Berry Richards

Berry G. Richards was the first woman director of libraries at Lehigh. (Theo Anderson)

Berry G. Richards: A Pioneer in Library Tech

The first woman director of libraries at Lehigh died in July at age 90.

Pioneers often feel a special responsibility to ease the way for those who come after them, and Berry G. Richards, the first woman director of libraries at Lehigh, met that challenge with foresight and verve, embracing the digital revolution and instituting innovative library technologies.  

Yet Richards, who died July 15, 2021, at age 90, never lost her love of books or short-changed her relationships with staff, faculty and students as she helped shepherd library advancements. 

“She was so brilliant,” said Sharon Wiles-Young, Lehigh’s director of library access services. “She saw strategically into the future ... what kind of technology could be used for libraries.

She could foresee how technology was going to move us forward.”  

Greg Reihman, vice provost for library and technology services, says, “She was using words like ‘virtual library’ back in 1978. She not only had that vision, she was capable of pulling that off. It says something about not just her intellect but also her character, that she pulled that off with collegiality, warmth and generosity.” 

Groundbreaking for Lehigh Library and Computing Center

Berry G. Richards at the groundbreaking for the Lehigh University Library and Computing Center in 1983. From left are Susan Cady; Lynn Milet; Richards and Sharon L. Siegler. (Lehigh University Special Collections)

Richards started as assistant director in charge of the new Mart Library in 1969 and was named libraries director in 1976. She managed the establishment of the first fully functional online interactive information retrieval system, developed by the late Lehigh computer science professor Donald Hillman in the early 1970s. It was called LEADERMART—Lehigh Automatic Device for Efficient Retrieval plus “MART” for the Mart Library, a portion of what is now the E.W. Fairchild-Martindale Library. By the mid-’80s, Lehigh had an automated catalog system named Asa for looking up books and managing collections. 

Richards helped plan the construction of the E.W. Fairchild-Martindale Library and Bayer Galleria of Rare Books. She played a key role in the formation of the university’s Special Collections and in founding the Friends of the Lehigh University Libraries. 

Even while managing such large projects and responsibilities, she practiced kindness and generosity with staff and collaborated well with faculty, colleagues say. 

“She was just so lovely,” Wiles-Young said. “She was so helpful when I interviewed for the job at Lehigh. She made great partnerships with faculty. She was inclusive before the word inclusion was talked about.” 

One year, Richards organized a bus trip to take the libraries’ staff to visit the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Other times, she planned picnics for the department and brought in outside speakers. “She was someone who built connections, who inspired her staff,” Reihman said.  

Richards served on the boards of several library, educational and civic groups and received the Lehigh University Hillman Faculty and Paul Frantz Administration Awards, as well as the SUNY Albany Distinguished Alumna Award. 

The daughter of Greek immigrants, Richards grew up bilingual in North Adams, Massachusetts, often acting as an interpreter for her parents.  She excelled in school from an early age, skipping two grades to become the youngest graduate of her high school class. She received a full scholarship to Vassar College and earned a master’s degree from SUNY Albany. She also took post-graduate work at Drexel University.

She was using words like 'virtual library' back in 1987. She not only had that vision, she was capable of pulling that off.

Greg Reihman, vice provost for library and technology services

“She was what we Bostonians would call ‘wicked smart,’ ” Richards’ sister Artemis Kirk, recalled in a eulogy at  Richards’ funeral at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Bethlehem in July. “Berry was an omnivorous reader from early childhood, and nearly all her life she requested books as gifts. Her literary tastes were wide-ranging from A to Z: Absalom, Absalom to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” 

Richards was a devotee of the Bethlehem Area Public Library who frequently returned books late. When she retired from Lehigh in 1995, the Bethlehem library director joked that since Richards would have time to return books promptly, the city would need to raise taxes to compensate for the lack of revenue from overdue book fines. 

Friends described Richards as caring and compassionate, wise and generous to friends, multiple charities and animals alike. Kirk, who followed in her sister’s vocational footsteps, becoming the university librarian at Georgetown University before retiring,  said her sister cared for a collection of strays and “pre-owned cats outside on her patio.” 

“Some people like Berry collect friends like stray cats,” Kirk said. “Berry also collected stray cats like friends.”  

Daniel Traister, curator of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania, whom Richards hired years ago as a consultant to assess Lehigh’s collections, recalls how Richards’ mild-mannered demeanor belied her steely inner resolve to get things done. 

“The cat lady appearance masked an inner lion,” Traister said. 

In addition to Kirk, Richards is survived by a niece, nephew and other family members, including cousins in the U.S. and Greece. Burial will be in Massachusetts.

By Margie Peterson

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