Law School, Law Library Community Laud Judith Wright as she Prepares to Retire

Judith Wright in 1980, the year she took leadership in the library.

Much has changed since Judith Wright started working in the Law School library in September 1970. Back then, Wright was 26 and learning the ins and outs of a law library of books, journals, and card catalogs as a documents and reference librarian. Now, as Wright prepares to retire 43 years later, she is Associate Dean of Library and Information Services and a nationally respected expert who led the D’Angelo Law Library into the digital age and inspired how other law libraries run along the way.

One thing is constant, though: Wright’s reputation as a whip-smart, forward-thinking, and congenial librarian and colleague. She retires June 28 as the recent recipient of three prestigious awards from the law library community: the Hall of Fame Award from the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL), the Frederick Charles Hicks Award for Outstanding Contributions to Academic Law Librarianship from the AALL’s Academic Law Libraries Special Interest Section, and the Chicago Association of Law Libraries Award for Outstanding Lifetime Achievement in Law Librarianship.

Asked about the AALL’s decision to include Wright in the Hall of Fame, committee chair Frank Houdek, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Law at Southern Illinois University School of Law, described the award committee’s meeting this way:

“Other than ‘fine, yes, absolutely,’ there wasn’t much discussion. It was an obvious choice,” he said, adding that the Hall of Fame Award is relatively new, or Wright would’ve received it years ago.

No one at the Law School is the least bit surprised by the accolades.

“Judith is a remarkably warm, constructive, thoughtful person with whom to work,” said Professor Geoffrey Stone, who interacted with her closely while Dean from 1987 to 1993. He was one of six deans Wright has worked with as library chief. “She was never conflictual, never defensive, always wanted to do what was best for the Law School as an institution.”

Stone particularly remembered her competency and poise overseeing the extensive renovation and expansion of the library from 1985 to 1987, when she managed to keep the library fully operational for faculty and staff even as it was torn apart by construction. That kind of leadership was present again every time the library had a choice to make about modernizing in an increasingly digital world, Stone added.

“She led the process of the digitization and electronic revolution in terms of the way the Law School uses its resources,” Stone said. “I think that process has gone effortlessly. Maybe not always for Judith, but always from the standpoint of the users.”

And then there’s the simple fact that Wright’s personality and demeanor have made her extremely popular. As Stone said: “Everyone who’s ever dealt with Judith likes her, universally.”

Stone’s fellow professors, generations of students, and library colleagues near and far echoed that sentiment, and while Wright said she’s honored, she waves praise away and redirects the attention.

“It’s been such a great job, working with such smart, committed people. When you leave a job like this, you really are leaving a part of your life behind. But you really can’t hang on. At some point you have to move on and let other people take over,” Wright said. She expressed great pleasure that Sheri Lewis, now Associate Law Librarian for Public Services, will be her successor.  “It would be a lot harder if Sheri weren’t following me. I would have a lot more concerns.” 

Wright started as a documents and reference librarian from 1970 to 1977, under then-Law Librarian Leon Liddell, who Wright said instilled in her the importance of service. Just after starting at the Law Library, Wright earned her master’s degree from the University of Chicago Graduate Library School in 1971.

Prior to that, Wright, a native of western Tennessee who grew up on a cotton farm, earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Memphis. Before she came to the Law School, Wright worked as an elementary school librarian and as an American Red Cross recreational worker, or “Doughnut Dolly,” in Vietnam, where she visited soldiers to boost morale.

When Wright started under Liddell, she wasn’t yet sure what she wanted to do as a career, but two weeks in, she was hooked on law librarianship, she said. She realized that she needed a law degree, and told then-Dean Phil Neal that she wanted to attend one of the downtown schools. She took a half-hour to fill out an application, Neal made a phone call, and she was in at DePaul University School of Law, she said. She took a three-year hiatus from her work in the Law Library to get her law degree and have her first son. She returned in 1980, after she graduated, and took leadership of the Law Library.

In the next three decades, Wright gained a reputation for being an innovator in collections, technologies, services, and facilities. She evaluated and implemented new practices and happily shared them with colleagues at other libraries.

Wright worked hard to maintain a strong partnership between the Law Library and the University Library. Such a setup is rare for law libraries, which tend to be fiercely independent. The collaboration allows Chicago’s highly interdisciplinary faculty access to many important resources they wouldn’t otherwise have. She kept the library running and completely operational during two major renovations: the aforementioned project in the 1980s, which increased the book stacks by 40 percent, and a 2007-2008 project which replaced all the library’s “innards,” such as heating, cooling, wiring, and flooring.

