Voices from Our Past — SLA Presidents’ Reminiscences

Beginning with Guy Elwood Marion, who served as president of the Special Libraries Association (SLA) in 1918-19, some people who have held that office have participated in oral interviews or have provided written information about their memories of their term of office and the status of specialized librarianship in their contemporary environments. The comments range from sparse to detailed and cover a wide range of topics, yet there is a surprising number of issues and concerns that emerge repeatedly over a span of years–association governance and planning, proposed name changes and branding, mentoring, campaigns to grow membership, globalization, conflicts, and a host of others, just some of which are included below.

Marion was a biologist with no formal library training before serving in library capacities in industrial research settings. In 1910, he was invited to speak to the American Association for the Advancement of Science on the topic “The Library as an Adjunct to Industrial Laboratories.” He remarked, “It’s only by the better educated men like scientists or technologists that the appreciation is present about what a library can do.” He maintained that special librarians didn’t grasp the possibilities and lacked the imagination to take advantage of those possibilities, which resulted in limited dynamism in the profession.

Irene Macy Strieby Shreve, SLA president in 1947-48, was a fascinating, feisty, opinionated lady and, like many SLA Presidents, a prolific author. As a recently widowed single mother, she was looking for a job that would allow her to support her family. Her employer gave her some responsibilities of a library variety and her interest and proficiency grew. Eventually, she had charge of three libraries at Eli Lilly.

Despite her successes, Shreve commented at length about the role of women in industrial library jobs and the lack of administrative opportunities. In her case, she worked for more than ten years with several men. They were all called department heads. A new top administrator did a reorganization in which everyone but Shreve was renamed a division director. She remained a department head, reporting to one of the new division directors who used to be her administrative equal.


In 1955, an SLA committee was appointed, with Shreve as a member, to “formulate very broad definitions on the fundamental characteristics of special librarianship as practiced on this continent,” Shreve explained. The definition they created was “The profession of special librarianship and documentation is a science of selecting, evaluating, organizing and disseminating information in special fields of knowledge and the act of integrating and adapting information resources to the needs of a particular institution or clientele.”

During Shreve’s active participation in SLA leadership, there was a proposal to combine SLA with the American Documentation Institute. The resulting name of the merged organizations was going to be SLAAADI, the Special Libraries Association and American Documentation Institute. We may consider ourselves fortunate that the merger never took place and that particular name change was unnecessary!

Several other organizational structures for SLA and for the whole information profession were put forth during Shreve’s time. Her favorite? A Council of National Library Associations, “but of course ALA wouldn’t join.” She wanted a mechanism for joining separate organizations for music, theater, law, medicine, newspapers, and a host of other interests, to present a unified voice for the profession, but not the voice of the American Library Association (ALA). Shreve recognized that the existing organizations in the specialized fields would not be interested in being divisions of SLA. Elizabeth Ferguson, SLA president in 1952-53, was another supporter of this concept. It is interesting to see how the composition of SLA has evolved in some of those directions over the ensuing years.

Grieg Aspnes, SLA president in 1951-52, was interviewed in 1969 and that interview is the only audio tape that has survived over the years. Like Marion and Shreve, his background did not necessarily prepare him for the special library world. However, he hit his stride professionally and by the time he reached the SLA presidency, he had some philosophies firmly in place. He saw the role of the SLA president as the public relations person, admitting that by 1969 the role of the president had changed in terms of responsibility and demands on time and energy. “I wouldn’t touch it now,” he declared, adding that during his presidency the annual conference attracted 600 people. There were “few and minor” problems then, he said. Shortly after that, things began to collapse because the executive director took on too much responsibility, in Aspnes’ opinion. Aspnes said this was because of the attitude of members (“Why can’t headquarters do it?”). Priorities were not in place and, in the democracy that was SLA, the pressure of member wants and needs were tackled without any cost accounting.


