During Meliora Weekend 2023, comedian Hasan Minhaj opened his performance in the Louis Alexander Palestra with some University of Rochester crowd work. At one point, he marveled at Rochester’s motto, Meliora saying, “You actually believe it,” with disbelief and admiration in his voice.
It’s an understandable reaction for someone outside the University community.
The concept of “ever better” is idealistic and somewhat Sisyphean in nature, requiring believers to be dreamers at heart and fighters in spirit. While many genuinely ascribe to Rochester’s guiding philosophy, few practice it as well as University Trustee Barbara Burger ʼ83.
Contributions and meritorious service
Over the past decade, Burger has broadly proven herself as an agent of Meliora through enthusiastic volunteerism and inspirational philanthropy—particularly at the University of Rochester Libraries. Since joining what is now the Libraries National Council—of which she is the current chair—in 2014, she has been a powerful engine of progress. Her unshakeable leadership, advocacy, and support have had a transformative effect on the libraries’ philosophy, programs, initiatives, and physical presence on the River Campus, including the creation of the Barbara J. Burger iZone.
But the strength of Burger’s influence is in the aggregate. Even mentioning the creation of iZone risks diminishing the nuanced ways she contributes to the libraries’ growth and success. For example, she wasn’t just a lead benefactor of iZone; she was also an architect of its mission and vision. And while some may treat the role of council chair as perfunctory, Burger uses her status to activate the passion of other members.
It should surprise no one that the Friends of the University of Rochester Libraries (FURL) honored Burger with the 2023 Robert F. Metzdorf Award. However, it is a surprise to Burger, whose genuine humility had her questioning the honor.
“I don’t know how they make selections for these awards or what criteria they use,” she says, having been in a similar position in 2014 when she received the University’s John N. Wilder Award for giving that included the creation of the Barbara J. Burger Endowed Scholarship. “I don’t do anything for recognition, but getting it always feels good.”
Named for a nationally recognized bibliographer and founding member of FURL, the award is given to those who distinguish themselves through “contributions and meritorious service to the libraries.” Burger has the rare honor of being endorsed by two deans: Kevin Garewal, the vice provost and Andrew H. and Janet Dayton Neilly Dean of the University of Rochester Libraries, and Mary Ann Mavrinac, the Neilly Dean emeritus.
“Although it was Mary Ann who had a front-row seat to the vast majority of Barbara’s contributions to date, I have seen enough to say she is eminently qualified for this award,” Garewal says. “She has been an incredibly dedicated leader and active partner. I cannot overstate how valued her insight, counsel, and support have been.”
Mavrinac was effusive in her nomination letter, underscoring the extent of Burger’s engagement and devotion to the libraries. “She is a positive force of nature,” Mavrinac writes, “providing courageous and strategic leadership to meet library needs and aspirations.”
It’s ironic that Mavrinac would touch on Burger’s passion for the libraries as she is among those responsible for its existence.
From somewhat aware to council chair
In the fall of 2012, Burger met Mavrinac at an event hosted by Carol Karp ʼ74, Pʼ11, a fellow University trustee and previous chair of the Libraries National Council. In her first interaction with the libraries dean, she asked the pointed question, “What does the dean of the libraries do?” The exchange sparked both a friendship and an interest in the libraries, which Karp stoked by insisting Burger join the libraries council. There, Burger found a family she didn’t know she had.
“They all were really kind of change agents,” she says of the council members, explaining that they weren’t shy about letting University leadership know what they wanted for the libraries. “They weren’t complainers. They were just passionate. I felt like I’d found my people.”
Burger has led those people since 2022. As chair, she has assumed the role Mavrinac played for her in 2012, enlightening the uninitiated and guiding existing members toward areas that best align with their interests. She has also continued learning—watching the libraries evolve and paying attention to how they complement University life and research. Her goal is to raise the collective understanding of how the libraries can be a tool for the University community and enhance areas that help the University “up its game.”
Ever ‘ever better’
On a personal level, Burger recently got back into the business of manufacturing Meliora, throwing herself behind a new summer internship program at the River Campus Libraries. The program, still in its infancy, aims to provide undergraduate students with career training, pairing them with library staff to develop project-based skills and learn more about potential career paths. “I'm still trying to change the world through the capabilities that I have,” she says.
“This program wouldn’t be what it is without Barbara,” says Garewal. “I went to her only looking for feedback, and she jumped in and began throwing out ideas. Because of her insight and involvement, we have a better, more holistic program that helps students gain experiences and knowledge they would not otherwise get at their age."
Meanwhile, iZone, Burger’s first major libraries project, recently celebrated its fifth anniversary. The milestone for the innovative problem-solving space and the freshly bestowed Metzdorf Award create a moment for retrospection.
Is there anything Burger is most proud of? When posed the question, it’s clear she’s unsure how to answer—not because it’s a difficult question, but because it’s ill-timed. With a laugh, she says, “I’m just getting started.” ∎
For more information on the Metzdorf Award or FURL, please contact Kim Osur, development manager for the River Campus Libraries.