transformative enthusiasm. To her (a fan of the Nero Wolfe books), references librarians were “information detectives,” and our work was both an ethical commitment and an intellectual adventure. And yet, she managed to challenge our assumptions without being polemical or dogmatic; in her work with colleagues and students alike she knew what a quick wit and a generous laugh can accomplish, and with a bon mot she cut to the heart of many a tiresome discussion: “We’re just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Her professional equanimity no doubt owed much to her rich life outside of the profession. A “woman of many interests,” she enjoyed astronomy and horticulture, read voraciously, traveled widely, and hosted unforgettable dinner parties. As a jeweler and bead-maker, she supplied colleagues with both beautiful objects (“ I have a treasure box of necklaces Janet gave to me...she gave me so many I never will have to buy any again”) and an infectious passion (“I lay my addiction to beading and jewelry making directly at her feet!”). But Janet’s two chief passions were painting and drawing, and the vicissitudes of the Washington Capitals. With a graduate degree in graphic design, this former landscape architect devoted her mornings and weekends to a practice that she summed up in the title of her blog: “Observe Closely.” The blog offers a glimpse of her aesthetic journey through oils, watercolors, pastels, pen and ink, gouache, and encaustic – a journey that she undertook with the hand and eye of a master but the heart of a student. Those of us who have the privilege of having one or two of Janet’s productions cherish them as emblems of an openness and magnanimity that approached the world itself as a treasure, as the source of a richness of experience that stands as an example to us all. Only Janet could make the unfledged spectator appreciate the balletic grace of a good hockey game. At the same time, she knew the virtue of a good heckle – knew that shyness and reserve are not healthy for the soul.

With friends, colleagues, and patrons, Janet struck that rare balance: a fundamentally “unconditional kindness” combined with the courage and honesty always to speak her mind. She will be remembered as someone who lived life after her own fashion, without needing or wanting to impose her way on anyone else. We mourn her loss; we look to the light of her memory. May the spirit of this “Rabelaisian librarian” always kindle that “mischievous glow” in the eyes of those whom her humor, wisdom, and generosity touched. Or in the words of a colleague, “For the last year, since she retired...when I would get stuck, I would ask: what would Janet do?”

Written collaboratively by the GW Libraries Staff

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