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Memorial: Robert Harold Blackburn, 1919–2019

Robert Blackburn
Robert Blackburn, photo by Geoffrey Vendeville

Robert Harold Blackburn, former chief librarian for University of Toronto, died on September 17, 2019, at age 100.

Blackburn began his library career in a storefront branch of Calgary Public Library in 1945. Two years later he moved to the University of Toronto Libraries as associate director. In 1954 he was promoted to chief librarian and served in that role until his retirement in 1981.

Under Blackburn’s leadership, the University of Toronto Libraries built world-class collections, adding close to 5 million volumes from almost every country in the world. The libraries became a leader in developing information technology tools and services, including the precursor to the MARC record and the University of Toronto Library Automated System (UTLAS). The John P. Robarts Research Library and the adjacent Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library were also designed and built during Blackburn’s tenure, opening in 1973.

In 1963, Blackburn was instrumental in the University of Toronto becoming the first institution outside of the American Midwest and the twenty-second voting member to join the Center for Research Libraries (CRL), then called the Midwest Inter-Library Center. Blackburn participated in the 1964 meeting where the council rewrote the center’s constitution to attract new members and changed the center’s name. Blackburn also chaired the CRL Board of Directors in 1967–1968, when the center established a new fee scale and a special membership category for smaller institutions. By 1982, CRL had 67 associate members and 123 voting members, including 7 Canadian universities.

Blackburn was active in the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) as well. He served on the ARL Board of Directors twice (1965–1968, 1971–1973), chaired the Committee on Specifications for Study of Automation (1970), and served on the Preservation of Research Library Materials Committee for over a decade (1963–1975).

Memorial contributions may be made to Friends of Fisher Library, University of Toronto Libraries Advancement, 130 St. George St., Room 2005, Toronto M5S 1A5.

For more information about Blackburn’s life and career, see the obituary published in the Globe and Mail and the University of Toronto Libraries news release “Mourning Robert Blackburn, U of T’s Pioneering Former Chief Librarian, 1919–2019.”