Editor’s Note: I am devastated to report that Mary Ann Bell, our longtime Belltones columnist, recently passed away unexpectedly. Fellow Texas librarian and colleague Carolyn Foote has written this memorial to and appreciation of Mary Ann to fill the void in this, the final Belltones column, and I am pleased to have added a small tribute to Mary Ann in my Editor’s Notes at the front of this issue of Internet@Schools. We will miss Mary Ann, and we are sure you will miss her wisdom, candor, and humor as well.
I’VE been asked to do a difficult task—almost an impossible one—to capture the spirit and memory of Dr. Mary Ann Bell, whose column has appeared here in Internet@Schools since 2006. Mary Ann passed away suddenly this September, and her family and friends and those of us who worked with her all keenly feel the loss of such a vibrant member of our community.
Ask people what they remember about Mary Ann, and the answers are often the same—her spunkiness, her grit, her sense of humor, her tremendous passion for libraries, her advocacy, and her commitment to students—both her own and everyone’s—and of course her ubiquitous Nancy Pearl action figure who traveled with her near and far.
Holly Weimar, her colleague at Sam Houston State University, remembers her this way: “Mary Ann was a true defender of providing access for students to technology and the Internet. She was most definitely an early adopter of all things tech, but she would tell you that even a pencil was technology. She had a practical approach to working with students in teaching them new technology. For example, she allowed for creativity and originality in her assignments and rejoiced with her students as they experienced success.”
Hundreds of her students, friends, and colleagues have shared their memories of Mary Ann on Facebook and across other social media—a huge outpouring that reflects the outsized nature of her reach and leadership. She was a frequent presenter and attendee for the Internet@Schools tracks at Internet Librarian and Computers in Libraries as well as a frequent poster on LM_NET for years. As a Texan myself, I found her to be the best of what Texas women represent—spunky, political, sassy, humorous, folksy, passionate, brave leaders. Mary Ann was always willing to make fun of herself. I recall one Facebook selfie, taken at a moment when she was overwhelmed with papers to grade, depicting her hidden under her desk with Nancy Pearl at her side.
Oddly enough, although we were both Texans, I actually met Mary Ann in Monterey, Calif., at the Internet Librarian conference, and we engaged in many a political conversation both about Texas politics and about library politics as well. Over the years, as we met up annually at Internet@Schools at Internet Librarian, my admiration of her sense of humor, her work, and her unique personality grew. We also connected in Texas, since she preceded me as president of the TCEA (Texas Computer Educator Association) LibSig group, and then as she became a stage mom to her daughter, Emily Herring, a talented musician who plays frequently around Texas. In fact, the last time I saw Mary Ann, it was at her daughter’s performance at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon. To know her personally was to know what a passionate mother she was and how supportive she was of her daughter’s career and life.
Later in her life, 5 years ago, she found a life companion in Randy Robertson (via technology of course), who began to accompany her to Monterey as well, joining in our dinners with Dave Hoffman, editor of this publication. In an email, Randy wrote to me, “In those very near 5 years we not only deeply loved each other and cherished the moments we spent together but it has been a long process … for me to also appreciate how much she was respected and loved by both peers and students, it appears to me worldwide! I just began to awaken to what a VIP and loved person Mary Ann was [when I joined her] at my first Monterey conference.” He continues, “She dedicated her life to the advancement of librarianship and also to marrying Librarianism with technology.”
Current librarians may not realize that Mary Ann was an early leader in connecting the two fields, becoming an early president of the LibSig group at TCEA and keeping it alive for years. She was a leader for a generation of library school graduates at Sam Houston State in Huntsville and had a beloved home there with her beloved (and often Instagrammed) dog, Son.
Mary Ann was a language arts teacher for a decade before becoming a certified librarian for the next 15 years. Later in her career, she had the opportunity to gain her doctorate in curriculum and instruction with a cognate in technology, which really married her interests in libraries and technologies—a marriage I feel great affinity for. No wonder she was a role model for those of us who bridge the two professions.
In rereading many of Mary Ann’s Belltones columns, I’m struck as always by her curiosity and her realization that to challenge authority, we need to gather data. For many of her articles, she posted queries to library discussion forums, such as LM_NET. She was known for her work on fighting excessive internet filtering in schools and gathering data about what was happening in the field.
