The news came in late last night — while I was still finishing the story about SMU’s new drama department chair — that former Dallas Public Library director Lillian Moore Bradshaw had died at 95. Robert Wilonsky provides a good obit at Unfair Park for the woman who more or less made the downtown library what it is, not just the building but its remarkable collections in first editions and art books, and who also significantly expanded the city’s library system.
When I was the book critic at the Dallas Morning News — and the father of a young daughter with an intense reading habit — I became very interested in the state of the Dallas library, eventually writing several columns and a sizable feature on the system, when it came up in a new bond package. What I found was how difficult it was to get administrators in the city system to talk about money needs, crumbling library buildings, cutbacks in purchasing new books and periodicals, all the embarrassing rest of it. Individual librarians might speak out, but to get a frank, knowledgeable, system-wide perspective was tough.
Unless you talked to Ms. Bradshaw. I can’t convey the delight a journalist has when he finds someone like her. The fearless, blunt honesty of the woman was so refreshing, I often laughed out loud while talking to her on the phone. She had the reputation of being a smart politician — she couldn’t be anything else, considering she got the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library built — but she also was extremely principled when it came to such issues as intellectual freedom and the future of the library. The city’s money-saving policy of “deferred maintenance” she translated as “just letting uncollected trash pile up.” People who thought the Dallas library shouldn’t be in the business of owning a rare broadsheet copy of the Declaration of Independence or many other highly valuable books and publications “had never seen the New York Public Library.” They wanted to confine a library’s scope and ambition to “grade school reading lists.”
Yes, she believed in the library’s prime educational purpose. But she saw the free public library as so much more — one of the great inventions of American democracy, practically a foundation stone of human cultural endeavor.
Talking to her, I understood why Tennessee Williams said years ago that, despite Dallas’ reputation as an alpha-male businessman’s town, the city’s real strength and spirit were in its women. And after talking to her, I had to conclude that many city appointments — since Bradshaw’s tenure from 1962-1984 — were made with an eye toward picking career-administrators who would safely, wisely, keep their mouths shut.