Academics

225 Years of Tar Heels: Robert Martin

With a doctorate in library science from Carolina, Robert Martin served in a number of high-profile leadership positions where he brought attention and awareness to how libraries shape American culture.

Robert Martin sits at a table in the library.
(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

225 Years.Editor’s note: In honor of the University’s 225th anniversary, we will be sharing profiles throughout the academic year of some of the many Tar Heels who have left their heelprint on the campus, their communities, the state, the nation and the world.

With his renowned career as an American librarian, archivist, administrator and educator, Robert Martin helped bring the value of libraries and museums into a 21st-century national conversation.

Martin earned his doctorate in library science at Carolina in 1988 and then returned to Texas, where he had spent the early part of his career. He served as the state librarian of Texas and then became professor and director of the School of Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman’s University, which would later appoint him the Lillian M. Bradshaw Endowed Chair.

He has since earned honors of distinguished alumnus at both Rice University and the UNC School of Information and Library Science and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Department of Library and Information Sciences at the University of North Texas.

Martin served in several high-profile leadership positions where he brought attention and awareness to how libraries shape American culture. In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed him director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Under Martin, IMLS launched the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program, which awards grants for the training and professional development of librarians and archivists, the development of faculty and library leaders, and the recruitment of the next generation of librarians and archivists. Concurrent with his time at IMLS, Martin was acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 2006, the U.S. Senate confirmed his presidential appointment to the National Council on the Humanities.

On Nov. 17, 2008, President Bush surprised Martin with the Presidential Citizens Medal “for his leadership in strengthening libraries and museums across the country.” The medal is the second-highest civilian award in the U.S., second only to the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Martin is also an enthusiastic advocate of school libraries and their importance to student achievement. At a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee hearing on education, he called libraries, “the fruits of a great democracy.”

“They exist because we believe that memory and truth are important,” he continued. “They exist because we believe that information and knowledge are not the exclusive domain of a certain type or class of person, but rather the province of all who seek to learn. A democratic society holds these institutions in high regard.”

In 2017, Martin and his wife Barbara established the Honorable Robert S. Martin Distinguished Professorship in Librarianship at UNC SILS, which was celebrated with a special dinner at Manning Hall and featured a message from former First Lady Laura Bush congratulating the couple on their remarkable gift.