Changing of the Editorial Guard

American Libraries, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Changing of the Editorial Guard


Minced words are never on the menu when Lillian Gerhardt is serving up an editorial, but the outspoken editor-in-chief of School Library Journal ends her 32-year career at SLJ with retirement at the end of this month, leaving behind a respected legacy of intelligent and reasoned analysis of the issues that affect library service to children.

After starting her career as a children's librarian in Connecticut, then moving on to children's book reviewing at Kirkus Reviews, Gerhardt came to SLJ in 1966 as executive book review editor. Five years later, she was chief editor.

Gerhardt agreed to a June 10 departing interview by telephone with American Libraries Editor Leonard Kniffel. When AL caught up with her, she was planning her Arbuthnot Honor Lecture, which she will deliver next year, capping a career's worth of achievement that also includes the 1995 Grolier Award from ALA for editorial excellence. The interview transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

AL: When you look back at your career, what do you regard with the greatest pride?

Gerhardt: You know, that is not an easy question, because every time an issue of the magazine comes out, I want to consider it a great contribution.

I would say that I settle on three things: The first editions of Children's Books in Print and Subject Guide to Children's Books in Print were tremendous projects when I was a School Library Journal book review editor. For the first time, people working with children and young adults could easily find the books that were actually available for sale.

Second, persuading Dan Melcher and Eric Moon to agree to allow School Library Journal's book review section to expand to cover all general trade books, rather than stick with a page budget, fixed it so that there was at least one source that was examining the most accessible books. I am sure that when the decision was taken and the agreement was made, nobody foresaw the day when there would be 4,000 new children's books being ushered on the marketplace every year, but we have managed to stick with our promise of trying to cover everything issued for the general trade.

The third thing is persuading a succession of publishers to let School Library Journal grow from nine issues a year to 12.

AL: Which of your editorials stand out as having made the most difference?

Gerhardt: "Taking Trash Lightly," the January 1982 editorial in which I made up the Ten Commandments of selecting trash for your collection. I have found it framed and posted in public library book rooms and in school libraries, too. I suppose it helps to justify the presence of books that people find less-than-quality -- like comic books, the Nancy Drew series, the Hardy Boys, all of those things that are affectionately disregarded as trash.

The other one that I have found posted in both school and public libraries I wrote in the November 1993 issue. I called it "Cash Speak" and it came from a dinner in Chicago's Gold Coast area, when for the millionth time in my career, my host was saying that of course he didn't have much familiarity with libraries because "when the kids need any books for school, we buy our books." I decided to check on how much a term paper costs: a top-rated one, a medium-grade one, and just an ordinary one. It costs thousands of dollars. People just latched onto that. It has been republished in China, can you believe it? It has been republished in Australia and Canada and in newspapers, too. School librarians have asked for it again and again and public librarians, too.

AL: What or who have been your greatest influences?

Gerhardt: Well, I have to start with my mother. She wasn't able to finish school and she was a great admirer of education, self-education. She did not believe that a day should pass without some reading in it. A day hasn't passed....

AL: What made a librarian out of you? …

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