The Pioneers: Follett Corporation — Matt Quilty
In recent years, corporate philanthropy has been in transition, responding to a challenging economy, in many cases, by narrowing its focus. Executives have emphasized and encouraged a turn from their traditional practices to ones that involve greater engagement in addressing needs and solving problems. For some corporations, this is a significant shift in culture. Others, however, have been quietly leading by example for some time. The Follett Corporation is one of these, having supported literacy and library services on a number of fronts. This support has its roots in the Follett family’s passion for the printed word, a trait that has been passed down through the generations, and which has led to the establishment of the Follett Chair in Dominican University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science.
The history of the Follett Corporation dates back to 1901, when Charles W. Follett took a position as a store clerk and salesman with a Chicago–area bookstore owned by Charles M. Barnes. Follett stayed for many years, learning the industry from within, until his employer elected to relocate to New York in 1917 to pursue a partnership with G. Clifford Noble. The resulting firm of Barnes and Noble would eventually become the largest book retailer in the U.S., but C.W. Follett’s own venture would also make its mark. Before Barnes left Chicago, the young Follett bought his shares of the store, betting on himself and his ability to grow his business.
C.W.’s sons soon joined him in the business, which expanded and diversified steadily during the 1920s and 1930s, relatively undeterred by even the Great Depression. It was during this time that libraries became a particular focus of the company, leading to the creation of what is now the Follett Library Resources (FLR) division.
Follett Library Book Company — now FLR — started by serving elementary and secondary school libraries, eventually expanding into public libraries, providing comprehensive processing and cataloguing services and professionals with expertise to help librarians select titles and build collections. The spirit of innovation long displayed by Follett Corporation and its family members was evident in Library Resources. In the mid–1950s, Follett Library Book Company was the first division of the company to embrace computerization, anticipating the advantages the technology would provide and adopting it in advance of the competition. As an early adopter, Follett revolutionized the industry, growing to become the nation’s largest distributor of books and media to libraries in the nation.
Given these perspectives and interests of the Follett Corporation, it was only natural for a relationship with Dominican University to evolve. With its own history dating back to 1901, and its main campus in River Forest, Illinois, Dominican is located in close proximity to the Follett corporate headquarters in Chicago’s western suburbs. More importantly, the University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) has more than eighty years of history, and is one of approximately fifty graduate schools in the country accredited by the American Library Association (ALA), one of only two accredited programs in Illinois, and the only such program in the Chicago metropolitan area.
In the mid–1990s, a dialogue began among Dominican University President Donna M. Carroll and company leaders Ross C. Follett and Charles R. (“Chuck”) Follett, Jr. — a grandson and a great–grandson, respectively, of the company founder — that saw the establishment of an honor to recognize teaching in the field of library science at the University: The Follett Excellence in Teaching Award.
Subsequent years saw the relationship between Follett Corporation and Dominican develop further, and with it, more prominent recognition of the field of library science. Ross Follett, the one–time head of Follett Library Resources, was born in Oak Park, Illinois and grew up in neighboring River Forest, his boyhood home located on the street adjacent to the northern boundary of the University campus. He also had many years of personal experience in the academy as a member of the faculty at the University of California–Santa Barbara and at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Spurred by Ross Follett and Donna Carroll, a series of ongoing discussions culminated in 2001 with the establishment of the Follett Chair in Library and Information Science at Dominican.
The Follett Chair was the first endowed academic chair at Dominican University and one of few in the field of library and information science in North America. Such select company cements Follett Corporation’s leadership position in the field of libraries, literacy, and higher education. The Follett Chair also serves to distinguish Dominican’s GSLIS from other institutions. The Follett Chair links GSLIS more closely to the professional community of librarians through educational and service activities. Holders of the Follett Chair include some of the nation’s most respected library practitioners and scholars, selected through a national search process; the position provides a one–year term, renewable for up to three years. The current Follett Chair is Mary Minow, J.D., AMLS, a member of the National Museum & Library Services Board, the Freedom to Read Foundation Board, and an accomplished attorney, consultant, and librarian.
The Follett Chair is just one example of this family–owned business’s longtime commitment to community and education at all levels. Follett Corporation is also a leading supporter of Reading is Fundamental (RIF), and sponsors several awards recognizing innovation and improvement in education, including the “Leveraging Excellence Award” given by the National Consortium for Continuous Improvement in Higher Education (NCCI), and the International Society for Technology in Education’s (ISTE) Media Specialist Technology Innovation Award. In January 2011, at the Midwinter Meeting of the ALA, president and CEO Chuck Follett announced the Company’s $100,000 “Follett Challenge” to reward the nation’s best innovations in how school libraries drive student achievement. Six winners, selected from 123 schools across the nation who submitted entries, were named in October 2011.
The collaboration between Dominican University and the Follett Corporation truly benefits both institutions, as well as the broader field of library and information science. The world has changed tremendously since the early twentieth century, when the earliest incarnations of both the University and the Company first emerged. Through these changes, however, what has remained constant is each organization’s commitment to its mission — for Follett, its intent to provide and empower schools, libraries, and lifelong learners; for Dominican, its obligation to prepare individuals to pursue truth and create a more just and humane world. Each has grown considerably by anticipating the needs of the communities it serves and preparing appropriate responses. Together, with the contributions of the Follett Chair, library and information science at Dominican’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science — and beyond — has an even more promising future.
About the author
Matt Quilty is Director, Foundation & Corporate Relations, Dominican University.