In 1979, Wayne A. Wiegand assembled an advisory board and asked them to identify the most prominent academic library leaders for the previous half-century. They eventually agreed on fifteen librarians, whose biographies were published in 1983 as a chapbook entitled Leaders in American Academic Librarianship: 1925-1975.
The book serves as a great reminder that issues we’re tempted to think of as unique to us and our time period are often echoes of longstanding debates: libraries have always been underfunded; there was never a time when undergraduates knew how to use libraries or were information literate; nor was there ever a time in which faculty members truly appreciated our role in educating students. However, the fifteen librarian leaders excelled at working through these and other obstacles.
Here’s the complete list of leaders, their birth and death years, the years of their ALA and ACRL presidencies, and the year in which they were made ALA Honorary Members.
In addition to providing a historical context, this book also gives us an opportunity to reconsider history. Thirty-five years have passed since its publication, meaning it may now be appropriate to ask:
- If Wiegand assembled an advisory board now, and looked at the same time period, who would make the cut? How have our criteria changed?
- Who were the fifteen most notable leaders for the half-century spanning 1950-2000? How do their accomplishments compare to those of the leaders from a generation earlier?
- Which leaders are making a good case for the half-century from 1975-2025? And for 2000-2050?
Leadership has become a recurrent theme here on ACRLog, one Steven Bell addressed directly on November 7 and November 26, and acknowledged indirectly in his superb autobiographical post on December 5. That last post, in particular, had an encouraging message, but on another level it was terrifying, because it was inspired by a librarian with a few years more experience than I have, someone whose work I admire. If that person feels less than secure, how should I feel?
I experienced that same “professional terror” when I read Meredith Farkas’s recent post, Darn that Dream. She’s only three years removed from library school, but has already published a book, teaches at San Jose State, writes and gives presentations all over the place, etc. I realize that Meredith is just one NexGen librarian getting discouraged from applying for one job at one university, but it was hard not to react to that post with fear and trembling. It only seems natural to get a sinking feeling when Movers & Shakers are uncertain about their decisions and prospects.
Reading about the librarians profiled in Leaders in American Academic Librarianship has been a useful way to counter that sort of emotional reaction. These librarians made incremental moves early in their careers, often in ways that seemed orthogonal to directing a major academic library. Their fifteen stories have some similarities, but also strong differences, suggesting that there is no correct or obvious path to becoming a leader. What they had in common was an ability to inspire people to believe in them, and when given an opportunity, their actions justified that belief. As long as we can do that—as individuals and as a profession—we’re bound to succeed.