It began in 1986 with a $2-million gift from C. Walter and Gerda B. Mortenson to establish the Mortenson Distinguished Professorship for International Library Programs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the first such named academic position in the United States. Marianna Tax Choldin was appointed the first Mortenson professor.
By 1991, an additional $2-million gift resulted in the creation of the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs to expand the activities of the professorship through exchanges and activities to strengthen ties among libraries and librarians around the world.
Following Choldin's retirement, Barbara J. Ford became the second Mortenson Distinguished Professor in 2003 and has vowed to continue the center's mission of promoting international education, understanding, tolerance, and peace. Over 600 librarians from 85 countries have participated in Mortenson programs. American Libraries Editor and Publisher Leonard Kniffel talked with Choldin, a Russian specialist with a Ph.D. in librarianship from the University of Chicago, and Ford, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Panama and Nicaragua whose MLS is from UIUC, earlier this year about the history and future of the center. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.
AL: What prompted the founding of the Mortenson Center?
MARIANNA TAX CHOLDIN: Walter Mortenson, a 1937 UIUC graduate who worked as a chemist for DuPont, saw a need--and certainly the University of Illinois library joyfully accepted the gift to meet that need--to support a program that would bring librarians from around the world together. He understood that you could pour his fortune and many more fortunes into buying books and there would never, never be enough. What he wanted was to support people, librarians, for the ripple effect, so that every time you support a librarian, you're reaching hundreds, maybe thousands, of people through that single librarian.
AL: Is the need still there?
BARBARA FORD: Even more so, in these times in which we live, but this kind of opportunity is still rare.
AL: Opportunity to do what?
FORD: What we do at the Mortenson Center is bring together people from different countries to learn from one another.
CHOLDIN: The center offers people a sabbatical, in a way. It's a time when they can sit back, think about issues that they haven't had time to think about, open their minds to new ideas, let questions bubble up, and network in a relaxed, neutral space, where they don't have all the concerns of their everyday life around them.
FORD: It offers people from other countries exposure to U.S. libraries, through our classes, our library visits, and our mentorship program, which is arranged by the Illinois State Library.
CHOLDIN: And the playing field is level. No one is better than anyone else. There's no country that stands out as "we can teach everybody else about us." And that includes the United States and Western European countries. When we had someone from Denmark, which is a very advanced country in terms of its libraries, that person learned as much from the people from other countries as they did from him.
FORD: It's definitely a sharing. We offer a focus on vision and positive achievement and not on problems. We focus on how we build on what we've achieved and move toward what we want to do.
CHOLDIN: We always try to tell our visitors that libraries in the U.S. have made many mistakes, and how important it is for them to hear about our mistakes, so that they don't make the same ones. That has been refreshing to many people, to hear that everything wasn't milk and honey over here.
AL: Are they in a position to ensure that those mistakes don't get made?
FORD: One of our programs is a partnership program, and this really helps people build on what they experience with us. …