Eileen Libby, AM ’64 (Library School), is tucked into the cramped office of the Social Service Administration Library, sitting in a creaky chair beside stacks of anachronistic card catalogue cabinets. It’s the first time the department’s matriarch has returned to the space on 60th Street since her retirement nearly two months ago.
In some ways, it’s like she never left; security guards and library personnel greeted Libby warmly, just like they did during the 40 years she served as library director. “It’s very intimidating to come in after her because she just really was so devoted to doing it right and for supporting SSA, and she was here for so long,” says Paul Belloni, AM ’00, who took over for Libby in August. “It really feels like Eileen’s library, in a very good way.”
A Hyde Park native, Libby earned political science and history degrees from DePaul University and the University of Iowa. She taught social studies in the Chicago Public Schools and did editorial work before deciding to earn an AM in library science from the University’s Graduate School of Library Science. After graduating, she worked at a few different academic libraries, including the University’s Business and Economics and Regenstein libraries.
Libby remembers that when she first heard about the job opening that would define her career, she didn’t even consider SSA “a real library.” “You have to understand,” she says, “there was room for fewer than 5,000 volumes, it was only open to SSA students, and it was expected to support only the teaching, not the research, program of the School.” That the slate was so blank did create a clear and appealing challenge: “I told [my husband, Tom Libby, AM ‘64], ‘This is a place where I could do something!’”
Libby brought two qualities that proved endlessly valuable. The first was her drive to make the collection bigger and more accessible. “I wanted everybody to use all the collections of the library,” she says. The trained historian dug tenaciously, searching especially hard for gray literature—publications from groups and schools that weren’t published by a university or commercial press—which she thought might disappear were it not preserved in her collections.
With the rise of the Internet, Libby’s pursuit moved online, a challenge the technologically disinclined scholar took on with zeal. The SSA Library now includes close to 40,000 volumes, tracking administrative policies and clinical research across the country and, increasingly, the globe.
The second quality was her passion for the School itself, and for the work of its students and faculty. She married a social worker, after all. “I really do believe in social work, social service, community development, what they do here,” she says. “I think they are essential.” Thanks to Libby’s efforts, the SSA Library now functions as an unofficial museum of the School; doctoral dissertations have been catalogued, ancient course materials and syllabi archived. “I didn’t want them to throw away any paper unless I saw it,” she jokes.
Libby says she was also grateful for the School’s continual support, even as comparable facilities at competing social work schools—the University of Michigan, the University of Washington—were subsumed into larger systems or abolished altogether. She confesses that retirement suits her fine and once in a while, she’ll probably stop in and visit with Belloni, a 20-year university veteran who she insists will do a “magnificent” job at the helm. “I was delighted to be here,” she says. “I felt [the University] was very loyal to the library. And I hope they felt I was loyal too, and had some small part to play in the research.” — Adam Doster
Editor's note: Eileen Libby passed away on May 30, 2019.