Russell Shank dies at 86; former head librarian at UCLA

Russell Shank, the chief librarian at UCLA from 1977 to 1989 who was known as a staunch supporter of 1st Amendment rights in all libraries and an early proponent of technology as a way to enhance library services, has died. He was 86.

Shank, a professor emeritus in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in the 1970s, died June 26 at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, said his daughter, Susan.

A former president of the American Library Assn., Shanks died three days after he tipped over in his electric scooter and hit his head on concrete while attending the group’s convention in Anaheim. Although he showed no signs of trauma, his daughter said, he lapsed into a coma in his hotel room later that night.

“He always looked forward to that convention,” said Susan Shank, who accompanied her father. “What better way for a librarian to go out, at an ALA convention after talking to his cronies and buddies.”


Before being named university librarian at UCLA, Shank spent a decade as the first director of libraries at the Smithsonian Institution, where he began to automate operations and created the first centralized catalog for its more than 80 separate libraries.

As chief librarian at UCLA, he oversaw some 19 libraries on campus.

Shank, who had an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, had a great interest in computers, said Gloria Werner, who worked with him at UCLA before succeeding him as university librarian.

“That’s why we automated a lot of the library functions,” Werner said. “A lot of other people were not so eager to get their feet wet in the computer world. He had a major impact on trends in libraries that we now take for granted. He was progressive, and that isn’t always easy to be when you’re running a huge library system.”


Barbara Jones, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Assn., said Shank was “one of the real giants in the field of academic libraries.”

“He stood for good management practice in research libraries,” she said. “He promoted research libraries in this country as the backbone of America’s preeminence in the sciences, the social sciences and the arts.”

After a fire damaged Los Angeles’ historic Central Library in 1986, Shank invited two groups of reference librarians that had been housed there to move into the Powell Library at UCLA.

“As a young librarian, I thought that was such a tremendously generous thing to do,” Jones said. “Instead of a turf war between academic and public libraries, Russell Shank had the information needs of the entire community in mind.”

In 1990, Shank received the Hugh C. Atkinson Memorial Award, which recognizes outstanding achievements by academic librarians who have contributed significantly to improvements in library automation, library management and library development and research.

The same year he received the Freedom to Read Foundation Roll of Honor award.

“He really believed in free speech and libraries — and that libraries were places where there would be no restrictions on what people could read or what kind of research they could do,” said Jones, who is also executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, the library association’s legal arm.

Shank was born Sept. 2, 1925, in Spokane, Wash., and served in the Navy during World War II.


He didn’t intend to become a librarian.

While studying electrical engineering at the University of Washington after the war, he needed a few more credits to complete his degree. So he signed up for a course in library science.

It “just appealed to me — the right kind of people, the program,” Shank told American Libraries magazine in 1977.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1946, he received a bachelor’s in librarianship in 1949. He later received a master’s in business administration from the University of Wisconsin and a doctorate in library science from Columbia University.

Early in his career Shank was an assistant university librarian at UC Berkeley and served on the faculty of the Columbia University library school.

Shank was divorced. Besides his daughter Susan, he is survived by his other children, Peter Shank and Judith Twist; and three grandchildren.

Must-read stories from the L.A. Times

Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.

You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.