University Archivist Retires
Maher Touted as ‘champion of integrity’
The man who devoted nearly half a century to preserving the history of the University of Illinois has closed his own chapter with the institution as he stepped down from the University Archives in December.
Longtime head archivist William J. Maher—known for his prodigious capacity for detail, his international reputation as a copyright expert, and his passion for grappling with the university’s heritage—retired December 31 after 45 years of service. Of Maher’s departure, Chancellor Robert J. Jones said, “I recognize that we are losing several encyclopedias of institutional knowledge and a champion of honesty and integrity.”
Maher, MS ’91 LIS, first arrived at Illinois in 1977, drawn to learn the archival trade from the campus’s esteemed first archivist, Maynard Brichford. “I couldn’t have done any better anywhere else,” said Maher, who earned degrees in history from Case Western University and Washington University. “I learned a tremendous amount from him, the way he approached history, and the job of the record keeping and the dedication to the institution.”
Upon becoming head archivist in 1995, Maher grew the scope, staff size, reference team, and professional stature of the unit, as well as upgraded its facilities to its current location on the Main Library’s first floor. But perhaps his most outstanding legacy is the tremendous effort he took to bring people to understand the importance of maintaining a record of an institution, as well as his firm commitment to creating an archive that acts as a “vibrant place of interchange” between staff and users.
“[Archives] are the authentic record of the past. And it is essential for society and institutions and individuals to be able to connect with the past so they understand their identities,” Maher said, “that they understand the culture in which they live and . . . that the Archives need to exist to provide accountability for the institution.”
To nurture his vision of dynamic use of the unit, Maher fostered a welcoming attitude on the part of his staff. “Bill has built an environment where you can be . . . a sixth-grade student without any research background, and you’ll be treated as respectfully and seriously as a scholar that’s been . . . globe hopping,” said Joanne Kaczmarek ’88 LAS, MS ’00 LIS, director of Records and Information Management Services. “Part of what Bill is known for is helping people understand [that] the relationships between information and . . . what sometimes might seemingly not be very significant” can be seen as significant when put in context.
Maher counts it “a great good fortune” that as a young professional he landed at Illinois, entrusted with safekeeping the history and heritage of a leading research institution. “[It] is a responsibility that I have been really privileged to have had,” he said.
In addition to his archival duties, Maher participated in the University Senates Conference and the Urbana-Champaign Senate, as well as national and international professional groups, including the World Intellectual Property Organization. In 2017 he received the Chancellor’s Medallion, the highest honor awarded by the Urbana-Champaign campus.
Kaczmarek will take over as interim archivist in January as a search committee is formed. Known for her innovation, collaboration, and flexible thinking, she has worked for the University Archives for more than two decades, focusing primarily on the shift from paper to electronic records.
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