A bulldog for readers, local librarian Judy Woodward retiring

By Christie Vogt

After more than 30 years with the Ramsey County Library, Judy Woodward has retired, at the end of June, from her post as a reference librarian and history programming coordinator at the library’s Roseville branch.

It was a role that Woodward seems to have been prepared for since childhood.

“I loved history from the moment I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books,” she said. Woodward was a self-described “natural” when it came to reading.

“I gotta say, as a kid, I was probably something of a little know-it-all, too, and that’s not the worst preparation either,” she laughed.

Woodward, a St. Anthony Park resident since 1985, also writes the Bugle’s Ask the Librarian column, which will cease when she retires.

In 2008, Minnesota voters passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, an act that provided public libraries with funding to support the state’s arts and cultural heritage. And that provided Woodward with a career.

“That was the genesis of the history programming,” Woodward explained about her Roseville post. With a history degree from the University of California, Berkeley, Woodward said she felt it was “a perfect job” for her, and she relished the opportunity to launch a lecture series.

“Tuesday with a Scholar” is now the main program that Woodward runs, and its timely topics — from classroom culture wars to gun control — regularly draw hundreds of attendees.

Reflecting on the lectures’ popularity, Woodward said: “I think that there are a lot of people like me who really enjoy an engaging, lively, somewhat intellectually challenging speaker series. A lot of people really loved college, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we all want to go back and take finals or write papers.”

Carol Jackson, a former colleague, noted, “[Woodward] created a community devoted to engaging with Minnesota’s history, arts and culture.” She also spoke of Woodward’s keen sense of which presenters and topics would be a good fit and of her ability to gracefully manage a crowd, especially in the face of controversial subjects.

“She was so good at making people feel that they’re heard, handling the questions and making the presenters feel comfortable,” Jackson said.

Carrie Lyons, Woodward’s supervisor and branch manager, said that because Woodward’s programs have been so popular, people have begun to look to the library for a variety of programs beyond classic offerings like children’s story times.

“Judy’s impact and the popularity of the history programs will impact how libraries are viewed,” Lyons noted. In 2022, the library offered more than 100 history programs with a combined attendance of more than 11,000 people.

Woodward also is chairperson of the protested materials committee, a group that evaluates patrons’ requests for materials to be removed from the library’s collection. In this role, she convenes committee members to examine the work and grounds for protest; Woodward then writes a report with the group’s recommendation, which is submitted to the library director for consideration.

“When I do this, I really like to think of this as education,” Woodward explained. “If I could get one principle across — and I think this principle applies in many of the current controversies about banning materials, not just at our library but nationwide — what I always try to explain is that when you come to the library, you have the right to find a huge variety of materials that apply to you.

“You must understand that we want to have something for everyone. But that doesn’t mean that everything we have is universally acceptable. You are entirely able to make choices for yourself among the materials that we offer; what we can’t have you do is make choices for other people.”

Woodward added, “What I always felt is so important was to treat every complaint with respect, because whether or not you agree with the person” you have to recognize that they’re coming from a place of concern,”

Reflecting on what she has loved most about her career, Woodward said: “I enjoy connecting people with information so much. I started out as what’s called a reference librarian. That means, you have a question, you come in, and I find the answer. I love finding the answer — I’m a bulldog finding the answer, but I also love the connection with human beings.”

While her early love of reading and history provided clues about her professional future, there was a period when Woodward never imagined such a life for herself.

“I grew up in a time when women were not expected to work … I remember as a kid thinking, men get to choose all these things. But the women have only one thing that they can do: get married and have children.”

But then, Woodward said, “the world did open up, and I think I would have been amazed that it turned out that I really got everything I wanted. I wanted satisfying work and I wanted my family, and I got them both.” 

Christie Vogt is a St. Paul-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Bugle.

Photo cutline: Judy Woodward. Photo by Lou Michaels.

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