With a legacy that reaches back to 1876, Library Journal is accustomed to big anniversaries. This month marks 50 years since a young man named John Berry III arrived at LJ to take on the position of assistant editor. That was May 25, 1964. His vision has been an integral part of the field ever since. He assumed the helm in 1969 and raised his voice on this page until he retired as editor in chief in 2006. Since then, as editor-at-large, he has continued to contribute to the field and to LJ. He has penned the monthly Blatant Berry column, written countless articles, and provided a deep well of library information and insight to an ever-developing staff of editors.
John has been both mentor and provocateur to me. I still often seek his advice—though I don’t always take it, which I am certain delights him. I received an unmatched education by editing his opinion columns: when writing, have something to say, and say it simply. An inside joke emerged from this time in our work together: recalling the “butchery” I gave his fine lines, he says that his best stuff is in my trash bin; I retort that my best stuff bears his byline. [Insert laugh track.] Okay, we won’t get rich as comedians, but the joke illustrates the give-and-take of a collegial and engaged process. We have also spent many enjoyable hours discussing what he calls “the accursed questions.” So to celebrate his 50th year at LJ, I asked him to reflect on what he has seen change, and not, in his half-century here.
In his first editorial, in January 1969, John inadvertently pointed to one of the major shifts he’s seen during his tenure. He quotes the original LJ editorial by Melvil Dewey, declaring the mission of LJ (then American Library Journal) “to collate for the librarian every view or fact which may be of use or interest in his work…” [emphasis mine]. Diversification on a number of fronts was ahead.
“After I met people like Pat Schuman, Clara Jones, Allie-Beth Martin, Peggy Sullivan, Judith Krug, my favorite Simmons professor, Sigrid Edge, and many more, I knew that women would become a much stronger force in our profession,” John tells me. “When I became a library worker, the leaders, men and women, were telling each other that ‘what we need is some bright young men in this field.’ It was great for me, then, but knowing those early feminists was life changing.”
The need for diversification extended beyond gender. “After meeting leaders like Jones, Jim Welbourne, and E.J. Josey, among many others, and joining them first to integrate and then to diversify our field, I knew we would get there, but we haven’t come as far as I thought we would by now,” John says.
He also notes the move to value paralibrarians better. “I was proud that we at LJ were pioneers in that struggle and recognized that they are not only the largest number of library workers, but they often are the glue that holds a library together.”
The impact of technology brought nothing short of transformation. “The computer has taken us much further than just to modernize our old systems,” he says. “It has integrated our systems with our information function, expanded our reach to the public, massively increased our access, revolutionized our communication with library users, and liberated most library workers from clerical drudgery. The technology has attracted new users to libraries and made [libraries] cool to digital natives. It has enhanced every service from job hunting to story hour and created of libraries living catalogs of technological change and innovation.”
Then there is what continues to resonate over the 50 years. “Librarians, even then, were on the front lines of censorship battles,” John says. “Other key beliefs seem to have survived, like the basic notion that information can resolve issues and improve life. Most important, the mission of libraries to inform democratic self-government is still strong in our values; I wish it was more effective in our practice. Atop this list is the idea of service to everyone equally, whether student or faculty, child or adult, rich or poor.”
That mission focus, John argues, should extend to management strategies. “Frequently [private sector models] are very effective, but I fear we have let them erode our mission and purpose, which are not profit or for that matter any bottom-line data,” he says. “[W]e must develop more expertise in the political process, public finance, and governance to prove why libraries are worthy of tax support. These institutions are public goods, so important to society that whenever anyone uses them, everyone benefits.”
There’s something for everyone to think about in this long view. Here’s to 50 years and onward. Happy anniversary, John!