Obituary: Former library dean dies at 72

William “Bill” Miller won the ‘Oscar for reference librarians’ and introduced the library’s first computers and special collections. He served as library dean for 27 years.



WIlliam “Bill” Miller served as dean of libraries for 27 years. He died last month. Photo courtesy of FAU Libraries

Kristen Grau, Managing Editor

When libraries approach their millionth book milestone, they usually splurge on one that’s sought-after. “Like maybe a medieval illuminated book of hours,” a popular Middle Ages religious text that’s illustrated with real gold and silver, said John Cutrone, the director of FAU’s Jaffe Center for Book Arts. 


FAU reached that goal in 2005 and former library dean William “Bill” Miller decided not to splurge. Instead, he wanted to create the university’s millionth book by hand. Using a letterpress in one of the library’s centers and handmade paper, several library staffers completed “A Field of Owls,” a book about FAU’s mascot, the burrowing owl. 


The staff who worked on it, including Cutrone, remember both the project and Miller fondly. FAU announced last month that Miller passed away. 


“It meant a lot because it was a concrete example of how he really believed in the potential of the [center] and in the team of people he worked with,” Cutrone said. 


Miller served as dean of libraries for 27 years, starting in 1987. You can still see and access much of what he’s credited for today: the library’s first computers, any electronic database, and most of the special collections, like the Jaffe Center, where the library’s letterpress is located. 


John Cutrone, the director of FAU’s Jaffe Center for Book Arts, with a letterpress. The center was Miller and Cutrone’s idea. Photo courtesy of FAU


For kickstarting those and more, the American Library Association awarded Miller its highest honor, the Gilbert Mudge Award in 2014. 


“Most of us have never heard of the Gilbert Mudge Award,” the FAU Libraries staff wrote when they announced the accomplishment, “but in the world of reference librarians, it is the equivalent of winning an Oscar.”


Miller’s library legacy

Miller brought the library some of its most-used assets: computers. He advanced the library’s technology even further when he created an international online database for books that FAU students and faculty could use.

“Back when I was a student at FAU you could [only] access a journal article from another library if they xerox it and mail it to you, so those days are gone,” Laurenti said. “Bill recognized the need to stay on top of technology advances as they hit the marketplace so that people who use our library, mainly students and faculty, had all of the most modern equipment.”


With Miller’s system still in place, you can instantly borrow a digital copy of library books across the world. 


His passion projects, according to his peers, were the library’s special collections. Those are all the sections in the library that aren’t just rows of books. That includes the Jaffe Center for Book Arts, where students can use an 1890 Wessel iron handpress to create print designs; the Marvin & Sybil Weiner Spirit of America Collection, which is decorated and stocked like a colonial-era library; the Recorded Sound Archives, which keeps and digitizes vintage records dating back to 1910. 


Terri Berns, the library’s former communications director, knew Miller since the early ‘90s. When she attended his memorial, she said she heard people refer to him as the “rockstar of academic librarians” for his bold ideas.


“The only other library we knew was doing things as creatively as FAU with special collections was the library of Congress,” Berns said. 


What Miller did with the Recorded Sound Archives was another creative feat: host concerts based on the music in the library’s collections. He launched a program called Shelf to Stage, where musicians perform some of the old scores within the library’s music collections live at FAU. 


Another one of Miller’s library-related accomplishments was founding the Southeast Florida Library Information Network (SEFLIN), a nonprofit that provides a variety of services to connect Florida libraries and it’s still in place today.


These efforts and more won Miller the prestigious Gilbert Mudge award five years ago. 


“The librarians that came to his service that were young librarians who had heard about him and seen him at ALA [American Library Association conference] and other conferences said they were afraid to talk to him because he was this rock star of academic research libraries,” Berns remembered. “And then once they met him, he was so open and generous and so giving of his time.”


‘A wry sense of humor’ 


Miller had a lasting impact on both the libraries at FAU and the people he worked with.


FAU’s former Director of Media Relations Lynn Laurenti worked with Miller in passing, but his “wry sense of humor,” she says, was always present.


“He had a really wonderful sense of humor … It was a moment to moment thing,” she said. “You would be in a meeting with him and everybody would be so serious and Bill would say a little aside that would break me up. Everybody appreciates somebody who brings the human touch to a professional world, and Bill certainly did that.”


Laurenti’s job was to connect the press to every department at FAU when they requested interviews. Out of the entire university’s faculty, Miller was one of the people she most enjoyed working with. 


“Bill was always immensely cooperative and I was always so proud of how he kept our libraries right on the cutting edge of all the technology,” Laurenti said. 

Berns and Miller worked together at the Jewish Cultural Center’s arts department. Berns said from the day she met him, she wanted to learn more about him. 


She worked in FAU’s College of Arts and Letters for a few years, then moved to the library department in 2004. She sat through dozens of meetings with Miller.


It always seemed to her he was distracted during them, because he would often doodle away on papers in front of him while library department heads would give him their Monday reports. She was shocked when Miller would look up and give a thoughtful response.


“He was actually making doodles that sort of reflected something that was going on in the meetings. If it was something that was boring, it would be a doodle of a stick man jumping off a cliff …” Berns said. “It was just another way to express his wit. He knew exactly what was going on and he would respond to anyone giving a report by asking the right questions.”


Berns was so amused by the doodles, she started collecting them. She also worked with Miller on A Field of Owls and Shelf to Stage. She said that in between his “silly” behavior, he was one of the most intelligent people she’s ever known. 


If he could find a way to inject humor, he would,” Berns said. “Because he always thought life was too short, so you might as well have a little fun with it.”


Miller is survived by his wife Kathleen Miller, dean of libraries at Florida Gulf Coast University, and their two daughters. 


Kristen Grau is the managing editor of the University Press. For information regarding this or other stories, email [email protected] or tweet her @_kristengrau.