Dan Sharon: A Librarian’s Librarian
by Mimi Rosenbush
My dad often told the story of a novice sailor who bought his first boat. Wearing a yachtsman’s blue blazer replete with insignia, the man went to visit his elderly Jewish mother. Proudly, he turned to her and said, “Ma, I bought a boat! I’m a captain!” His mother paused a beat and then replied, “But son, by captains, are you a captain?”
I thought of that story when I joined in on Zoom to watch the June 24 funeral of Dan Sharon, a diminutive, light-haired Jewish man who was a giant among librarians.
For more than 30 years, Dan was the Research Librarian at Chicago’s Asher Library at the Spertus Institute. A 1995 article about Dan from the Chicago Tribune describes his Jewish and somewhat inauspicious education. He went to the Chicago Jewish Academy, when it was still on the West Side of Chicago, and to Amundsen High School. He graduated from Wright Junior College and then Roosevelt University. In 1971, Dan received his master’s degree in library science from Rosary College in River Forest, Illinois. He was hired right away by what would become the Asher Library, and he remained there until his retirement.
I first met Dan more than 40 years ago at the Asher Library, when I was re- searching ideas for a Jewish documentary film. My questions set him in motion. He would disappear around the corner and then reappear with a source, then disappear again only to come back with another and another. And not just the texts themselves. He knew who was doing what in Jewish creative and academic worlds. Ideas seemed to appear in imaginary thought bubbles around his head.
When he wasn’t helping visitors find materials in the library, he was fielding phone calls from all over the country. Through word of mouth, people knew to call Dan. He was a maven, a connector.
Dan did not embrace even Luddite-proof technology like a basic flip phone. He didn’t have email; he didn’t have a computer. His six-mile neighborhood walks were not accompanied by podcasts. And he was easy to spot on Touhy Avenue—a quick gait, oddly accompanied by a slightly stooped posture.
There was something ageless about Dan. I was surprised to learn that he was born in 1943. Somehow, I had imagined him to be younger. It was as if immersion in knowledge and books made him timeless: beyond the stationary hold of relevance.
Dan was a humble and solitary guy, but he could be instantly engaged by worthwhile conversation. Ask him a question, and you could almost see the inquiry ignite his ample intellect.
“Dan was a humble and solitary guy, but he could be instantly engaged by worthwhile conversation. Ask him a question, and you could almost see the inquiry ignite his ample intellect. “
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I just learned that Dan, in recent years, had befriended his next-door neighbor—a younger man who is a veteran on disability. Dan would share books, slide articles under his neighbor’s door, and accompany him on the bus to museums, quietly showing kind- ness without much notice.
I wasn’t surprised.
When I saw Dan in the years after he had reluctantly retired from the Asher Library, he’d be walking in West Rogers Park or shopping in the neighborhood. I always greeted him enthusiastically. Dan, I’d say, cornering him at Hungarian Kosher Foods, it’s so good to see you. You were and always will be the librarian’s librarian. The best of the best. He’d smile, shyly, and look at me with his piercing blue eyes—you’re Mimi Rosenbush.
It was as if he were locating me on a shelf, thrilled that he had dis- covered the source of praise.
How strange to be moved by the Zoom funeral of someone I knew so casually. It was a quiet funeral, as they often are these days, and I shouldn’t have been surprised that there weren’t many of us online. After all, there wasn’t even a newspaper obituary.
I could even imagine Dan observing, in his North Side Chicago accent, that he was “just” a research librar- ian. And with a Jewish shrug, he’d remark—nu, what did you expect?
To me, he was deserving of some fanfare because there is greatness in what he did. Dan furthered research, inquiry, and study; he was a discoverer, an adventurer in knowledge.
And he was one of those rare people who was perfectly matched to his job: By librarians, he was truly a librarian, par excellence.
Originally Published in Chicago Jewish History: The Annual Book Issue, Fall, 2020