Alumna fulfills liberal arts vision one stroke at a time

Jean Hirons’ life is the epitome of what a liberal arts education can do.

Hailing from Mattapoisett, Mass., Hirons ’70 arrived on campus as a freshman in 1966 prepared to be a biology major. Though the former Jean Ott enjoyed the subject, the range of science courses she had to take to fulfill the major requirements pushed her in another direction.


“I couldn’t handle physics and chemistry,” she says. Instead of failing out of college, she chose to focus on another one of her interests—fine arts. “I knew it was what I truly loved and I made the dean’s list every time after my second semester.”


Her artistry roots ran deep, as a number of her family members either made a living through their artwork or pursued it as a hobby. Her grandmother was once engaged to Grover M. Hermann, the businessman and philanthropist who donated $1 million to Marietta College toward the construction of the Hermann Fine Arts Center.


Finishing out her college career provided a new challenge for Hirons: how would she earn a living after graduation?


The answer came from another type of experience she had while at Marietta. She earned work-study money in the library. “I got a sense of what the environment and work was like,” she says.


With a Fine Arts degree, she and her then husband, Larry—whom she met at Marietta and married just before her senior year at Marietta—moved back to Massachusetts. She worked as a cataloging technician and earned a Master’s of Library Science from the University of Rhode Island. She eventually became the head of cataloging for the university, which is now the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.


“I had to know a little about a lot, and I found that my liberal arts education really helped,” she says.


In 1976, Hirons and her husband moved to the Washington, D.C., area. She started off at Catholic University, and then began working at the Government Printing Office six months later. During her time there, she became involved with an up-to-date cataloguing serial publications program called CONSER (Cooperative Online Serials) that was run by the Library of Congress. By 1983, she was working at the Library, writing documentation for CONSER and managing a part-time cataloguing section. Simultaneously, she got back into art.


“I began taking a Saturday class at the Corcoran Gallery of Art,” she says. “I loved being back in an art studio, but had no idea that I would ever be any good.”


Soon after, Hirons began taking several classes at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, Va., and started working with colored pencil.


“I was living alone at this point in a one-bedroom condo, and I could easily work at my drawing table without a lot of mess,” she says.


As Hirons continued her artistry, she also thrived in the Library, taking over the coordinating position for CONSER and then publishing its cataloguing manual, working with colleagues around the country to develop a cooperative international training program for serials cataloguing, and being named the leader of the effort to revise the Anglo-American Cataloguing Code to include rules for databases, websites and electronic journals. She earned two of the highest awards by the American Library Association—the Bowker-Ulrich’s Serials Librarianship Award (for CONSER’s cataloguing manual) and the Margaret Mann Citation for cataloguing (for the training program and code vision).


By 1994, Hirons had remarried, moved to a house with a studio and took up pastel.


“Pastel is a messy, but wonderful medium, and having the studio space made this possible,” Hirons says. “The colors are brilliant, and so are the strokes that can be produced. I’m lousy at mixing paints—I create mud—but pastel is premixed.”


Hirons worked independently and hosted several shows at her church, but then took her first workshop with a nationally known pastel artist in 2001, where she learned everything about landscape to how to paint outside. By the time the Library offered her early retirement in 2003, she felt ready to fully focus on a career in pastel.


“I knew that I was good enough to warrant leaving a really good job and that the only way I’d ever be really good was to devote my time to it,” Hirons says. “I also felt that I had made my contributions to the library community; the world of serials had changed so drastically, given the electronic environment, and I felt it was time for new leadership.”


During an art week showing in Rockville, Md., Hirons presented work and was asked if she would teach pastel. Since 2005, she has been at Montgomery College, but she also teaches privately in Maryland and Massachusetts. She has served as president of the Maryland Pastel Society and is a signature member of the Pastel Society of America and the Pastel Painters’ Society of Cape Cod, as well as belongs to the cooperative Waverly Street Gallery in Bethesda, Md. She is currently working on a book about pastel.


“I consider myself very fortunate to have had two wonderful careers that have allowed me to be creative and work with wonderful people all over the country,” Hirons says. “Serial librarians and pastel artists have a lot in common, I’ve discovered. These are both specialties that create a lot of devotion; I’ve always know that I am a specialist and am loyal to what I love.”


Hirons also feels lucky about where her degree and life have taken her.


“It’s funny how things have worked out,” she says. “I’ve been in the right place at the right time, and I’ve had the support of a wonderful husband. I graduated from Marietta College with a degree that I thought would be useless and a little library experience. I think I’ve taken advantage of both.”