Wedgeworth, Robert W. Jr. 1937–
Robert W. Wedgeworth, Jr. 1937–
Robert W. Wedgeworth, Jr. headed the American Library Association (ALA), the leading organization for American library professionals, for a number of years in the 1970s and 1980s. Wedgeworth was credited with taking the ALA—the oldest and largest library association in the world—into the modern age when he became its executive director in 1972. He was the first African American to lead the organization, and came to the office at a time when few minorities held executive positions within the ALA at the upper level at all.
Wedgeworth was born on July 31, 1937, in Ennix, Texas, and earned his undergraduate degree from Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, in 1959. Two years later, he received a library science degree from the University of Illinois, and took a job as a cataloger with the Kansas City Public Library. In 1962 he was among 75 library professionals selected for a career-making event: he joined the staff of the ALA pavilion at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. The ALA exhibit was designed to showcase the “library of the future,” and Wedgeworth was trained in the much ballyhooed “automation technology” that library professionals expected to become industry standard within a decade or so.
That training served him well. After a stint in the Parksville, Missouri, public library system as an assistant librarian, and another as head librarian at Meranac Community College just outside of St. Louis, Wedgeworth was hired by Brown University’s library in July of 1966 as an assistant chief acquisitions librarian. His new job at the Ivy League college came with a special mandate, however: to supervise the automation of the Brown library system. From there, Wedgeworth went on to Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he taught at its Graduate School of Library Service in the early 1970s, before being summoned to a meeting with the ALA board of directors. They offered him the executive director post, and he accepted, which made him not just the first African American to serve as ALA head, but the first black in an executive position at its Chicago office at all.
The ALA, at that time, was torn by infighting. Wedgeworth later described the problems as “a clash of values,” he told American Libraries writer Russell G. Fischer. “I viewed it as the kind of development that
At a Glance…
Born on July 31, 1937, in Ennix, TX; son of Robert Sr. and Jimmie (Johnson) Wedgeworth, Education: Wabash College, AB, 1959; University of Illinois, MS, 1961.
Career: Kansas City Public Library, Missouri, cataloger, 1961-62; named to the American Library Association’s “Library 21” staff for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair; Park College Library, Parksville, MO, assistant librarian, 1962, acting head librarian, 1962-64; Meranac Community College, Kirkwood, MO, head librarian, 1964-66; Brown University, Providence, RI, assistant chief acquisitions librarian, 1966-69; Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, graduate fellow in library science, 1969, assistant professor, 1971-72; American Library Association, Chicago, IL, executive director, 1972-85; Columbia University, New York City, dean of the School of Library Service, 1985-92; University of illinois/Urbana-Champaign, interim librarian, 1992, university librarian and professor of library administration, 1993-2001; Laubach Literacy International, Syracuse, NY, president, 2001-.
Memberships: Newberry Library, Chicago, trustee; Center for the Book, Library of Congress, advisory council member; American Library Association; International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, executive board member, 1985-91, president, 1991-97.
Awards: Council on Library Resources fellow, 1963; Joseph Lippincott Award, American Library Association, 1989; Melvil Dewey Award, American Library Association, 1997; Medal of Honor, International Council of Archives; recipient of several honorary degrees.
Addresses: Office —Laubach Literacy, 1320 Jamesville Ave., Syracuse, NY 13210.
occurs when a group has been in power over several generations and then a new generation begins jockeying for more influence and more power within the organization.” From the start, he worked to create a consensus and quiet the calls for the formation of a breakaway organization. Within two years, membership had increased, and ALA conference attendance began to hit record numbers. A dues increase was necessary to reduce what had been a large budget deficit but, in exchange, Wedgeworth tried to give the 40,000 member libraries far more advocacy and guidance for their money.
One such battle came in the spring of 1973, when the federal government declared that it was ending the $140 million subsidy package given to libraries. The cutbacks were a dire threat to operating budgets, and a reduction in hours open was predicted for 1974. The ALA, under Wedgeworth’s leadership, launched a nationwide “Dim the Lights” night of protest, and asked all public libraries to symbolically turn down the lights on May 8, 1973. “People tend to take libraries for granted,” he told the New York Times. “People don’t realize their libraries are endangered.” In other matters, he increased participation levels so that the ALA, which dated back to 1876, had a more democratized decision-making process when it came to setting policy, and also quelled some ongoing battles with the publishing industry. During his tenure, he also increased minority membership and presence on ALA committees and councils, and suggested that African-American ALA members link with the ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table to become the ALA Black Caucus. He was the founding editor of the ALA Yearbook in 1976, and also edited the ALA World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services.
After 13 years of service, Wedgeworth decided to leave the ALA post in 1985. When asked by Fischer to name the achievements of which he was proudest, Wedgeworth replied that it was “my efforts to raise the public visibility of ALA, libraries, and librarianship through our public information program. We didn’t have such a program when I came to the association.” From there, Wedgeworth went on to his second Ivy League job, at New York City’s Columbia University, to serve as the dean of its School of Library Service. He remained on the job until 1992, when years of rumors that the school would close proved true. He returned to the midwest to take over at the University of Illinois / Urbana-Champaign campus in 1992, which is the third largest university research library in the United States after Harvard and Yale, and the largest public one in the country. As with the Columbia job, Wedgeworth was the first African American to serve in the post.
Over the years, Wedgeworth has also been involved in the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, which promotes international librarianship. He served as its president from 1991 to 1997. The author of numerous papers, he wrote The Starvation of Young Black Minds: The Effects of the Book Boycotts in South Africa, which was published in 1989. Since 2001 he has served as president of Laubach Literacy International, a nonprofit educational corporation whose members include more than a thousand literacy volunteer organizations around the world. The Syracuse, New York, organization publishes educational materials for such programs, and champions the goal of 100 percent world literacy. As its head, Wedgeworth has penned editorial columns for the Syracuse, New York Post-Standard about importance of international literacy efforts. In one of them, he wrote about Islamic fundamentalist kidnappers captured in the Philippines in mid-2002. Their extremist organization had been active for some years in a remote part of the Philippine archipelago, and Wedge-worth wrote about the importance of literacy in alleviating many of the underlying causes of terrorism. “The young men who attacked the World Trade Center came from countries that have more than religion in common,” he wrote in a Post-Standard column. “Their countries of origin are also places where educational inequities are most marked. In spite of millenniums of cultural achievement, these societies compare poorly with developed countries when we look at access to education.”
In 2002 the University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign established the Wedgeworth International Fellowship in Library Leadership program in his honor. Like most librarians, Wedgeworth is an avid reader. Some of his favorite authors, answering Fischer’s inquiry for the American Libraries article, were Daniel Boorstin and Primo Levi, but “I still go back occasionally to such things as The Federalist Papers and De tocqueville’s Democracy in America,” he admitted. “I continue to find ideas there that are useful, especially in trying to develop a strong basis and rationale for libraries in a democratic society.”
The Starvation of Young Black Minds: The Effects of the Book Boycotts in South Africa, International Freedom to Publish Committee, 1989.
Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
American Libraries, February 1983, p. 80; April 1983, p. 192; July-August 1983, p. 460; December 1983, p. 694; April 1985, p. 215; November 1988, p. 854; February 1990, p. 96; February 2002, p. 56.
Booklist, January 1, 1994, p. 853.
New York Times, May 6, 1973.
Post-Standard, (Syracuse, NY), September 8, 2002, p. C3.
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