February 27, 2018

Changes ahead for our founders

Written by:
Jennifer Lohmann


In January of 1990, in a friend’s house in the Fan district of Richmond, Virginia, Duncan Smith met Roger Rohweder. At that meeting, Duncan described his vision for NoveList, a ‘secret weapon’ for keeping track of all the great books a librarian could recommend based on a book a reader had read and enjoyed. The meeting almost went nowhere. Roger and fellow computer programmer John Strickler were lost, late, and had to call for directions from a pay phone. Both Roger and John had sworn they wouldn’t be a part of any start-up that would consume all their time and produce nothing tangible. But Duncan ended the meeting with the fateful words: “Never mind. I don’t think a computer can accomplish what I have in mind.”

On the car ride back to D.C., John and Roger talked about all the ways they could prove Duncan wrong.

NoveList was born.

Twenty-eight years later, Duncan and Roger have created a suite of innovative solutions dedicated to the original core mission: help libraries help readers. And, after twenty-eight years, Duncan and Roger will be retiring on June 30, 2018.

NoveList and its 50 employees will miss having them around, but we aren’t going away. Their leadership, experience, and innovation have created an entire office of librarians and developers dedicated to the belief that books and libraries have the power to transform lives. When Duncan says NoveList is so much more than he could have ever imagined back in that apartment in Virginia, we in the office take that as a charge to keep thinking of you—our readers, librarians, customers—and how we can help you do your jobs better.

We have been lucky enough to work with Duncan and Roger over the years and hear their stories of the founding of NoveList and its early years. As our gift to you announcing their retirement, here are some of their stories and plans for their next thirty years of friendship.

What are some of the unexpected ways founding NoveList has changed your life?

Roger: When I moved from Oracle to NoveList, my reading mostly consisted of computer magazines and newspapers.  Surrounded by book metadata librarians, I evolved to reading about 25 novels a year. A wonderful work benefit that has greatly expanded my knowledge and empathy. *

*Author note: Roger didn’t mention that he also gives book recommendations to people. Working at NoveList hasn’t only expanded his reading – it’s expanded the reading of people he knows as well.

Duncan: I chose between NoveList and getting a doctorate in library science. One night, staring at the ceiling, it occurred to me that I would always have the chance to get that PhD, but I would not always have an opportunity to start NoveList.  I also realized that no matter how good of a life I wound up with, I would always be haunted by the “what if” of NoveList.

I believe I made the right choice.  I don’t think I could have written a better dissertation than NoveList. I also laid aside my writing. Again, I made the right choice. NoveList is my most creative act and it has enabled me to allow others to explore their creativity, too. I have seen the impact of reading in my life and the lives of around me. I believe helping readers find the books that matter to them is the best thing I can do to help readers, our communities, and our nation live into their promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Roger at the "house that built NoveList" in 2018.

What are some things about NoveList you’re proudest of?

Roger: My own experiences, the experiences of my co-workers, our library customers, and the staffs of other library market vendors has helped me gain a broad understanding of the work processes of librarians and the characteristics of readers. This has raised my appreciation for all that that librarians do and how valuable their work is to our world. I am proud to have spent most of my career supporting their work with mine.

Duncan: NoveList has evolved to something greater than I imagined thirty years ago. When Joyce Saricks first bought NoveList in 1994, it was a DOS program with a text based interface. It shipped on more than 20 disks and took 45 minutes to install -- on the computer it came with (since in mainframe days, libraries weren’t allowed to buy PCs). Compare that to now, then we offer a suite of products to help libraries help readers at all levels of service: on your desktop; in your patrons’ emails; and in your self-check stations.

But one thing about NoveList has never changed. NoveList is a place where meaningful work is done, both in the office and in libraries around the world. We get emails from our customers telling us how we have helped them succeed -- including one where the librarian said “NoveList always has my back.”

I couldn’t be prouder that we have your back. And I couldn’t be more grateful. Public librarians -- and NoveList -- have always had my back too.

What are you plans for the future?

Duncan: I have never stopped believing that the promise of public libraries is that people walk out their doors different than who they were when they walked in. In my new part-time role at EBSCO Information Services, Chief Strategist for Public Libraries, I will continue to help libraries live into that promise. I’m definitely going to take advantage of the phased part of my retirement, by exploring the pieces of self I laid aside to make NoveList what it is today -- i.e. being a writer.

Roger: Life has been good to us. Between us, Lucy and I have five children and one grandchild. We plan to travel and much of our travel will include lots of visits to family. And, as funny as it sounds, I’m looking forward to programming again. It’s like my knitting -- my way to relax -- and the bigger NoveList got, the further removed I was from it. We’re also looking at connecting with our favorite charitable causes and seeing how we can volunteer our time.  

Join NoveList as we thank Duncan and Roger for the work they have done in the past thirty years on behalf of public libraries, librarians, and readers. If you have a memory of Duncan or Roger you’d like to share or a story of how NoveList has had your back, let us know. If you’re at PLA, stop by the EBSCO booth and share your stories with us.

Thank you, Duncan and Roger. Your vision evolved into an amazing thing and we are honored to continue the important work you started.

Jennifer Lohmann is a NoveList Consultant.

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