One of Aspnes’ primary memories were of his time as chair of the committee that explored merger with ASIS, proposed by Herb White, who eventually served as SLA president in 1968-69. The committee explored such issues as finance, structure, membership requirements, operational procedures, etc., to come to an understanding of ASIS. After much discussion, ASIS determined that a merger was not feasible. They saw themselves as researchers and SLA members as practitioners, a combination that ASIS didn’t believe would benefit their members. They decided they didn’t want to join with an organization with the word “library” in its title, according to Aspnes. He recalled that ASIS representatives said they were more attuned to the future while the SLA practitioners did the “daily grubby jobs,” which prevented them from focusing on the future.

Eugene Jackson, who served as SLA president in 1961-62, restarted the same discussions when he was president of ASIS in 1999. The result was the same: SLA was not committed to funding research on an association level, in the view of ASIS, and therefore they couldn’t see SLA as a logical partner, despite the fact that SLA did have an active research funding process and, at the time, ASIS was financially strapped.

Elizabeth Ferguson, SLA president in 1952-53, served in public and special libraries during her career. She explained that after completing college she “entered library work without much enthusiasm,” taking a job as a children’s librarian in the Cleveland Public Library. When she moved to the public library in Lima, OH, she began “cultivating” the business community, which eventually led her to the Institute of Life Insurance in New York City. After arriving in New York City, she was instrumental in the development of special library courses in the graduate library schools at Pratt and Queens College, a tradition that continues to this day.

In her inaugural speech, Ferguson said, “We must sustain the reputation for ‘creative and enthusiastic work’ that makes us notable in the library world.” Her presidential annual report included a list of seven “problems” that she saw facing SLA and the profession. Among them were public relations, recruiting, Chapter and Division problems, and relations with other associations. She declared that SLA lacked a clear statement of purpose and objectives. She posed the question “What are SLA’s proper professional activities?” There are some who would say that SLA continues, periodically, to grapple with these same issues 55 years later.

Supporting her strong interest in public relations for and by librarians, Ferguson wrote extensively on the topic of selling ourselves to management. She ran a six-session PR clinic to encourage professionals to create their stories without being self-serving. She developed a flip chart for librarians to use when making their pitch to management.

“Special librarians are professional intermediation intermediaries who save the time and money of their employers by truly putting knowledge to work.” This thoughtful phrase was the theme of the 1968-69 period when Herb White was president of SLA. It is spoken with the eloquence we came to expect and respect from his many years of contributing management insight to the professional literature.

Edward Strable, SLA president in 1972-73, carried on the tradition of presidents who served as SLA annual conference chair before becoming president. Shreve was the first on record, chairing the 1939 Baltimore conference. Miriam Tees was conference chair in 1969, and Ruth Seidman chaired the 1986 annual conference in Boston, leading up to current President-Elect Gloria Zamora who was chair of the 2008 conference in Seattle. Judy Field went above and beyond the call and chaired the 1985 conference in Winnipeg and the 1994 conference in Atlanta. Strable carried on another strong tradition among SLA presidents. He was an author, producing Special Libraries: A Guide for Management, 1966 and 1974 editions, and Subject Headings in Advertising, Marketing, and Communications Media, published by SLA in 1964. The theme for his presidential year was continuing education and interlibrary cooperation. He called his year “peaceful” and mentioned the “camaraderie of visits to Chapters.”

In 1977-78, Shirley Echelman served as SLA president. The main task of her presidency, according to her, was to effect major changes in the way components of SLA interacted with one another. By 1977, communications between Chapters, Divisions, the Board and the SLA office “had become notably dysfunctional.” Echelman commented that she and her two predecessors, Miriam Tees and Mark Baer, had worked toward better lines of communication and a less adversarial relationship among the components of the organization. How successful their efforts would have been were difficult to assess, she said, due to the death of Executive Director Frank McKenna and the succession of David Bender, who “changed the organizational environment dramatically,” according to Echelman.

“I remember most the sense of fellowship among SLA’s leadership and the strong belief that we were all working toward the joint goals of making SLA a strong voice in the library and information community and enhancing the status of special librarians in the organizations in which they worked,” Echelman said. “The ‘information revolution’ was in its early stages in the 1970s and SLA’s leadership deliberately and determinately set out to make sure that the expertise that our members brought to the table was recognized as critical to the long-term success of the revolution.” This type of effort has been a continuing focus of SLA ever since.

