Honoring Karen Hunter — a pioneer of digital publishing and library services

In her four decades at Elsevier, she led groundbreaking initiatives in scholarly communications in partnership with the research community

Karen Hunter, 1945-2018
Karen Hunter, whose tenure at Elsevier spanned four decades, was Senior VP of Global Academic Relations when she retired in 2010. (Photo by Alison Bert)

It is with sadness that the Elsevier family and many others in scholarly communications learned of the death of Karen Hunter (May 31, 2018).

Karen joined Elsevier in 1976 after stints at the Cornell University library and Baker & Taylor. She was valued for her strategic vision of scholarly content in the digital context, the new digital library, and researcher productivity.

Karen led many pioneering initiatives within Elsevier and the industry, starting with scanned journal content on CD-ROMs for the ADONIS project in the 1980s and leading to the development of Elsevier’s flagship online product, ScienceDirect.

In Memoriam

We invite you to share your memories of Karen Hunter in the comment section.

Karen’s experience in technical library services put her in good stead to think through online metadata, indexing and citations, which she used as part of her work in CrossRef. Her other online or digital projects included TULIP (the University Licensing Program) and PEAK (Pricing Electronic Access to Knowledge), while also playing a key role in library archiving projects such as Portico and JSTOR. Most of these projects involved not only publishing houses such as Wiley-Blackwell, Springer and Thieme but dozens of major research universities and institutions, including the University of Michigan, Cornell, MIT, the British Library and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Karen also served as an advisor and reviewer for the Elsevier Foundation’s Innovative Libraries in Developing Countries program. She played a key role in the founding of Hinari, the first of the Research4Life programs, which enables low- and middle-income countries to gain access to biomedical and health literature. And she was a judge for Research4Life case study competitions, which helped demonstrate the impact librarians have as ambassadors for research in developing countries.

Throughout her career, Karen interacted regularly with senior managers at Elsevier and beyond, when she was often the only woman or one of very few in the room. But she also knew and valued many people across our organization, from technologists to project managers to sales executives and support staff (lawyers as well). She took the time to mentor people across the business and had a wealth of experience to draw on.

In the final chapter of her career, Karen’s role was in library relations but always with a strategic dimension. Regardless of her title at any given point, many senior executives would routinely ask for her advice or ask others if they had sought her input. Her influence, while informal at times, was palpable and critical.

While Karen suffered with health disabilities that made travel difficult for her, having her in a meeting was always a smart decision.

Karen retired from Elsevier as Senior VP of Global Academic and Customer Relations in 2010 and continued to consult with Elsevier until 2014.

As noted in our 2014 article “Honoring a pioneer at the nexus of publishing, library science and the digital revolution,” Karen received a remarkable recognition during her career from the technical services unit of the American Library Association (ALA): the 2006 CSA/Ulrich’s Serials Librarianship Award. The award acknowledged the profound and innovative contributions to debate and discussion among the publishing and library communities.

That tradition of discussion and debate in a broader community also led to the Hunter Forum at the ALA Midwinter Meeting, which Karen began in 1998 as the Digital Libraries Symposium to support academic library colleagues during the transformation from print to digital.

Relations between academic publishers and research libraries have often gone through difficult times, and uniquely among publishing executives, Karen was able to genuinely communicate and negotiate, circumventing pre-determined positions. I’ve thought about the characteristics that enabled Karen to navigate these difficult straits, and I think they boil down to these points:

  • Command of the issues. Karen’s expertise in digital publishing and library services was honed by decades of experience at the front lines.
  • Openness. While Karen no doubt had proposals and projects of her own to discuss, she was open and interested in others’ views and was prepared to advocate for them with senior management.
  • Directness. When proposals were made to Karen that she knew would be difficult for senior management to accept, she said so and explained why.
  • Genuine interest in others — which I believe all who met and worked with Karen felt.

Karen’s husband, Pat Bowen, died in January, and it has been hard to imagine either of them being without the engagement and support of the other. Karen and Pat shared a love of jazz, books, cats and the law. While Pat had a JD and practiced as a lawyer for most of his life, Karen always had a strong interest in legal and copyright matters, and confessed to me that she had contemplated a legal career path before going into publishing.

I and so many colleagues across the industry have benefited from our association with Karen over the years. She was a great colleague and a trusted advisor, mentor and innovator who left an enduring legacy. We will miss her.

As a tribute to Karen Hunter, Library Connect has re-published this 2011 interview with her: “Panoramas and perspectives: Reflections on the ‘good’ old days of librarianship.”

Update: The Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) has posted this tribute to Karen Hunter, who was a longstanding director on their board. CCC has made a donation to the Rutgers-Newark Institute of Jazz Studies to help preserve the archival collection of musical arrangements donated by Karen and her husband, Pat Bowen, who was a jazz musician.



Written by

Mark Seeley

Written by

Mark Seeley

Mark Seeley spent more than two decades at Elsevier, most recently as SVP and General Counsel, retiring in December 2017. He does some consulting through his organization SciPubLaw LLC, based in Massachusetts.


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