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Robert Blackburn, U of T's pioneering former chief librarian, celebrates 100th birthday

Written by Geoff Vendeville, U of T News

Robert BlackburnThe University of Toronto and its surroundings have changed a lot since Robert Blackburn started at U of T Libraries in 1947.

Classes were packed with veterans of the Second World War. On the radio, Francis Craig crooned, “There's just one place for me, near you.” And Canadian citizenship had just been created (until then, Canadians were British subjects).

Blackburn took the helm of the libraries in 1954 and was the first to officially hold the title of chief librarian, retiring after 27 years. On Feb. 3, he celebrated another important milestone: his 100thbirthday.

His busy tenure at U of T encompassed the building of Robarts Library and first efforts to automate the library catalogue with computers, setting the example for institutions around the globe. 

When he visits U of T Libraries these days, he’s proud of what it’s become – and also somewhat relieved that he's no longer in charge. “There is still the intensity of study going on around me,” he says, “but now in ample space and pleasant physical environment and I am no longer responsible for the budget, staffing, services or security.” 

Over tea in Blackburn's Streetsville home, which he bought for $9,000 in 1950, he looked back on the chapters of his life. He took out a manila folder and leafed through photos of himself over the years: as a baby in his parents' arms, a wide-eyed university freshman, an Air Force navigator and a librarian.

He spent his childhood on a farm in Vegreville, Alta., east of Edmonton – where his life might have taken a drastically different turn if not for a lucky harvest. 

In his youth, the economy was mired in the Great Depression, and his family could not have afforded to send him to university if not for a good barley crop one dry summer. They sold the crop for $490, enough to cover his first year at the University of Alberta.

He wrote about the significance of that crop many decades later in his memoirs, From Barley Field to AcademeIt was a life-changing stroke of luck – particularly since he didn't appear to have a knack for farming. “You better get that boy all the education he can hold,” his grandfather had said. “He'll never make a farmer.”

Read more about the life and legacy of Robert Blackburn at U of T News.