Echelman remembered several other SLA past-presidents: Bill Budington (1964-65) and Ed Strable for their diplomacy, Joe D’Agnese (1979-80) for his magnificent sense of humor and political insight, and Mark Baer (1976-77) for his unending patience and common sense. Those memories encapsulate some of the most essential qualities of a successful SLA president.

It fell to Vivian Hewitt and her Board, in 1978-79, to play a role in selecting the new executive director, David Bender, after the death of Frank McKenna. Her focus was on moving SLA into the international arena, evidenced by the first international annual conference, held in Honolulu in 1979. Hewitt also established the endowment fund, one of the sources of money for research projects.


Frank Spaulding‘s theme in 1986-87 was “Information Leadership.” He created the Task Force on the Value of the Information Professional, one of the first in a long line of presidential task forces and initiatives. “Its findings helped all information professionals and special librarians in achieving a higher level of recognition in their place of employment and society,” he said. Once again, the idea of promoting the value of the special librarian was a key element in SLA activities.

Although Joe Ann Clifton, SLA president for the 1988-89 term, died before the project to capture past-president’s memories was launched, Frank Spaulding compiled a form for her year. Her theme led her to form the Task Force on the Image of the Librarian. Information policy was another priority for Clifton. She instituted a strategic meeting of top officials on national information policy. She also frequently expressed pride in her role of mentoring young professionals, a concern that has continued to be mentioned frequently by those presidents who followed her.


Ruth Seidman, SLA president in 1990-91, chaired the 1986 SLA annual conference in Boston. The theme was “Excellence in the World of Information.” During her presidential year, her theme was “Globalization of information and its implications for our understanding of the world and for SLA.” Seidman authored Building Global Partnerships for Library Cooperation, published by SLA in 1993.

The impetus for Seidman’s global ideas came during her president-elect visit to the Minnesota Chapter, where she toured 3M and its library. There she “learned about the worldwide facilities and the role that the library was beginning to play in the worldwide sharing of information.” In 1999, building on that interest, she chaired the Task Force on International Directions convened by SLA President Suzi Hayes.

Guy St. Clair, SLA president in 1991-92, formed the Presidential Commission on Professional Recruitment, Ethics and Professional Standards, or the PREPS Commission. He also heightened the international focus by leading the establishment of International Special Librarians Day, observed during National Library Week, until it was discontinued, to be replaced by the Global Information Ethics initiative, launched in 2008.


In June 1992, St. Clair led the campaign to change the name of SLA, “to reflect more accurately that specialist librarianship is more closely related to information management than to traditional librarianship.” Several names were suggested but ultimately were voted down by the membership.

Miriam (Mimi) Drake served as SLA president in 1993-94, a time when the Board undertook writing a strategic plan and streamlining Board of Directors’ procedures. She remembered visiting Chapters and calling award winners as among the highlights of her experience.

“SLA is unique. Members are true professionals who know when to work, when to play, when to laugh, and how to value friendship,” Drake said. Among her numerous writing projects was editing the second edition of the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, published in 2003.

Edwina (Didi) Pancake served as SLA president in 1994-95. She had been a member of SLA for more than 35 years when she wrote her remarks, “Along the way I’ve held just about every position at every level–some of them several different times–and I’ve met and worked with a host of fantastic people.” She worked on efforts to reorganize the association’s committee structure “at least three times.” Over a span of more than 12 years, she trained SLA leaders in basic parliamentary procedure.


Pancake’s two “prides” were implementing caucuses and appointing the Special Committee on Competencies for Special Librarians. The caucus structure was intended to “allow a role for social activism without getting involved with social issues as ALA had done,” she explained. During her term in office, she consulted with Fred Roper, the president of the Medical Library Association (MLA) at the time. MLA had a competencies document in place. Pancake appointed a committee chaired by Joanne Marshall and the result was the document, now in its second edition and translated in several languages, “Competencies for Special Librarians in the 21st Century.”

