Bill DeJohn and the Value of Sharing

The last cliffhanger episodes of Democracy Theatre: 112th Congress have been disappointing to say the least. With these shenanigans, it’s hard to believe that government ever works, but sometimes it does. Today I’m remembering a man who could make it work really, really well.

January 3, 2013

The last cliffhanger episodes of Democracy Theatre: 112th Congress were disappointing to say the least. Violence against women has been successfully deregulated, and those Eastern elite whiners in the path of Hurricane Sandy will have to do without relief funds because a club thinks they’re not good for growth. A tiny percentage of people will have their taxes raised, after an embarrassing display of posturing, and we can now all catch our breaths for a minute before the drama returns in a few weeks with most of the same characters and, no doubt, the same tired dramatic arc.  With these shenanigans, it’s hard to believe that government ever works, but sometimes it does. Today I’m remembering a man who could make it work really, really well.

Bill DeJohn isn’t a name many people outside of library circles will know, but if you live in Minnesota, North Dakota, or South Dakota and have used interlibrary loan to conduct research or catch up on some pleasure reading, or if you’ve used a database for your research, you have Bill to thank. He was the director of Minitex, the publicly-supported network of libraries in Minnesota and the Dakotas, for 27 of its 40 years, and he was a genius at making a case for libraries among state legislators. Minitex is the backbone of our interlibrary loan system, and it funds or negotiates discounts for a host of databases, many of them licensed by the state and available to all residents.

Even when budgets were tight and politics were bitterly partisan, Bill was able to persuade legislators that sharing makes sense, that it’s as important for a resident of Eveleth or Luverne to have access to any information they might need as it was to top-flight faculty at the University of Minnesota, that with appropriate public investments, academic libraries and public libraries of all kinds and sizes could participate in sharing systems that would make our common resources widely available to all. He was masterful at making libraries matter to people who didn't necessarily use them, to make them seem like a bargain, and he took delight in everything new that came down the pike in an age of unprecedented change.

He had some big shoes to fill. Alice Wilcox, the founding director of Minitex, had a vision for libraries and made amazing things happen. (What did we all do before Minitex? I can hardly imagine living in a small town, working at a small college, without the lifeline of a fast, effective, and seemingly limitless web of sharing.) She also saw where we lost opportunities, and wasn’t one to mince words about it. The automation of the card catalog in the 1970s and 80s was a chance to make organizational change—a chance libraries didn't take. She also fretted that librarians didn't make as strong a case for the public sector as we should have. “We failed to understand the difference between being business-like and being a business,” she wrote back in 1984. (1984!) “In addition to sitting on the sidelines as observers, we have often participated in the diminution of the not-for-profit sector.” Harsh words, but she could have been describing today as public libraries negotiate with major trade publishers who won't let libraries lend e-books or charge a prohibitively high cost for the privilege, and as academic libraries license temporary access to the record of knowledge now largely owned by private interests. 

Bill, the second director of Minitex, was more likely than Alice Wilcox to take inspiration from the business world. Maybe being up on the latest issue of Harvard Business Review and familiar with the latest management trends helped him lobby for libraries. He was a terrific negotiator with an uncanny ability to grow consensus around the value of sharing. He wanted school, public, and academic libraries to do a better job of seamlessly supporting citizens at all points of their lives, and he loved technology. He got us excited about the possibilities. 

He retired just a year ago, and it was a shock to learn this week that he is gone after a short illness. He was a big, hearty, big-hearted man and he will be missed.  

In its 41st year, Minitex will carry on, and its new director (and its entire talented staff) will find new ways to help connect citizens to information. They are prime examples of public servants who make great things happen without much fuss. They don’t create artificial cliffs for us to fall over. They create connections and bring us together. And because it all works so smoothly, we hardly even notice. 

Thanks, Bill. Thanks to everyone at Minitex. 

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