UC Berkeley professor emeritus Robert Harlan dies at 84

Known for both his dry humor and inexplicable love for cats, professor emeritus Robert Harlan, who died peacefully April 8, left behind a powerful presence on the UC Berkeley School of Information and the Bancroft Library. He was 84.

After a brief teaching stint at the University of Southern California for a few years after graduate school, Harlan found his true home at UC Berkeley as a faculty member in the School of Librarianship — now known as the School of Information — in 1963. Referred to as “Bob” by his fellow colleagues and students, Harlan devoted his time to researching early printing practices, specifically the export of British books to early American colonies.

Upon his arrival at UC Berkeley, Harlan became fascinated with both the San Francisco printing world of the 19th century and the Bay Area fine-printing movement of the mid-20th century, publishing several books on the subject. Even though most of Harlan’s research required solitary work, he still found time to invest himself in his students’ studies.

“He was the kind of person who always had his door open to faculty and students,” said UC Berkeley School of Information professor emerita Mary Kay Duggan, a former colleague of Harlan’s. “He was a person who students could talk to.”

Harlan remained as a professor in reference, bibliography and the history of libraries for 30 years. He was also the associate dean of the School of Librarianship for some years and, subsequently, the acting dean from 1985 to 1986.

Martha Whittaker — a former student of Harlan’s — remembered taking a course of his, entitled “Descriptive Bibliography,” describing his clear passion for the material, his dedication to the preservation of books and his enthusiasm for his students.

Besides his love for books, everyone knew that Harlan had another passion in his life: cats. Harlan was an avid feline-lover and an active member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA. He also contributed to environmental conservation funds, such as the Sierra Club.

“When (Harlan) had a quadruple bypass when he was in his 60s, I think he became more aware of the fragility of life,” said George Ritchie, a close friend of Harlan’s. Ritchie described that, after this scare, Harlan remained dedicated to always adopting older cats from animal shelters rather than newborn kittens.

Harlan officially retired in 1993 but remained an avid contributor to UC Berkeley research by working at the Bancroft Library, specifically with the library’s regional oral history project. In 2001, he published “History of the Book: Thirty Years at UC Berkeley’s School of Librarianship and Study of Early American Printers” through the Library School Oral History Series.

He is survived by his sister-in-law, Dolores Harlan; nephews Lonn Harlan and Dan Harlan; and niece Lori Henkenius.

The memorial service is intended to take place at the UC Berkeley Faculty Club in the near future.

Contact Becca Benham at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @beccabenhamdc.