Jack Bales

Photo by Norm Shafer

Jack Bales treats his library-research classes like musicians treat rock concerts. He tries to be “enthusiastic” and “energetic” and “on.”

“I tell myself that no matter how I’m feeling, I have to be the Mick Jagger of the library world,” said Bales, UMW reference and humanities librarian.

When he isn’t onstage in the classroom, he’s helping students find the best ways to investigate research topics – from Alzheimer’s to Zimbabwe. In more than three decades at the Simpson Library reference desk, he’s heard them all.

“Students come by the reference librarians’ offices and email us,” Bales said. “That’s the best part of my job, helping students locate research information for their classes and papers.”

Growing up in Aurora, Ill., the eldest of nine, Bales was enchanted by books. In grade school, he once was too busy reading to notice his classmates had gone out to recess.

By fifth grade, he’d started two things – a paper route and a savings account. He paid his way through school, earning a bachelor’s degree in English from Illinois College and a master’s degree in library science from the University of Illinois.

He was back working at Illinois College when he applied for a reference librarian position at Mary Washington. Before the interview ended, he’d landed the job, but he wasn’t sure how he felt about Fredericksburg. He accepted the offer but expected his stay to be short.

That was 1980.

“I didn’t think I’d been here that long until last year, when a former student brought her freshman daughter to meet me,” said Bales, whose first-floor library office is a collage of grammatical wit, baseball mementos, and photos of grown children Patrick and Laura.

As card catalogs gave way to computers, Bales brought students along, teaching them how to search databases and use electronic resources. He also helps build the library collection, collaborates with library colleagues and faculty, and serves on library committees and the University of Mary Washington Magazine editorial board.

For his commitment to UMW, he received the 2010 inaugural Richard V. and Rosemary A. Hurley Presidential Commendation, which he calls the pinnacle of his career.

Outside UMW, Bales, 61, has penned five books on famous literary figures and has one in the works on his beloved Chicago Cubs. He’s done professional editing and written for magazines, journals, encyclopedias, and newspapers.

He prefers to tackle unexplored topics and research primary sources, so he travels the country to conduct interviews, plow through newspapers, and mull over microfilm. Preparations for his book on Mississippi writer Willie Morris were so exhaustive that the publisher insisted on including the word in the title – Willie Morris: An Exhaustive Annotated Bibliography and a Biography.

Bales pours the same kind of effort into helping students. When they clamor for his attention like fans at a concert, he sometimes has to walk away and take a deep breath. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

What do you love most about UMW? I’ve always worked with wonderful colleagues. They’re one of the reasons, after more than three decades here in the library, I still look forward to coming to work every day. And it’s great working with the students and passing on to them what I’ve learned.

What would you change about UMW? I’ve been extremely fortunate over the years to have been allowed to travel and research in libraries all over the country. I love the idea that students can have their research projects funded, and I hope UMW can support even more of their projects.

How would you describe yourself? I’m definitely an early-morning person. I can easily hit the ground running by 4:30 a.m. I’m also a glass-is-half-full kind of guy.

What motivates you? My colleagues; I value their expertise. Also, helping students become skilled at using library resources. Last semester I received an email from a former student who wrote, “I’m now a teacher, and I’m helping my students research the way you taught me.”

What matters most to you? My children. I try to be a good role model. (“Yes, you DO have to write thank-you notes for your birthday presents.”)

What are you afraid of? Not being able to come up with the right answer for a student. Also poor health. [I’ve come to] realize that exercise and living and eating right can’t keep you out of the hospital.

What keeps you awake at night? Family things here and there, including a few health issues.

What one thing would people be surprised to learn about you? I have an identical twin brother. In college once I couldn’t make a date so he went in my place, posing as me.