Judith Nadler announced her retirement from the library in March. (Photography by Laura Demanski, AM’94)

Speaking volumes

Retiring University librarian Judith Nadler reflects on her prolific career.

Library director and University librarian Judith Nadler got her first job at the University of Chicago Library in 1966 as a cataloger of foreign language materials. After 48 years, including ten at the library’s helm, Nadler will retire on June 30. Born in Romania, she studied history and comparative linguistics at the University of Cluj before earning an undergraduate degree in English and Romance studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a master’s degree in library science from the Israel Graduate School, where the program was modeled after that of UChicago’s Graduate Library School. As director, Nadler oversaw the construction and opening of the Mansueto Library, whose underground robotic-retrieval storage system allowed the library to expand without moving volumes off-site and whose Helmut Jahn–designed reading room instantly became a campus and city architectural landmark. The Magazine’s interview with Nadler is edited and adapted below.

Why is now the time to retire? Five decades is a long time. I felt that I have accomplished quite a lot. I leave behind a library that is sturdy and that is successful. The next person in this position will not have to deal with potholes, will just build new avenues, new paths into the future.

What are your first memories of libraries? My first memories of childhood are connected with libraries—not with public or school libraries, but my own parents’ library. My parents both were avid readers. My mother collected heavily literature in English, German, and French. I gravitated to books mostly in German and in English before I understood the language well and before I could even comprehend their meaning. At eight years old I read Goethe and Schiller in German and Gone with the Wind in English. I don’t know exactly what I got out of these books at the time, but I remember how much I loved going into the library and choosing something.

I am Jewish and grew up in a world that was not open to allowing Jews to benefit from cultural life. My parents had to resort to home schooling. Today it has a different meaning. For me, it was a punishment. I wanted to be with other children. In my home the breaks were not with children. This made me more interested in libraries; it opened a world to me that was different than the world I lived in.

How many languages do you know? At home, my first language was German. As soon as I was able to go to school or at least participate in exams, that was in Romanian, the spoken language in the country. With Russian occupation, Russian became the spoken language. I studied Yiddish in middle school. In high school French was a requirement. I had eight years of Latin. Later on in life I lived in Jerusalem, where I completed my studies, and I’m fluent in Hebrew. I also majored in French and Italian. And that adds up to a lot of languages.

Knowing many languages gives you the ability to understand the people you meet on your travels. It allows you to penetrate their culture much better. My having lived in many places, not necessarily by choice always, but because of the need to flee from one place to another, has brought me in contact with different cultures, different people.

Has that affected your career? Very much. My impetus to be a librarian was not the interest in books, which I felt I could pursue anyway. It was an environment where you can work closely with people. I was never interested in a position in the library that in one way or another didn’t connect me with people. I started as a foreign language translator and cataloger, a backroom function. But I always found a way to somehow push myself into the front rooms and interact with those I served.

Is there a harmony between you and this institution that kept you here for five decades? I believe there is a great harmony. It is an environment that allows you to succeed in unexpected ways. There is no “the norm.” The norm here is really the open mind. The norm is the rigor. I have seen the future evolving, and I had an opportunity to help it evolve. This takes time. It is an investment. It is a feeling of home. It’s enormous.

What are your plans after retirement? A frequently asked question. Having still a lot of energy, I wouldn’t want to step back and sink into oblivion. I would like to spend some time back in Jerusalem with my alma mater and bring back what I learned here. I want maybe to go back and take some classes in linguistics. I also hope to spend more time with my family. My family has shared me with the University, and not to their advantage. The rest I truly do not know.

What are you reading now? I like to go back and reread books. Although you can say it restricts your universe of reading, it in some ways enriches your universe of reading. Right now I’m reading Stefan Zweig, something that I read many years ago, and I bring to it a different experience, a different age. I’m reading Max Frisch. I like to reread the classics. Many years ago I read them because I had to. Today I read them to understand why I may not have liked them then.

What is your favorite space in all of the campus libraries? I go through the library almost every day—up, down. I like to monitor which spaces are more busy than others, which classrooms. But I every day go into the Mansueto. I like to see it in the sun, in the dark, in the rain, in the storm, under snow. I love it. When you walk in, the sky is the limit.

What was one of your happiest moments here? My life has many stories. I came to the United States on [an exchange] visa with my husband, who had a research fellowship. I was an accompanying spouse so my visa allowed me to work for two years. I wanted to stay, but I had to go back to my country. So I wrote President Johnson, telling him the story of my life through the Holocaust. Telling him I had one child, and I would like her to grow up in a free world. Could he help me stay? I didn’t expect President Johnson or anybody to read it. So my husband and I left. We were in Germany for a week, and I got a call from the University telling me that there is some communication from the government. We don’t fully understand it, but I can come back. I received a presidential waiver from President Johnson. It’s quite incredible.

And what is the thing to be learned from this? It is a thing that I always believed in: aim for the impossible. Many aim for the possible; you have lots of competition there. Aim for the impossible and then there’s a chance.