We write to pay tribute to the life and work of our friend and colleague John Donald Byrum, a leading figure in national and international cataloguing for many decades and a wise and valued mentor. His Washington Post obituary described him as a quiet and thoughtful man, and so he was, but those of us who spent time with him in professional meetings and in private life knew him to be warm, witty, and convivial—the best of company and the best of friends.
John Donald Byrum was born in 1940 in Wenatchee, Washington. He excelled in high school and was selected to deliver his class commencement address. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1962 and received a master’s degree from the Graduate School of Library Service at Rutgers University in 1966. He was a cataloguer at Princeton University and was head cataloguer there when he left, in 1976, to join the Library of Congress—the institution where he spent the rest of his professional life, a period of 30 years.
While at LC, he was the successful head of various divisions within that library’s complex and mutable structure. LC was the base for his engagement with international bibliographic control on two fronts. First, his leadership was instrumental in establishing and developing the Program for Cooperative Cataloging, an international program with almost 1000 member institutions whose work benefits all libraries. Second, he became a leading figure in international cataloguing standardization.
John was the chair of the ALA Resources and Technical Services Division (RTSD, the precursor of ALCTS) Catalog Code Revision Committee and the ALA representative to the Joint Steering Committee for Revision of AACR (Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules). One author of this tribute can attest to the essential role that John played in all the multi-year, multi-national, and infinitely complex discussions and negotiations that led to the creation and revision of the Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, 2nd edition, and can state unequivocally that, without John’s work, AACR2 may never have been achieved. John was chair of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) International Standard Bibliographic Description (ISBD) Review Group and played a key role in the formulations of many applications of the ISBD, still the most widely used and enduring international bibliographic standard ever. He was also a founding and prominent member of the IFLA Study Group on the Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records (FRBR), leading to the development of the FRBR model.
John was an influential writer and a respected speaker on all aspects of national and international bibliographic control. He was active in ALA, particularly in RTSD and ALCTS, and in IFLA, where he was a recognized and authoritative voice of American librarianship
John received many awards and honors throughout his distinguished career. They included the RTSD Esther J. Piercy Award in 1975 for, presciently, “a librarian with not more than 10 years of professional experience who has shown outstanding promise for continuing contribution and leadership”; ALCTS’ Margaret Mann Citation in 1998 for “outstanding professional achievement in cataloging or classification either through publication of significant professional literature, participation in professional cataloging associations, or valuable contributions to practice in individual libraries” (note that John qualified by all three criteria); and ALA’s Melvil Dewey Medal in 2006. The medal is awarded for “recent creative leadership of high order, particularly in those fields in which Melvil Dewey was actively interested.” Specifically, John’s award was given in recognition of his “creating, expanding, and sustaining the Program for Cooperative Cataloging…one of the most successful and dynamic programs in the history of bibliographic control” and his “engagement with IFLA and international cataloging from his pioneering work on the International Standard Bibliographic Description (ISBD) in the 1970s to his most recent work to promote MARC harmonization.”
After his retirement in 2006, John audited many courses at George Mason University and served as a volunteer in nursing homes and animal shelters. He is survived by his partner of many years, Bill Rivera, whom he married in October 2017.
It is hard to summarize a life well lived and career in relatively few words or in lists of accomplishments. Suffice it to say that our friend John Byrum was an outstanding figure in modern librarianship, a man who wore his learning lightly, a good and kindly man with whom it was a great pleasure to share a trip or a meal, and a collegial and persuasive colleague. He will be much missed.
Contributed by Olivia Madison, Carlen Ruschoff, & Michael Gorman