But many of her articles for Belltones demonstrate that personal passions drove her concerns as well, as she pointed out in her January/February 2016 column "Back on My Bandbox: Internet Filtering and Diversity," which details her survey about filtering practices in schools:
The old notion of keeping kids in the dark about safe sex and/or sexually transmitted diseases still seems to hold sway in many districts. Words, sites, or topics offering such information were two or three times more likely to be off-limits than sites about racial or religious issues. Youngsters begin to form their sexual identities during their school years. I know this from my own experience with my daughter, who is a lesbian. To keep factual information from them seems so damaging. As for sites offering reassurance, those are the ones blocked most of all. How hard it must be for boys and girls who are trying to navigate adolescence to have the additional burden of their identities being deemed harmful and wrong.
In this particular column, Mary Ann encouraged librarians to take a role as an advocate for students who are unheard or different, profoundly writing: “So here I go climbing up on my battered bandbox again. I think as caring teachers and librarians, we must do everything to help those kids who are considered ‘other’ by their peers, whether it is due to race, religion, sexuality, or a combination of these. They deserve information and, maybe even more, they deserve hope.”
From the beginning, her columns often focused on the issue of filtering and gave us a lens to look at changes in trends over time. But she also was passionate about exploring “gee whiz” excitement about tools (as she put it), always willing to test out new things. And this is where her curiosity shined through. Recent presentations on badging, sketchnoting, and other trends that caught her interest peppered her columns and Internet Librarian and TCEA presentations. Comments one of her co-presenters, librarian Diane Cordell, “Her more recent interest in sketchnoting was emblematic of Mary Ann’s journey as a lifelong learner.” Her article titles reflect that sense of curiosity mixed with folksy humor: “Featuritis Fever and Gizmo Flu” and “Scrubbing Elephants With Toothbrushes” are perfect examples. She began a recent presentation at Internet Librarian with a photo of herself as a 5 year old—commenting that she connected with sketchnoting because she was a doodler extraordinaire in elementary school.
Diane, who co-presented with her on visual literacy in 2015, remembered the unique folksiness of Mary Ann’s presentations: “The first time I heard Mary Ann speak, I was impressed by her depth of knowledge and passion for libraries and librarians. In a typical Ma Bell move, she provided cookies for us to munch on while she tossed out ideas and new perspectives.”
Diane remembers, “The fact that I’m from upstate New York and she was from Texas was no problem. … The last message I had from her proposed that we do another joint preso at Monterey next October, a reflection on our careers and the directions, often unexpected, in which librarianship and teaching had taken us. I wish I could have shared that one, last presentation with Mary Ann.”
Mary Ann’s colleague and frequent co-presenter Holly Weimar recalls her professionalism: “When I presented with her, I knew I could never hold a candle to her easy-going, conversational style delivery. This was a big contrast to how she felt sometimes before presenting. I remember one time when we could not access the Internet right before our presentation was about to begin. In that moment, Mary Ann was a bundle of nerves and she began to panic. I asked her to let me take care of it. … A few minutes later when it was time to begin, Mary Ann whipped out her Nancy Pearl doll and began the presentation with her calm cadence as though nothing had concerned her just moments before.”
What many people remember about Mary Ann are humorous photos of Nancy Pearl in all sorts of settings—with her head stuck in a delicious cake, at the podium for a presentation, or in the tide pools at Monterey. (In fact, Mary Ann actually broke her foot trying to maneuver Nancy Pearl into a tide pool.) That’s the picture I’d like all of us to hold—an advocate who never forgot to use humor to illustrate, defuse, enjoy, or poke fun at life.
Mary Ann’s column “Computers as Mindtools” (November/December 2013) reflects on her career and her drive to stay current:
Sometimes I feel like a walking history resource. In computer and internet techno-years I have been around for a very, very long time. In fact, I can remember life without television, never mind computers and the internet! Somewhere along the way, though, I was captivated with technology and the promises it offers to educators. This interest was great enough to pursue doctoral studies with a cognate in educational technology. All along the way, I have striven to continually look ahead. What’s next? What will be the next great device or idea that will get us all excited about technology and learning? There is little time to stand still, much less look back, if I want to stay relevant.
Mary Ann’s passion for learning and her desire to keep learning at any age inspired so many. As she so presciently wrote in her March/April 2011 column, "Committee of One Gets Things Done": “There can be change, even if there is just one person with a vision.”