Skip to main content

Mourning Robert Blackburn, U of T's pioneering former Chief Librarian, 1919-2019


Photo by Geoffrey Vendeville

Former Chief Librarian, Robert H. Blackburn, passed away this past Tuesday September 17.  He celebrated his 100th birthday last February.  Blackburn served as Associate Director of the University of Toronto Libraries from 1947 to 1954 when he was appointed Chief Librarian.  He served as Chief Librarian until his retirement in 1981.   Under his leadership, the libraries built world class collections adding almost 5 million volumes from almost every country in the world.  During his tenure, the library became a leader in information technology creating the precursor to the MARC record in 1961 and establishing the pioneering University of Toronto Library Automated System (UTLAS) that eventually provided information technology services as well as metadata creation and discovery tools to libraries around the world.  

The John P. Robarts Library and the adjacent Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library were also conceived, designed, built, and occupied during Blackburn's tenure as Chief Librarian.  With over 1 million square feet, the Robarts Library complex is one of the world’s iconic library buildings and has been used by literally millions of students and faculty since it opened in 1973. 

Blackburn was also a prolific writer.  His books include a history of the University of Toronto Libraries, Evolution of the Heart, and a charming and insightful autobiography, From Barley Field to Academe.  Blackburn remained deeply interested in the libraries after his retirement, regularly attending events and was curious and engaged about the work being done here.  His questions and comments were always insightful even though he retired from the libraries over 38 years ago.  The Libraries were privileged to host Blackburn at a reception to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the University of Toronto Libraries in 2017, and the Chief Librarian hosted a luncheon earlier this year to celebrate Blackburn's 100th birthday

The family will hold a celebration of the life in a few weeks.