This issue: Summer 2017

Merrill Johnson

Longtime dean of libraries led digital transition at George Fox

By Sean Patterson

Merrill Johnson can’t help but chuckle reminiscing about the “good old days” when he arrived at George Fox as a reference librarian in 1980. Back then, the school’s library provided access to about 550 journals and periodicals, and people searched for books using a card catalog system. The words “download,” “internet” and “online” had yet to enter the cultural lexicon.

Fast forward to 2017: The library now provides access to 100,000 electronic journals, 2 million tracks of digitized audio, 350,000 eBooks, and an untold number of books through the Orbis Cascade Alliance of 39 member schools in the Pacific Northwest. It also offers a Digital Commons – a repository of faculty and student scholarship, school publications and archival materials – that, in the past year, had 175,000 downloads.

Merrill Johnson

Johnson, 68, is retiring this summer after 37 years at George Fox – the last 33 of which he’s served as director or dean of the library. When he reflects on his career, he’s most proud of the fact he and his team were quick to adapt to an ever-changing learning environment.

“If there’s one thing that really stands out, that’s it – our ability to anticipate and to be proactive when it came to meeting the needs of our students and faculty,” he says. “So, as the curriculum changed, as we’ve grown, as we’ve added so many graduate programs, I think we’ve done a really good job of adapting – of anticipating where the university was going – and making the library relevant within that context.”

The impact of the digital age is a more recent phenomenon. Before that, in 1988, Johnson was chair of the building committee that expanded the Shambaugh Library into the Murdock Learning Resource Center, doubling the size of the building. And in 1996, when the library transitioned to a digital system, Johnson creatively found ways to sell the old card catalog system, dubbing it “a collector’s dream.”

More recently, as dean of libraries, he oversaw the remodeling of the Newberg and Portland libraries to create more collaborative learning spaces, in partnership with the institutional technology department and the school’s Academic Resource Center, among others.

While the way the library serves its users is drastically different than when he started, Johnson maintains some things haven’t changed.

“It still takes a great team to make it all work, which hasn’t changed over the years,” he says. “Some people may just think, ‘Well, it’s all online.’ There’s more to it than that. You still need quality people to find, evaluate and come up with the best resources in order to meet people’s needs, and to provide important new services in an ever-changing environment.”

Looking ahead, Johnson plans to do volunteer work, spend more time with his wife Candy, do extensive research into his family’s history, and continue to support the university he’s called home since the Carter administration.

“What’s funny is I’ll probably have more time now to go to concerts, theatre productions and other university events,” he says. “But I’ll miss working here. Throughout all the years I’ve had the opportunity to work with some amazing people. We certainly had a lot of fun over the years.”

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