Lawrence University is mourning the death of retired library director Dennis Ribbens, who oversaw the university’s transition to the digital age of library services.
He died Monday at his home in Watersmeet, Michigan. He was 86.
Ribbens served as library director from 1971 to 1998, a time that saw unprecedented change at Lawrence, including the transition from the Samuel Appleton Library to the current Seeley G. Mudd Library. With it came the move to digitally accessible library materials, a massive undertaking that took years of planning and execution.
Ribbens also was a member of the faculty, teaching Freshman Studies (now First-Year Studies), among other things, which aligned with his lifelong passions for reading, language, and nature.
For Peter Gilbert, the Alice G. Chapman Director of the Seeley G. Mudd Library, Ribbens was a mentor who provided guidance that is still felt decades later.
“Dennis was a big influence on my professional life,” Gilbert said. “When he hired me, I was just a kid fresh out of library school and he was a respected teacher, a dedicated scholar, and a library leader in state, local, and national organizations—it was intimidating. In the day-to-day, though, Dennis was a calm presence, always ready to offer steady direction and sage advice about libraries, librarianship, teaching and learning, and life.”
Ribbens was honored with a faculty award citation upon his retirement in 1998 and awarded the degree of Master of Arts, ad eundem. He was applauded for leading the charge in modernizing the university’s library services.
“Your leadership has helped us make those transitions gracefully,” then-President Richard Warch said at the time.
His work extended far beyond Lawrence, with his love of Wisconsin, books, and libraries at the forefront. With the cooperation of Banta Corp. and the Wisconsin Library Association, he initiated the Banta Award, given annually to the best book by a Wisconsin author. He was active with the Wisconsin Library Association, including serving as president.
He had a particular fondness for nature writing, with a special focus on Aldo Leopold. He spent his retirement years in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, enjoying the outdoors at every turn.
Lawrentians past and present can feel Ribbens’ legacy every time they enter or digitally access Mudd Library, Gilbert said.
“During Dennis’ years at Lawrence, we went from the Samuel Appleton Library to the Seeley G. Mudd and from the card catalog that took up a big chunk of the first floor to an online catalog that would eventually be available on your phone,” he said. “It was a lot of work but it was all done with the intention of making the library better able to serve the students, faculty, and staff of Lawrence.”
Six of Ribbens’ eight children would go on to attend Lawrence.
He is survived by his wife, Harriet, five sons, two daughters, 24 grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.
A funeral service is planned for 2 p.m. Monday, March 7 at Covenant Christian Reformed Church in Appleton. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that you thank a teacher who made a difference in your life, or, if you prefer, make a donation to the Ice Age Trail or a local food pantry.