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February 23, 2012

Obituary: Sara Fine

fineSara Fine, professor emerita in the School of Information Sciences (SIS), died Feb. 3, 2012, in Israel following a long battle with cancer.

She was 80.

Fine, a licensed psychologist, brought that expertise to the field of library science. She was an internationally known pioneer in researching how humans interact with technology and how human behavior affects the need for information.

Fine earned her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in counseling, all at Pitt. She joined the University faculty as a visiting assistant professor in 1975. She became an assistant professor a year later. Fine was promoted to associate professor and awarded tenure in 1978 and became a full professor in 1985. During the course of her 23-year Pitt career, Fine also taught at Hebrew University as a Fulbright scholar and had visiting professorships at City Polytechnic of Hong Kong and Texas Women’s University.

She chaired the SIS doctoral studies program 1989-92 and retired as professor emerita from the Department of Library and Information Science in 1998.

Following her retirement from the University, her former students, colleagues, family and friends established an endowment of more than $250,000 to create the Sara Fine Institute for Interpersonal Behavior and Technology in SIS. The institute continues Fine’s work in the study of the relationship between humans and technology and how technology affects individuals, organizations and societies.

Faculty member Christinger Tomer, who was department chair when the institute was conceived, testified to the devotion of Fine’s students. “She engendered great loyalty,” he said. “The Sara Fine Institute, in significant part, is an expression of that loyalty and conviction that her theories were worthwhile,” he said.

“Lots of people have loyal students but it’s rare that students will come forward to pledge money to make sure your work was continued and remembered.”

Maggie Kimmel, SIS library and information science professor emerita, said that as a psychologist, Fine recognized that while librarians traditionally deal with books, librarianship is all about what people need. Librarians “need to know what people think and how they react, how they respond,” she said.

“Sara never forgot that. She spent a lot of time telling us that it’s really about the people,” said Kimmel, who, as a student, was Fine’s first dissertation advisee. “She really paid attention not only to the research, but to the whole process,” she said. “She would demand that we thought beyond the surface of things.”

Colleague Susan Alman, who also studied with Fine before joining the Pitt faculty, said Fine was a pioneer in the user-focused approach to library science. She valued psychology as an integral part of librarians’ education, teaching that a library patron’s stated question might not indicate what they truly want to know.

Alman said Fine saw librarianship as a helping profession, embracing the notion of the librarian as counselor in interactions with library users.

For instance, a young, anxious girl who inquires about where to find books about nervous conditions and how to tell whether someone is having a nervous breakdown may need a more helpful response than merely being directed to the section where books on mental health are shelved. The reference question may actually be a sort of code for an underlying problem, according to Fine.

“Instead of a reference interview, she did a helping interview based on what they were thinking and feeling,” Alman said. Initially, the approach was not accepted universally. “It was too touchy-feely for some,” Alman said. “But the things she expounded on really did come true.”

Kimmel said students sometimes were resistant to taking Fine’s required behavioral perspectives courses, arguing, “Do I really need to know this?” But after some time in the field, they recognized the value, Kimmel said. “After having gotten out in the real world of dealing with an irritated mother, or a traumatized person who needed to find out something, but didn’t want to tell you about it … they returned with a very different attitude, often saying those were the most important courses.”

In a time when technological changes were altering the library science field, Fine researched librarians’ resistance to technology, later expanding the study to include resistance to change among library science faculty and students, recommending that library science education prepare students to view new technologies with a sense of excitement, rather than fear and suspicion.

She used her knowledge not only in the classroom, Kimmel said, but also as a consultant to industry where she specialized in identifying and overcoming what people were afraid of when faced with change.

Fine was a strong presence in SIS, colleagues said. “She did not suffer fools lightly,” said Kimmel. “She didn’t go out of her way to placate anybody, but neither did she go out of her way to make anyone uncomfortable.”

Tomer said Fine possessed a multifaceted personality. People knew her in different ways, based on the nature of the relationship, he said.

Kimmel, whose relationship with Fine developed into an enduring friendship, agreed that Fine was an extremely private person. “She was so sensitive to others’ thoughts and feelings. But she was very private about her own feelings and thoughts. I think it is why those who were her close friends valued her friendship so very much,” Kimmel said.

Kimmel said Fine was an adventurer whose love for travel took her to many unusual places, including Antarctica. She lectured in the Middle East, Africa, Europe, New Zealand, Thailand, Hong Kong and China.

Having fallen in love with Israel during her year at Hebrew University, Fine and her husband, Paul Glasser, moved to Israel in 2000.

The decision was one made with careful consideration, but Fine was drawn to Israel, Kimmel said. Fine maintained connections with friends and colleagues from a distance, returning each year to Pittsburgh to visit, Kimmel said. “Pittsburgh was her home but Israel was a place of her heart.”

In Israel, Fine became a professor of information science at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv, where she taught classes in human factors in technology; group dynamics and organizational behavior, and research methods. She mastered the game of chess, enjoyed bird-watching and studied reading, writing and speaking Hebrew.

Fine is survived by her husband; children Carolyn Fine Friedman, Sibyl Fine King and David Fine; nine grandchildren, one niece and four nephews and their children.

Fine will be recognized for her contributions at the annual Sara Fine Institute lecture, which is set for 3 p.m. March 29 in the William Pitt Union lower lounge.

Memorial gifts may be made to the Sara Fine Institute through the Office of Institutional Advancement.

—Kimberly Barlow

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