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NLM Mourns Loss of Former New York Congressman Major Owens

Cong. Major Owens
Cong. Major Owens

Major Owens, a long-time member of the US House of Representatives and the first professional librarian to serve in Congress died October 21, 2013. He was 77.

A good friend of the National Library of Medicine and of libraries in general, Owens represented a Brooklyn, New York congressional district from 1983 to 2007. Among other achievements, he was credited with helping pass the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

He was known as the "Education Congressman" because of his dedication to passing laws to give disadvantaged students in public schools access to computers so that they would have equal access to economic opportunity in the workplace. He was also known as the "Rapping Congressman" because he often wrote his positions on important issues in the form of rap poetry, and rapped before Congress. (In fact, an interactive virtual dialogue program in the NLM Visitor Center includes video clips of him rapping, along with his thoughts on many public policy issues.)

Major Owens appeared at NLM twice during his congressional service. He spoke at the Library's observance of African American History Month on February 19, 1991 and also addressed the NLM staff on April 26, 1983, pointing out the importance of upgrading the role of the librarian in society.

Some of his 1983 comments were in response to the US Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76, which dealt with contracting out services in federal agencies. He described his vision of the information provider within an organization as someone who is very close to the decision making process, as someone who understands the goals and needs of the decision makers, and as someone who asks the right questions, sees relationship between bits of information gathered, and looks for information gaps that need filling.

A quote from this appearance, in the June 1983 issue of NLM News, crystallizes Cong. Owens' thoughts on the importance of librarians and other information professionals: "How can we make people understand that information is vital for decision making? Unless you have information provided by people who are able to get the best that's available and to sort out and prioritize, then you're not going to be able to make decisions in the most efficient and effective way."

Major Owens was born in Collierville Tennessee on June 28, 1936. He earned a bachelor's degree from Morehouse College and a master's of library science at Atlanta University. Owens worked as a librarian at the Brooklyn Public Library before entering politics.  In the 1960s, Owens served in the administration of New York City Major John Lindsay, focusing on anti-poverty programs. He was elected to the state senate in 1974 and subsequently elected to the US House in 1982.   After leaving Capitol Hill, Major Owens taught in the Department of Public Administration at Brooklyn's Medgar Evers College.

The National Library of Medicine is the world's largest library of the health sciences and a component of the National Institutes of Health. NLM collects, organizes, and makes available biomedical science information to scientists, health professionals, and the public.