At 22 years old, William Crowe found himself supervising about 30 typists in the Boston Public Library.
Working with women his mother’s age, he had designs on improving their work through various time and motion efficiency studies.
One day, one of the women set him straight.
“Leave us alone. We’ll get the job done,” she said.
It’s a lesson he carried with him for the next 40 years while working in libraries, a career dedicated to helping people find the information they need. Now 63 years old, he’ll retire fully from Kansas University after a send-off ceremony next month.
Throughout his career, he said, it’s always been about looking forward.
He’s served as Kansas University’s dean of libraries, vice chancellor for information services and head of Spencer Research Library. For the past three years, he’s been working as a special assistant to the current dean of libraries, Lorraine Haricombe, in a phased retirement program.
Tracing his career and family life, he had no trouble recalling specific dates, names and places. Crowe mentioned in passing that the director of libraries at the University of Michigan had been 63 years old in 1978 — the same age he is today.
“We do have Post-It note brains,” he said in a recent interview. “You connect these unobvious dots.”
Still, he said, his brain finds ways to keep him humble — he had forgotten to grab a belt on his way out the door that morning.
Coming to KU in 1990, Crowe helped bring the library system into the digital age.
Ron Francisco, a professor of political science who was chairman of the search committee that recruited Crowe to KU, praised Crowe’s work in creating incentives for librarians, raising more private dollars for libraries and serving on national boards and committees.
“He was a wonderfully great dean,” Francisco said. “He did a good job there.”
At Spencer Research Library, too, Crowe did wonders to open the library’s doors to the public, changing the mentality from a place focused on preserving rare books and archives to one focused on sharing the materials, said Kathleen McCluskey-Fawcett, director of KU’s honors program.
She had worked with Crowe while she was serving as senior vice provost for academic affairs. She remembered he also opened up some of Spencer’s best spaces for meetings and other entertainment opportunities.
“He brought food into the North Gallery,” she said, referring to one of Spencer’s signature spaces, with a glass-enclosed book stack, and a picturesque view of the Campanile, Memorial Stadium and the Kansas River. “It’s got one of the best views on campus, and most people had never seen it from that angle before.”
While working at Indiana University, Crowe met his wife, Nancy Sanders, from a Douglas County family whose family’s roots stretch back to the Civil War era.
He said he and his wife, who died in 2005, were very happy with each other. They met when they were each studying the same career path in Indiana.
Though they both had worked for much of their careers, she stayed home once he got the KU job. She would occasionally work on some home improvement projects and helped raise their daughter, Katie. Today, she too, works as a librarian, in Denver.
The family established an endowed fund to create a scholarship for a student studying under a library mentor, to help further the profession. It’s named after Nancy’s parents — Raymond and Dorothy Sanders.
A native Bostonian, Crowe said he remains fascinated by how many connections people form in the Midwest. He’s been involved in the community, and helped organize Lawrence’s sesquicentennial celebration.
“People actually know each other here,” he said.
Though he wasn’t involved in the selection process for the first scholar to receive the award named for his in-laws, he happened to know a relative of the recipient.
The whole concept reflects one of Crowe’s thoughts on his chosen profession. When interviewing potential young librarians, many would tell him how much they liked to read.
He’d always ask them how they felt about people, and said one could tell a lot about a candidate by his or her reactions.
“People make this into a book profession,” Crowe said. “It’s a people profession.”