Betty Joan Blackman: Embracing Life Outside the Safe Zone

Today’s post was written by Nicole L. Murph, ’04, reference and instruction librarian.

I heard of Betty Blackman for the first time in October 2022. In our library’s Microsoft Teams channel, my circulation colleague, Reggie Melonson, ’79 (now retired), posted an update that Betty Blackman died on October 4. She was 90 years old. Betty was the library director at the Von der Ahe Library from 1979-1986 (the position of library dean was not created until 2006 when the university hired the current dean, Kristine Brancolini). Glenn Johnson-Grau, head of acquisitions and collection development, responded to Reggie’s post with a link to the California Library Leader Memory Project, an oral history project Betty was interviewed for in 2014.  Beyond this, I knew little of who Betty Blackman was.

In March 2023, I had lunch with my aunt Regina, uncle Gary, and my cousin Quinn. My aunt shared with me that another relative in the family is a librarian too but recently passed away. Her name is Betty Blackman. I perked up. What a small world. I learned from my aunt that Betty is the first cousin to my aunt’s former mother-in-law, Betty Turney (who recently turned 102 years old). Turney is grandmother to my other two cousins, Marlo and Monica, my aunt’s daughters. Marlo recently completed her studies in librarianship. Learning about Betty Blackman, I also learned about my extended family on my aunt’s side of the family.

A few weeks later, my aunt invited me to a family memorial for Betty. On May 21, I joined my aunt, uncle, and my two cousins and we attended the memorial in Inglewood, where Betty lived. For the first time, I met extended family members, primarily nieces and nephews Betty referred to as “niblings” and “grand niblings,” and her cousins. I saw Betty’s Zeta Phi Beta Sorority sisters who were all dressed in their sorority color, blue, and members of the California Librarians Black Caucus, both public and academic librarians, some of whom are retired but still active in the field.

Betty was born and raised in Yellow Springs, Ohio. My father’s side of the family, in which my uncle is his brother, came from Springfield, Ohio. My uncle met Betty’s niece and the Ohio connections showed. “Do you remember so and so?”  “My memory escapes me, but I do remember the small market and high school you are talking about.”  “Haha, there was only one high school in Yellow Springs!”  “I know. Springfield and Yellow Springs are only so many miles apart from one another.” Our families were part of the Great Migration, primarily migrated from Georgia to Ohio and from there, California. The memorial included a line-up of speakers from niblings and grand niblings, sorority sisters, librarians, and friends. I continued to learn about Betty as a librarian, historian, daughter, aunt, mentor, friend, and comedian. Attending her memorial filled in the gaps of what I was able to learn about Betty from our own library’s archives.

Prior to the memorial, I spent time in our library’s archives (part of the University Archives collection) to view materials we have during Betty’s tenure as a library director. I went through several boxes and during her seven years at the library, I only found a couple of folders that contained several photos of Betty, meeting minutes recorded by Betty for LMU’s chapter of the California Women in Higher Education (CWHE), and some correspondence between Betty and a particular Jesuit priest-faculty working in the space. I saw more files on her predecessor, Reverend Theodore Marshall, S.J., librarian Dorothy O’ Malley, and information on the building of the Von Der Ahe (the previous location of LMU’s library before the William H. Hannon Library opened in 2009).

photo of staff standing outside eating
Betty Blackman and library staff at staff picnic, August 26, 1982

In reviewing the limited amount of materials I had in front of me on Betty, I took the “big picture” approach and looked at materials during Reverend Marshall’s time as a library director, learned about Dorothy O’Malley and some of the Jesuit priests and Marymount sisters whom Betty worked with in the library and/or on committees, and the history of the library’s physical locations on campus.  What I learned from the library’s collection is this: Betty was the first secular, woman, and Black library director of the library at LMU. She was right there in the middle of a generational change that was representative of the changes America was experiencing resulting from major movements and events such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War. Betty was 48 years old when she first started working at LMU. She was the bridge from Jesuit leadership to secular leadership at the library. Betty diversified the library through hiring and by opening spaces for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ voices, especially student voices, through exhibitions and events. Several of the old guards among the Jesuits were not comfortable with these types of changes, including a fear of Communist influence, as politely expressed in their correspondence to Betty in which Betty responded in kind, holding her own.

Typed meeting minutes
CWHE Meeting Minutes, January 30, 1986

Betty represented change in the context of race, gender, and outlook. LMU was approximately six years into being a co-ed university after Loyola University merged with Marymount College. I can see this change in the photos up until the 1960s. There is a 1940 photo of all male students studying in the library (originally located in St. Roberts) with librarian, Dorothy O’Malley in the background. After the merger, I see photos of men and women studying in the library. In the meeting minutes for the CWHE committee, through a speaker recommendation, Betty reminded the board the importance of “microcomputers” and its impact on the campus community including needed training and information to help staff be at ease in using the devices. The library’s physical space was changing as shown in a 1929 architect drawing of a proposed classical style building to its location in St. Roberts to the Von der Ahe building, a newly built modernist style building in the late 1960s. Shortly after the library’s opening in Von der Ahe, the building experienced an expansion in the mid-1970s, under Reverend Marshall who originally oversaw the building of Von der Ahe.

Betty Blackman left LMU in 1986 to serve as Dean of Libraries at California State University (CSU), Dominguez Hills from 1986 until she retired in 1999. She was the first Black librarian to serve as Dean of Libraries in the entire CSU system.

At the memorial, listening to family, friends, and colleagues of Betty, my knowledge of her personalized and the experience further filled in the gaps and validated what I observed of Betty in our library’s collections. She was actively involved with her sorority sisters and in librarianship from the 1960s until her passing. Throughout her life and career, she spoke out and pushed back against injustices and was persistent and focused on implementing change in the system. Betty was an ardent supporter of the Spectrum Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships for BIPOC students receiving their degrees in the field.  Betty mentored library professionals including those studying to be librarians and early career librarians. All of this is important for people of color and their own experiences in a field that is comprised of mostly white women.

After she retired, Betty continued to be active in librarianship including advocacy and mentoring. As I learned from others and read in her memorial booklet, Betty continued to “…embrace life outside the safe zone” (“Betty Joan Blackman,” 2023) and encouraged people to do the same. While caregiving for her aging mother, she did stand-up comedy as a form of relief from the challenges of being a caregiver. She wrote her own jokes and performed live at venues in Los Angeles such as the Hollywood Improve and The Comedy Store and she was good at it.

As an early career librarian, an LMU alum, and a family member, I wish I knew Betty before her passing. I felt this while researching the archives, but the feeling hit me hard during her memorial as it was more personal. Betty would see someone like me, a new librarian, and would not hesitate to be a mentor. She is an inspiration. To know her and I are related through family is an honor.

Nicole in commencement regalia with a badge for Betty BlackmanSince her tenure, there has only been a total of three Black librarians at the William H. Hannon Library: Betty Joan Blackman (1979-1986), Aisha Conner-Gaten (2016-2020), and me, Nicole Lucero Murph (Library: 2020-Present; CFA: 2012-2020). It speaks to librarianship and academia, both of which have a long road ahead in diversifying. In light of the book bans and recent Supreme Court rulings on ending affirmative action in college admissions, blocking student loan debt relief, and legalizing LGBTQ+ discrimination, as a professor mentor told me, Betty was in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement and now, librarians such as myself are in the middle of human rights movements.  Betty Blackman is a trailblazer and continues to be one in spirit.