February 17, 2018

Russell Shank: Memories | Backtalk

Russell Shank passed away at the age of 86 on June 26 from complications of a fall, according to American Libraries magazine. Among the highlights of his career in librarianship, Shank served as university librarian at UCLA and as president of the American Library Association (ALA).

Russell Shank was undeniably one of the profession’s most distinguished librarians of the 20th century.  The obituary telling of his death did an excellent job of reviewing his background and education, and listing the positions he held and the awards he won. But two of his many awards are worth mentioning again. Russell was a staunch supporter of intellectual freedom and his contributions were recognized with the Freedom to Read Foundation Honor Award.  His willingness to speak out, innovate and take risks was recognized with the Hugh C. Atkinson Award.

Russell served 10 years as the Smithsonian’s first Library Director, but it wasn’t until he was named University Librarian at UCLA in 1977 that he and I became colleagues, sometimes competitors, but always close friends. We worked as colleagues (I was University Librarian at UC Berkeley at the time) in a variety of efforts to convince UC officials to enhance funding for our libraries. Since there had been a long history of competition between the Berkeley and UCLA campuses, we sometimes found ourselves competing for the same pot of money.  But through it all, we always remained friends.

Russell was an extremely kind, sensitive person and in spite of his health, he never lost his sense of humor. Well, almost never. Sometimes I teed him off and he was quick to let me know.  My wife, Ann and daughters, Katie and Emily, remember Russell very fondly. He treated them very much like grandchildren. When I told Emily of Russell’s passing, she said that she remembered sitting on his lap, about age 7, as he drove his cranberry red Amigo around our large ALA Presidential hotel suite.

It is very likely that few readers realize that it was Russell Shank’s tie breaking vote as president of ALA that forever changed where ALA Midwinter conference meetings are held. When Russell and I joined the profession, ALA met three out of four years in Chicago for Midwinter.  The fourth year, based on the U.S. Presidential election cycle, the Association met in Washington, D.C.  How the change came about is worth retelling because it says a great deal about Russell and his character.

The issues that Russell hoped to pursue as president focused on national information policies and the roles of libraries, but similar to what happens to many ALA presidents, other, unanticipated issues intruded. In Russell’s case, one of these was how ALA should respond to the recently passed California initiative Proposition 13.  This initiative was already producing cutbacks in budget, service, and staff throughout California and other states were beginning to talk about similar initiatives. There was fear that this anti-public support act would serve as a contagion and spread to other parts of the country. This issue consumed a great deal of his time and distracted his focus on information issues.

But the issue that changed the way ALA conducts it business was the most dramatic act of Shank’s presidency.  It was during his time in office that the profession and ALA’s Council was focused on supporting the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.  Among the proposals before Council was that ALA should boycott states that had not ratified the Amendment.  Unfortunately, Illinois’ legislature had failed to pass the Amendment and ALA was scheduled to meet in Chicago at the next Midwinter. The debate in Council raged hot and heavy. A roll call vote was ordered. Seventy councilors voted to endorse the Board’s confirmation of the Chicago agreement, and 70 voted to reject it. At the very end, one Councilor, Jewel Harris changed her pro-Chicago vote, and Al Trezza, another Councilor, immediately reversed his anti-Chicago choice to tie the count and force Russell to declare himself. The entire Council held their breath as he paused a moment before announcing “The chair votes…Yes,” rejecting the return to Illinois. I remember well the cheers of support and cries of chagrin broke out as Russell made his announcement.

The immediate impact of the vote was to underscore ALA’s support for the ERA. However, it signaled the end of the handshake agreement that ALA had with the Palmer House Hotel. The vote ushered in the era when ALA Midwinter conference sites began to include cities such as Denver, San Antonio, Philadelphia, San Diego, Dallas, and Seattle. It was a controversial vote and I’m not sure what Russell’s personal convictions actually were, but he voted in favor of it because he thought it was the right thing to do. In a nutshell, Russell Shank was a man of character.


Richard M. Dougherty was the Director of Libraries at the University of Michigan (UM), Ann Arbor, from 1978 to 1988 and a Professor in the UM School of Information from 1978 to 1998. He was President of the American Library Association in 1990-91. He is currently President of his own consulting firm, Dougherty and Associates.



  1. Terry Jacobsen says:

    Thank you, so much, for your piece about Russell Shank. He was an extraordinary individual, and I’m proud to have worked for him at UCLA. We will miss his wonderful stories!

  2. Sue Martin says:

    Thanks, Dick; your words have brought back great memories. Russ was a wonderful person, librarian, mentor and friend. Terry is absolutely right – we will miss him a lot.