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Professor emeritus Patrick Wilson, librarian and philosopher, dies at 75

– Patrick G. Wilson, an emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley's School of Library and Information Studies and a former dean of the school, died of heart failure in San Francisco on Friday, Sept. 12. He was 75.

The author of three widely known books about information studies, librarianship and cognitive behavior and considered a "philosopher of information," Wilson was hailed for his insights on the concept of the relevance in information retrieval and bibliographic control.

Patrick G. Wilson
Patrick G. Wilson (Photo by Ed Kirwan Graphic Arts)

The American Society of Information Science and Technology awarded him its highest honor in 2002. In its citation accompanying the Award of Merit, the society said Wilson's work showed that the items of "primary relevance" in an information request are "the inquirer's own personal concerns, preferences and stock of knowledge" rather than an individual's specific request, the information available, or semantic or syntactic relationships.

"Patrick never lost sight of the fact that in information access, the most important component is an intelligent inquirer with real needs, hopes and desires," the statement said.

His books included "Two Kinds of Power: An Essay on Biographical Control" (University of California Press, 1968); "Public Knowledge, Private Ignorance: Toward a Library and Information Policy"(Greenwood Publishing Group 1977); and "Second-Hand Knowledge: An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority" (Greenwood Publishing Group, 1983).

"Pat Wilson was exceptional for his ability to bring his skills as a philosopher and a librarian to bear on complex issues, including the nature of bibliographical control, the insight that the relevance of documents is situational, and whether texts should believed," said Michael Buckland, a professor in the School of Library and Information Studies. Buckland became the school's dean after Wilson's 1970-1975 tenure as dean, and today is a professor of Information Management and Systems.

A conference devoted to Wilson's work was held in Sweden in 1991.

Wilson earned his A.B. in philosophy in 1949, a bachelor's degree in library science in 1953, and his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1960. All three degrees came from UC Berkeley.

He began working in the general reference service of UC Berkeley's Doe Library after receiving his degree in library science, and served as a librarian and bibliographer in South Asia Studies from 1954-1959.

Wilson taught philosophy at UCLA starting in 1960, but came back to UC Berkeley to join the faculty of the former School of Librarianship in 1965, a tumultuous time on campus just following the emergence of the Free Speech Movement.

His deanship in the 1970s came at a time when the school was increasingly turning its attention to computers and automation for libraries and when online searching became a real, practical tool. Wilson also was acting dean from 1989 until his retirement in 1991.

Wilson helped modernize and generalize the school's curriculum, said Buckland.

A native of Santa Cruz, Calif., he earned money as a child growing up during and after the Great Depression by working as a church organist, as a page in the local public library, and by taking on odd jobs such as delivering telegrams and sweeping stores. In an oral history on file with the Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, Wilson said he graduated from Santa Cruz High School during World War II with no thought of ever attending college.

"It wasn't done," he said in the oral history interview. "Children of working-class parents didn't go to college."

But somehow, Wilson continued, he developed the idea of attending San Jose State University and majoring in music so he could ultimately teach music. He said a social worker he met while working in a stationary store put the notion of attending UC Berkeley in his mind. Wilson, who became interested in philosophy while a teenager, ultimately chose to study philosophy and library science there.

Wilson started his career in academia in 1960, teaching philosophy at UCLA. Unhappy in Los Angeles, he returned to the San Francisco Bay Area and to his interest in libraries.

He came to UC Berkeley in 1965 to teach as an assistant professor in the School of Librarianship. The school was renamed the School of Library and Information Studies in 1976. In accepting the Award of Merit, Wilson said that, for him, information science and technology was "a fascinating combination of engineering, an odd kind of materials science and social epistemology."

After Wilson retired from UC Berkeley, he continued his scholarly writings on such topics as information overload and the economics of information services.

When asked by oral history interviewer Laura McCreery what he thought his lasting contributions might be, Wilson said, "Lasting is not up to me. If anything lasts more than 10 minutes, it may be something that is, as far as you're concerned, entirely irrelevant."

Wilson died in a nursing home following months of poor health. His survivors include a brother, Thomas D. Wilson, of Fairfax, Calif., two nieces and two nephews. A campus memorial service is being planned.