On a life, our liberty, and the pursuit of reading: a reflection on the life and work of Judith Krug

Two years ago, I had the great privilege of eating dinner with Judith Krug. My wife was giving a two-hour presentation on librarians in film at the annual conference of the Wisconsin Library Association, and as a member of WLA’s Intellectual Freedom Roundtable, she also got to meet and work briefly with Judith Krug, the founder and director of the American Library Association‘s Freedom to Read Foundation and a co-founder of Banned Books Week. Krug was always looking for fresh voices in her passionate campaign for intellectual freedom and First Amendment rights, so after their work was done, she met for dinner with several librarians, including my wife; they graciously invited me to tag along. Krug was the center of attention, of course — she is an icon among librarians, practically a superhero and a living embodiment of the dearest ideals and values of librarians everywhere. She also was a charming woman, witty and outspoken and stylish, both engaging and engaged — she even expressed some interest in my own work, asking after my creative writing and, when the evening was over, wishing me luck on my dissertation, which I was then deep in the process of finishing. She was a delightful, impressive figure even to me, a library proxy who usually only gets to enjoy these sorts of evenings because I was smart enough to marry a librarian, and since that dinner I came to admire and respect her a great deal.

My wife admired and respected her even more, not only because she is a fellow librarian but because Krug later invited Jennifer to join ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, a position which allowed Jennifer to occasionally work with Krug more closely. She frequently speaks of Krug with a kind of reverence, as though speaking of a mentor; indeed, the more librarians I meet, the more I think many people — and not just librarians — viewed Krug as a kind of de facto mentor.

On April 11 this year, Judith Krug died. The nation mourned. (President Obama sent her family a letter of condolence.) But a nation also celebrated her life, none more enthusiastically than librarians and, among librarians, none more than Krug’s friends and colleagues at ALA.

Last night, the Freedom to Read Foundation celebrated its 40th anniversary, as well as the life and legacy of their founder and hero, Judith Krug, with a gala at the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. My wife, of course, attended as a member of the IFC, and I — ever the grateful adjunct to my wife’s library adventures — joined her as a guest. During the course of the evening, book lovers of all sorts chatted over drinks while enjoying a balcony view of Millennium Park and later gazed at the astounding modern art collection (Picasso’s The Old Guitarist is nothing short of breathtaking in person, but I also was stricken by the stark emotion in the early Kandinsky paintings), though, to be honest, the highlight of the gallery was a brief meeting with Judy Blume. Blume was browsing the art with her publisher and with Judith Krug’s husband, but she was kind enough to greet all the admirers who crowded around her, my wife and I among them. We shook her hand and praised her speech in Madison, WI, which I have written about elsewhere — she said her husband thought the speech was disjointed and rambling, but I strongly disagreed, much to the delight of Blume’s publisher — and Jennifer told Blume how much librarians everywhere, including Jennifer’s mother, love and admire Blume. Finally, we left Blume alone and descended to a wide reception gallery to gather at small round tables, to eat and celebrate.

After dinner, the Foundation presented a series of awards, including two to Judith Krug — both awards had been announced prior to her death, and the latter, the William J. Brennan, Jr. Award, given by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, was a rare honor indeed: the award has existed since 1993 but has only been given five times. The second, the FTRF Founder’s Award, was in fact created in her honor, and was presented by Krug’s long-time friend and fellow champion of intellectual freedom Judy Blume, who cried during her speech — as did many of the rest of us (yes, including me). Later, we heard a long but pleasant speech by Chicago lawyer and author Scott Turow, of Presumed Innocent fame, and some delightful closing remarks by the FTRF’s treasurer, James G. Neal, but though both men had broader purposes in their speeches — to support the freedom to read and the FTRF’s important mission of promoting First Amendment rights — neither could help praising Judith Krug’s legacy as well. As the founder of the FTRF, long-time director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom, outspoken advocate for readers’ rights, and dedicated warrior librarian fighting censorship everywhere she found it, Judith Krug was, in every way imaginable, literally the reason we had all gathered last night.

These were not the first of Krug’s awards and accolades — she collected pages of them in her life, all to honor her dedication to fighting censorship and promoting the freedom to read — nor were they the first of Krug’s memorial ceremonies at this year’s ALA conference, and they are unlikely to be the last of either. In his letter to Krug’s family and friends (published in the evening’s program), President Obama writes, “I trust that her spirit and strength will continue to serve as a guiding force for everyone who benefited from her life and her life’s work.” The fact is, if you have ever read a book or visited a library, you have benefited, whether directly or indirectly, from Krug’s life and work. That’s how far-reaching and how important Krug was, and how deeply important she remains, to all of us.

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