Library Chief Judith Wright Retires After 40 Years

Throughout the June 28 retirement party for Judith Wright in the D’Angelo Law Library, guests tended to invoke the same descriptors in tribute to the longtime library chief: Smart. Forward-thinking. Compassionate. Patient. Fun. A true friend.

One word, however, was used perhaps more than any other: Leader. Wright, whose most recent title was Associate Dean of Library and Information Services, retired after 40 years of working in the Law Library, the last 33 of them as the boss. In those years of extraordinary change inside the Law School and in the law library field—remember card catalogs and typewriters?—Wright became known as a leader beloved in the Law School and respected nationwide.

“Judith has trained and mentored generations of library professionals, creating a legacy that lasts forever here at the D’Angelo Law Library and at law libraries across the country,” Dean Michael Schill said at the reception, attended by Wright’s colleagues, friends, and several out-of-town relatives.

Wright led with “constant competence,” said Randy Picker, James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law. “But it’s more than that. There’s a natural calming influence from her, and an uncanny ability to look forward to unimaginable changes and prepare for them.”

Her twin brother, Joe Wright, one of many relatives who traveled from her native Tennessee for the party, said his sister has “always been a leader. What Judy does is always put other people first. That’s the mark of a good leader.”

Of course, to all of this Wright responded with her typical humility, deflecting the attention to her staff and successor, Sheri Lewis, the new Director of the D’Angelo Law Library.

“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,” she said. “It would be a lot harder if Sheri weren’t following me. I would have a lot more concerns.”

Judith Nadler, Director and University Librarian of the University of Chicago Library, said part of Wright’s legacy is the way she’s passing the reins to Lewis and her other library colleagues. “I believe it takes a great leader to have such great followers. Few who retire take so much care to make sure what is achieved is not lost, but is taken to greater heights.” Wright’s final months as head of the Law Library were filled with accolades and appreciation for her service, even as she focused on making sure everything would run seamlessly after her departure. She is the 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.

In addition, the Law School announced a new fellowship, the Judith M. Wright Library Fellowship Fund, which will support an aspiring law librarian who will be trained in the Law Library. That is an appropriate honor for someone who dedicated much of her career to mentorship and training—and retaining—great employees.

Seventeen people on Wright’s staff 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, said Steve Coats, the library’s administrative assistant. He worked for Wright for just six years, but he would do anything for her, he said.

“Though she demanded the best from us, she never failed in being gracious in the years I have worked for her,” Coats said. “I always wanted to do my best for her and was happy to come to work. I never wanted 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.”

She brought the best out of the library too, overseeing immense technological and physical change in her years at the helm. It all started back in 1970, when she was just 26 years old and a documents and reference librarian 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 and worked as an elementary school librarian. Interestingly, she also served as an American Red Cross recreational worker, or “Doughnut Dolly,” in Vietnam, where she visited soldiers to boost morale.

Soon after starting under Liddell, she was hooked on law librarianship, a field in which she’d need a law degree to advance. She applied to DePaul University School of Law and then told then-Dean Phil Neal of her plans. He made a call on her behalf and she was immediately accepted. Wright took a three-year hiatus from the Law Library to earn her JD and have her first son. When she returned in 1980, she was the boss. Neal was one of many former colleagues who attended her retirement party, as they have kept in touch over the years.

In the ensuing 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. She worked hard to maintain a strong partnership between the Law Library and the University Library, which is a rare arrangement; law libraries tend to be fiercely independent. The collaboration allows Chicago’s highly interdisciplinary faculty access to many important resources they wouldn’t have otherwise.

She kept the library running during two major renovations: First, an expansion project from 1985 to 1987 that moved the south wall and increased the book stacks by 40 percent and a 2007–2008 project that replaced infrastructure such as the heating and cooling system, wiring, and flooring.

Geoffrey Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor, said he marveled at Wright’s competency and poise overseeing the 1980s renovation and the way 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 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.”

The library got access to its first database, Lexis-Nexis, in the late 1970s. Westlaw followed in the 1980s. 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.

“Libraries are always changing. People don’t know that about libraries, but it’s true. It’s a lot of fun,” Wright said, a few weeks before her retirement. “This is such a fun place to work.”

She pushed for changes, such as encouraging publishers to let Google “crawl,” or search, their data, but she 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, said Houdek, of Southern Illinois University. 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,” Kauffman 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 is 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, and he accepted. He remembers thinking Wright’s library at the Law School 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 knowledgeable librarians would consult,” he said. “She’s calm, reasoned, well-informed, she listens, and she points you in a good direction.”

Kauffman and Wright met often as 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.

And then there is 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.”

Her successor, Lewis, said that the Law School 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.

“If you ask Judith for help, you are going to get it,” Lewis said. Wright looks forward to a retirement of swimming in Lake Michigan, reading—she has a to-read list of books that spans 97 typed pages—and enjoying the weddings of both her sons. One son, Paul Johnson, had both a stateside wedding and one in China, where his new wife is from; Wright and her husband, Mark Johnson, spent a month in China around the nuptials.

Her other son, Michael Johnson, is a Circulation Librarian at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater. He did not realize his mother’s impact on her field until he became an academic librarian himself, he said.

“As I encountered law librarians, when they put it together, they said, ‘Wow, you’re Judith Wright’s son?” he said. “People know who she is. She’s really pushed for new innovations that a lot of other directors were reluctant to adopt.”

The reason Wright has that reputation, and such success as a leader, is simple, said her husband, Mark Johnson, who gave a heartfelt history of his wife before her career as a law librarian during her retirement party.

“The real secret about Judy is that it’s never been about her or making her look good,” he said. “It’s always about the institution and the mission and making it work.”