In remembrance of John Berry, III

This morning I was saddened to learn that John Berry, III, longtime editor at Library Journal, passed away at the age of 87.

I first met Berry 11 years ago, when I began library school at Pratt Institute. He was my first professor in the program, teaching the core Introduction to the Information Professions course. As someone who had just committed to a career shift, moving into libraries from bookselling, I remember feeling overwhelmed that there existed such an expansive field and I struggled to catch up with the acronyms and shorthand, having never actually worked in a library before.

Some of the students in my program complained privately about the old guy who went on and on in class telling stories about his career and all the people he knew. But for me, that’s what I prized most about the course. John Berry made librarianship come alive. It wasn’t just about organizing information—there was a rich and troubled history to the profession that John brought to the fore, and I can honestly say that his class has shaped my development as a librarian more than any other. Berry told the story of librarianship as a battleground for societal issues like privatization and the public good, and he demonstrated what it looked like to take a stance as a professional.

Prof. Berry introduced me to Jesse Shera and E.J. Josey, Miriam Braverman and Jessamyn West. I learned about SRRT, Progressive Librarians Guild, and Library Juice (the blog, before there was a Press). It was through Berry that I first learned about segregated public libraries in the South, and racial discrimination at the Library of Congress. It was Berry who taught me about the bitter fights at ALA during the Vietnam years, as he posed the question to us: should a library professional organization take a political position on issues that are “not related to libraries?”

He used to rattle off issues that had gripped the profession, like faculty status for academic librarians (do they still care about that? he wondered) and demand vs. quality in public library collections. He brought in guest speakers each week to talk to our small group: I remember Nora Rawlinson talked about the battle over “Give ‘em what they want”; Mitch Freedman introduced us to library automation and Sandy Berman’s radical cataloging; James Neal came and was (politely) grilled about the “feral librarian” piece; Nancy Roderer visited from Johns Hopkins, which had recently introduced a new “informationist” model of library work. For Berry, librarianship was made up of of the issues it confronted, and I am grateful to have had this framing of the profession from the outset.

Later, I took a second class with John, on professional writing. As a student, I didn’t always make good curricular choices, but I knew that when a person with +50 years experience as an editor is offering a class on writing you take it. I wasn’t wrong.

Nobody’s perfect, and my experience is by no means universal. But whenever I hear someone complain, “why isn’t this taught in library school?” I can usually counter that it was, for me—by John Berry, III.

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