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Profile: John Neu, a True Friend of the Libraries

April 15, 2021

Few collections at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Libraries are as beloved and encompassing as The History of Science collection, currently housed in Special Collections. Its holdings include a vast assemblage of resources in fields as varied as alchemy, natural history, chemistry, and technology, covering both the internal development of the diverse subjects as well as the wider, cultural contexts in which they fit. For forty years, John Neu served as the History of Science Bibliographer, where his stewardship brought the collection a vitality scholars still enjoy today. I sat with Neu — a longtime member of the Friends — to discuss his prolific and celebrated career. I came to understand that his successes came not only from developing a world-class collection, but also in the cultivation of a world-class community.

“When you think of early science, you think of the big figures like Newton and Boyle, Lavoisier, Galileo, and Copernicus…if you think at all about early science, they are the people you think of. But, there’s a whole galaxy of people under them that were important in the field, because these people — these big names — don’t come out of the blue, they interact with a lot of other people. And that’s a lot of what Historians of Science study,” Neu reflected.

Instead of a history understood as the work of individuals, his interpretation of a sort of information ecosystem in scholarship seemed particularly apt for his experiences in his own 40-year career. Listening to Neu recount his past, it was clear that it was in his nature to attribute any success to his relationships. It was the interactions with a diverse company of mentors, scholars, colleagues, and friends that were the most valuable and rewarding for him. This sharing and collaborative spirit is the perfect exemplar of a library and of a community in general: mutually supportive individuals, each sharing in the others’ specialties to create a sum greater than its many parts.

Still, Neu’s numerous roles positioned him as a unique and invaluable resource for the University. Ken Frazier — past director of the University of Wisconsin General Library System — had this to say about his friend and colleague:

John Neu was exceptionally approachable with his warm smile and bright blue eyes. Over his long career he amassed encyclopedic knowledge in his subject field…and that was just for openers. He also had deep general awareness of current scholarship and “know-how” about university and academic culture. He probably would not use this word…but he was a wonderful ‘mentor’ to many graduate students and younger librarians — including me.

In addition to his work as a bibliographer, Neu had a joint appointment in the UW History of Science Department, and, for over 30 years, served as editor of the annual bibliography for the History of Science Society’s journal Isis. These complementary positions allowed him to interact with and bridge a wide variety of past and contemporary resources and communities. Neu took on the role as liaison with verve, bringing together scholars even after work. Many of his fondest memories were of the social gatherings he organized, including a tradition of hosting Thanksgiving dinner. Upon retirement, his support of the community continued with his funding of the John Neu Graduate Fellowship in the History of Science for students in the History of Science Department (now part of the History Department).

You might wonder how John Neu, now in retirement since 2000, could follow the excitement of such a rewarding career. Judging by the levity of his voice when answering that question, he has been able to find joy indulging in a previous passion, creative writing. Before the “perfect job” landed in his lap after having received his Master’s in Library Science (UW, ‘59), he was an English major (UW, ‘57). As a bibliographer, he still routinely visited the Student Union to write for an hour before work, but now has quite a bit more time to commit to his craft. If you’d like to read one of his six novels or his book of short stories, you can visit the University of Wisconsin Memorial Library, where you will find the volumes housed in the same building Neu happily worked in for 40 years.

Contributed by Adam Blackbourn, Friends board member