Houdek, of Southern Illinois University Law, said that Wright has long had a gift for thinking of future needs. She understood early in her career that international law knowledge and resources would grow increasingly important, and she cultivated the materials and staff to make sure Chicago Law was a leader in that area, he said.

She also responded to rapidly evolving technology, often leading the way in embracing a new resource. The library got access to its first database, Lexis-Nexis, in the late 1970s. Westlaw followed in the ‘80s. Today, Wright and her staff manage more than 90 databases, all with different content and interfaces, in addition to more than 680,000 volumes of print resources and 14,000 e-books.

Wright pushed for changes, such as encouraging publishers to let Google “crawl,” or search, their data, but also worked hard to preserve the past, with a dogged commitment to keeping print resources when many institutions were throwing them away. She was an early adopter of HeinOnline, a legal research database founded in 2000, buying journals in electronic format as well as print when many other librarians balked at the idea, Houdek said. Now, HeinOnline is a standard in all law libraries.

“She got it, very early,” Houdek said. “And that’s just one example of many where she was way ahead of the game.” 

Wright also knew a not-so-stellar idea when she saw one, said S. Blair Kauffman, Law Librarian and Professor of Law at Yale Law School. In the 1980s, microform gained popularity and libraries started to collect it, but the Law Library stood out as having a very small collection. Wright chose to bypass microform, which was smart; it turned out to be a poor investment.  

“Judith was reluctant to go along with the masses of what her fellow law library directors were doing in terms of diversifying the format,” he said. “She definitely marches to her own drummer. She’s not one to jump on fads.”

Wright was a founder of the Chicago Legal Academic System (CLAS), a resource and information sharing system for law libraries in the Chicago area, and has participated in and presented research for many law library associations, including the ones honoring her with these recent awards. She has been a prominent voice in a longtime discussion about American Bar Association accreditation standards as they pertain to law libraries. 

She’s also a wonderful mentor and very generous with her time, especially if it benefits the law library profession, Kauffman said. He met Wright in 1982, when he was director of the law library at Northern Illinois University. She invited him to visit. He remembers thinking Wright’s library at Chicago Law was “something to aspire toward.”

“I think of Judith as being a librarian’s librarian, very much an expert. Someone who really knew her stuff, who thought carefully and deeply about the issues we were confronting, and that other knowledgable librarians would consult,” he said. “She’s calm, reasoned, well-informed, she listens, and she points you in a good direction.”

Kauffman and Wright are part of a “Gang of 10” of librarians representing the law libraries at the 10 top-ranking law schools. The group gets together about twice a year, and Wright “is the one who people listen to with respect,” Kauffman said. He said he has tried to hire Chicago Law librarians several times over the years, but they want to stay, in large part because of Wright.

Lewis, Wright’s successor, has worked for her for 12 years, making her one of 17 people on Wright’s staff of 25 who have worked for her for 10 years or more. Eleven of them have worked for her for 15 years or more, and eight of them for 20 years or more.

That kind of loyalty is no accident, Lewis said.

“You won’t find someone better to work for. She’s extra supportive and collaborative, and she allows people to do the work they really care about.”

Steve Coats has worked for Wright for just six years, as the library’s administrative assistant. But he too struggles to envision the library without her.

“Though she demands the best from us, she has never failed in being gracious in the years I have worked for her,” Coats said. “I am almost always happy to get to come to work and I always want to do my best for her. I never want to get so much as a raised eyebrow from Judith, as that’s the equivalent of lashes from normal humans. She truly does bring the best out of people.”

The Law School also will miss Wright’s institutional memory, which is unparalleled, and her generosity with that knowledge, Lewis said. She has many times taken new staff members in other departments under her wing. Basically, if you ask her for help, you’re going to get it.

Wright looks forward to a retirement of swimming in Lake Michigan, reading – she’s got a to-read list of books that spans 97 typed pages – and enjoying the upcoming weddings of both her sons in the next six months. She’s excited but expects to feel emotional when June 28 rolls around, she said.

“I always say, I have the world’s best job, and this is a very exciting place to work. Libraries are always changing. People don’t know that about libraries, but it’s true. It’s a lot of fun.”