Eliza T. Dresang, the Beverly Cleary Professor in Children and Youth Services at the University of Washington Information School, died on April 21. She was 72.
Dresang, a longtime professor of library science, devoted her career to literacy and children, revolutionizing the field. She was perhaps best known for her pivotal book Radical Change: Books for Youth in a Digital Age (H. W. Wilson, 1999), in which she discussed more than 200 titles for children and young adults that she believed were crucial for educators to be aware in light of the new digital world. The book highlights many books written in a nonlinear style, as well as titles that embraced topics considered taboo at the time, such as sexuality and death, and other books featuring minority and marginalized populations.
She was inspired to write the book after serving on the 1991 Caldecott Award Committee, which selected David Macaulay’s Black and White (Houghton, 1990), a picture book comprised of four seemingly unrelated stories that were thematically linked. When she discovered that adults didn’t take to the book as readily as children, Dresang was intrigued and compelled to pen Radical Change; its discussion of boundary-pushing titles altered how librarians looked at literature.
Dresang’s work had an enormous impact in the field, with both professional publications and library leaders extolling its strengths. School Library Journal called Radical Change “a valuable overview of the recent evolution of children’s literature and a wonderful resource list…that readers will find themselves turning to repeatedly.” Kathleen T. Horning, director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center in Madison, WI, said that the book “transformed the way we think about young readers and their books and helped to shape our critical thinking in the 21st century.” Kathleen Burnett, Director of the School of Information and F. William Summers Professor at the Florida State University College of Communication & Information, said that it “changed the landscape for youth scholarship in our field, shifting the focus from resources to youth themselves.”
Born in Atlanta, GA, in 1941, Dresang graduated from Emory University before teaching Spanish in Los Angeles, CA. She briefly considered obtaining a master’s degree in French literature until deciding to pursue graduate work in library science at UCLA. She obtained a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Dresang held a variety of librarian positions—working as a children’s librarian at the Encino Tarzan branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, the Ida Williams branch of the Atlanta Public Library, and as a media specialist at Lapham Elementary School in the Madison (WI) Metropolitan School District (MMSD) during the 1970s. But her role as a leader within the library community took off when she published the School Library Journal article “There Are No Other Children: Special Children in Library Media Centers” in 1977.
Dresang spent 16 years working at MMSD, making improvements to the district’s school library programs, which led to the district being named a runner-up for the American Association of School Librarians’ National School Library Media Program of the Year Award. She also taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during that period.
In 1996, she joined Florida State University’s College of Information as an associate professor and was awarded the Eliza Atkins Gleason Professorship in 2004. In 2009, Dresang became the Beverly Cleary Professor in Children’s and Youth Services at the University of Washington Information School.
Dresang also served on numerous committees, including the Newbery, Caldecott, and Batchelder Award committees. She won a variety of prizes, such as the 2007 Scholastic Library Publishing Award, presented to a librarian whose work promoting literacy and reading among young people exemplifies achievement in the profession. Recently, the University of Washington’s iSchool was granted $100,000 to invite 60 librarians and other innovators to a national leadership forum this October. Dresang was project director of the enterprise.
Though she held a variety of positions, from public and school libraries to more academic settings, Dresang embraced every aspect of libraries. Marc Aronson, author and lecturer in Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information, who knew Dresang for more than 20 years, said, “In all of these roles, there was Eliza: the careful author, the inspired and inspiring thinker, the lover of nonfiction, the bright mind at the heart of books for young readers.”
Judy T. Nelson, youth customer experience manager at the Pierce County Library System and a member of the Cleary Chair Committee, spoke of Dresang’s dedication to “all librarians. In her own classroom, she prepared new librarians to be excellent effective youth librarians. In her work with her doctoral students, she infused them with the desire to use research to support libraries. And with those of us out here in the working libraries, she was always asking what support we needed from her and from the university to be the best we could be for our youth and their families. She did this every day with grace, humor, and a positive demeanor. We will miss her and should honor her by continuing her good work.”
In addition to a rich professional legacy, Dresang also leaves a personal one behind, with those who knew her speaking fondly of their personal memories. Horning called Dresang “one of the kindest, most generous people I have ever known.” Ginny Moore Kruse, a longtime friend and emerita director of the CCBC School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said, “to the extent possible, she lived her life on her own terms, and that’s also how her extremely active life so full of plans on behalf of others and for herself ended. She knew as she died that she was surrounded by love. What she would never know is how many people across the nation and beyond are affected by losing her.”