Sylvia Piggott, SLA president in 1995-96, focused her attention on the “virtualization” of SLA, “to provide improved electronic access to SLA and its members and implementation of Competencies for Information Professionals of the 21st Century.”


The 1997-98 association year saw Judy Field in the president’s chair. One of her efforts during the year was to promote SLA in library schools, including establishing the Student Chapter at her school, Wayne State University. Because of her ongoing effort to mentor her students as well as her professional colleagues in SLA, she was the 2001 recipient of the Rose Vormelker Award for mentoring. She continues her global involvement by chairing committees in IFLA, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions. She also has been involved in the programs of FORO, the Transborder Library Forum, and has been an invited speaker in many countries of the world. She served a four-year term on the American Library Association’s Committee on Accreditation, representing SLA.

Susan DiMattia served as SLA president in 1999-2000. She stressed the importance of communication and advocacy to prove the value of information professionals. During DiMattia’s term of office, five task forces were appointed to study branding, conference planning, simplification, membership, and partnership projects. She said that watching some of the people she appointed to these task forces advance up the leadership ladder in SLA was gratifying.

Two activities with global connections stand out in DiMattia’s mind. She was invited by the “specials” of ALIA (Australian Library and Information Association) to both keynote and close their four-day conference in Hobart, Tasmania in 1999. The visit was valuable in recognizing the cultural differences and unique problems and perspectives that challenge SLA colleagues in Australia. It provided examples of how SLA must create different policies, procedures, and expectations for dealing with Chapters and members outside North America. At the end of her year, she was honored to sign the charter for the newly formed Asian Chapter.

Hope Tillman, SLA’s president in 2001-2002, is noted for her technology innovations in SLA. Her presidential theme dealt with the need to embrace change and remain flexible. At the 1993 annual conference in Cincinnati, as chair of the Networking Committee for the Information Technology Division, she was instrumental in setting up and running the first Internet Room. She also planned the first program about the Internet for an SLA audience at the 1991 annual conference in San Antonio. The crowd was so large that the session had to be moved to the major ballroom at the convention center. A networking survey done in collaboration with Sharyn Ladner resulted in the 2003 book Internet and the Special Librarian: Use, Training and the Future.

September 11, 2001, fell within Tillman’s term of office and had several impacts on activities. She had been invited to attend the Arabian Gulf Chapter conference, but had to cancel the trip because of the travel climate. It was also the year that the SLA Board of Directors began to make greater use of conference calls to conduct business.


Ethel Salonen‘s year, 2004-2005, saw many changes or beginnings of changes. A Professional Development Campaign, with a goal of raising $1 million in donations, was launched. In an effort to re-brand the association without a formal name change, the instrument of DBA (Doing Business As…) SLA was adopted. A dues restructuring, electronic voting, and a new association year to match the fiscal year were put into motion and ultimately adopted.

Salonen recognized the efforts of Bill Fisher (2002-03), who, as president-elect, proposed several new initiatives. At the time, January, 2001, they were seen as too difficult to implement–including a change in the Association year, a new look at annual conferences, and new unit models. Many of the ideas have since come to fruition.

Pam Rollo, the most recent of the past-presidents to submit a form to the file, mentioned that during her year in office (2005-06), she was honored to visit the Alexandrian Library in Egypt. It was a highlight of her term. She also guided a new strategic plan through the lengthy process. Along with several of her past-president colleagues, she mentioned mentoring and membership enhancement as being a big part of her activities. It also was during her year that the Board agreed to change the title of SLA’s executive director to CEO.


Although not all past-presidents have submitted information forms for the database, there are enough people represented to say that the past-presidents of SLA are a dedicated, energetic group of people who work to make the Association the very best it can be.

In the near future,”Voices of SLA, an international oral history project,” sponsored by the Fellows of SLA and the Centennial Commission, will conduct interviews with a broad range of SLA members and leaders. The edited audio files of these interviews will be available on the Centennial Web site, and later on other platforms. Transcripts of the interviews also will provide insight into the thoughts, aspirations and dedication of the SLA members at all levels who have served in the past and those who will continue to form the future of SLA.

Prepared by: Susan DiMattia

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