A Brief History of the Oberlin Group

The idea for the Oberlin Group grew out of conferences of the presidents of 50 liberal arts colleges held at Oberlin in 1985 and 1986 to discuss the role of private colleges in educating the nation's scientists. The colleges represented had produced an exceptional number of graduates who later earned doctorates in scientific fields. One of the purposes of these conferences was to draw national attention to the importance of liberal arts colleges for scientific education and, in so doing, to garner more foundation and government support. Drawing on the science conferences model, the late Bill Moffett, then Director of Libraries at Oberlin, formed a steering committee to plan a meeting of 60 liberal arts college library directors. Members were Bill Moffett (Oberlin) chair, Will Bridegam (Amherst), John Sheridan (Colorado College), Kathy Spencer (Franklin and Marshall), Christopher McKee (Grinnell), Eleanor Pinkham (Kalamazoo), Becky Pollock (Reed), and Richard Werking (Trinity University).

The first meeting was held at Oberlin in November 1986. The group discussed issues of common concern, including the need for more library funding. Library directors from the 50 institutions represented at the science conferences were invited, as well as directors from a number of other selective liberal arts colleges. The first conference was a success and the directors decided to meet every year at a member institution. They became known as the 'Oberlin Group' because of the site of the first meeting.

From the beginning the Oberlin Group has functioned informally and with minimal structure. Its main purpose has been to share information among the directors in a collegial way and to establish an atmosphere of mutual encouragement and support. Since the first conference, the Oberlin Group has evolved well beyond the annual meeting. Bill Moffett established (and Ray English has continued) a listserv for the discussion of matters of common concern. In 1991 the group established an annual statistical survey, adapted from an earlier survey compiled by Art Monk (Bowdoin); initially compiled by Dennis Ribbens (Lawrence) the survey is now conducted online.  Members routinely conduct surveys and share their findings with the group.   

In the 1990s the group initiated cooperative projects and activities such as reciprocal interlibrary loan agreements. More recently members have negotiated consortial contracts for subscriptions to electronic journals and electronic reference services. Because the entire membership is not obligated to participate in these consortial contracts, the subscribing subgroup varies from project to project.

The opportunity to talk formally and informally with other liberal arts college library directors about current issues in college librarianship is one of the key benefits of membership in the group.  An annual meeting is held each year hosted by one or more member institutions.  In 2011 the membership adopted new organizational principles to give the Group more structure, without losing the informality that many see as a key benefit.  The new structure includes a Coordinating Committee that will oversee the annual meeting as well as address other issues that come up during the year.  The Coordinating Committee will also serve as the contact when outside groups are seeking input from the Oberlin Group.  In addition to members who are elected to serve on the Coordinating Committee members will include the current meeting host(s) and the Treasurer.  The inaugural Coordinating Committee will be elected at the fall 2011 meeting in Atlanta.  

After extended discussion from 2015 to 2017, in which the members tried to balance the desire for effective collective action with the group's history of informal discussion and community, the group decided to formally incorporate as a non-profit in 2017. The Coordinating Committee became the Board of Directors and adopted bylaws.

[History Submitted by Ray English (Oberlin College) and co-authored by former director, Will Bridegam; revised in 2011 and 2017]