Leadership for change saves us from the slow death of entrenchment
Jim Welbourne changed the way I think about our profession, its core values, and its important role in shaping the social agenda of our society. We are truly bereft when we lose a leader like Welbourne, so I was deeply saddened to hear that Jim died on August 22.
I first met Welbourne in the Sixties. He was one of a triumvirate at what is now the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland. The other two activists were Andrew Armitage and Bob Croneberger. Armitage later emigrated to Canada and for years directed the public library in Owen Sound, Ont. Croneberger died in 1998 while directing the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.
I really got to know Welbourne in 1969 at the Congress for Change convened at a cheap hotel in Baltimore. Welbourne and others had decided to stage an event to plan and demand change in the way libraries and librarianship interacted with American society. Library students from across the nation attended. Unlike so many events that try to bring change, this one did.
The young librarians and their energy took over the new social responsibility movement. With them came the impetus and drive to force the tightly elitist leadership of the American Library Association (ALA) to open up all meetings, to be receptive to students and young librarians, and even to nurture their resolve to move the old association to take stands on the issues of the day. Through Welbourne’s guidance, the students developed a compelling case for the new direction for the aging ALA and its entrenched leadership. I remember the exhilaration and joy with which we took that new agenda up the coast to the ALA conference that summer in Atlantic City.
The young Pat Schuman, head of Neal-Schuman Publishers and a past ALA president, remembers Welbourne at the Congress for Change: “Jim was one of the smartest, most articulate people I have known. He was incredibly passionate about social responsibility but was always cool and collected as he persuasively convinced his colleagues to take action. Jim not only ‘talked the talk—he walked the walk!’ ”
Scott Hughes, the dynamic library director who has brought new life and strength to Connecticut’s long-suffering Bridgeport Public Library, was mentored by Welbourne, that rare kind of mentor who listened. Hughes would talk through his problems with Welbourne, who would listen closely and patiently, letting Hughes work his way to solutions.
We all knew Welbourne could keep his “cool,” even under fire when we confronted ALA leaders. That made discussions with him truly interactive. He was a more effective and convincing leader than I had ever experienced. His life as an African American growing up in a racist time and place enriched his skills. He had been forced to wait for the end of segregation to go to the college of his choice, the University of Maryland at College Park.
Welbourne’s influence transformed the services of libraries where he served. He worked seven years at Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library and another seven at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library. Finally, according to the New Haven Register, “The crowning achievement of Jim’s career…was the conception and realization of the Courtland Seymour Wilson Library branch of the New Haven Public Library.” The branch opened in 2006 in the Hill District, a neighborhood in dire need of better library service.
Librarianship has not often been blessed with leaders like Jim Welbourne. He embodied the kind of leadership we sorely needed then—and now. We still need leaders to organize young, new librarians to push change to save librarianship from the slow death of entrenchment, old elites, and frightened bureaucrats. We need leaders, as we did when Welbourne organized those students, to keep our profession alert to our social purpose and our urgent need to enlist all who believe in libraries to become activists in the cause.
|John N. Berry III (email@example.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ|