Donor Profile: Geri and Darby Nelson

By Mark Engebretson

Geri and Darby Nelson
Geri and Darby Nelson

Geri and Darby Nelson have enjoyed a long and loving relationship — husband and wife for 49 years. But they’ve also had a long and loving relationship with libraries. For starters, libraries were where they spent much time together, while University of Minnesota students in the late 1960s. 

The two often studied together at the Bio-Medical Library in the late 1960s, but they can rattle off any number of other libraries they’ve frequented — from the public libraries in Redwood Falls, Thief River Falls, and Bemidji to U of M libraries: Wilson, Walter, and Magrath.

“We just love libraries and librarians,” says Geri. Adds Darby: “We’re convinced that librarians are the neatest people in the world.”

The Nelsons remember fondly the entomology librarian at U of M who was so helpful to Darby when he was working on his doctoral thesis.

“She was phenomenal. There was this feeling that you want to hug her,” explained Darby, who earned his Ph.D. in aquatic ecology at the University of Minnesota and taught biology and environmental science at Anoka-Ramsey Community College for 35 years. 

He also served three terms as a Minnesota state legislator. And he’s an author — his most recent book being For Love of Lakes, about people’s relationship to lakes throughout the United States.

Geri is a graduate of the U’s College of Biological Sciences and she taught physical science in Anoka-Hennepin Independent School District 11.

A simple love of books

They still use libraries often — for research and for the simple love of books.

“I’m reading books all the time — and the librarian at the Champlin Library says we keep them open,” Geri says with a chuckle. “And Darby is of course doing work on his books, and so we’re getting books from the Champlin Library and from the University Libraries.”

The U of M’s Borchert Map Library holds a special place in Darby’s heart — it’s where he spent time planning his canoe trip to Hudson Bay as a college student.

“That’s always been a favorite spot,” he says. “He was pouring over maps down there for months,” adds Geri.

Giving back

It’s those kinds of experiences that prompted the Nelsons long ago to want to give back — to the University of Minnesota and to libraries.

“The University Libraries have just been part of our lives,” says Geri. “So, when we wrote our first will … that’s when we said okay, we’re going to give to the University Libraries.”

As book lovers, they initially gave to help expand book collections, but after learning about how the Libraries is evolving to meet the needs of today’s students, they shifted their focus. Their most recent gift will help fund three key Libraries projects that will advance scholarship but also provide meaningful employment opportunities for U of M students.

The projects are:

Digital Scholarship, which will connect undergraduates to faculty and cross-disciplinary research opportunities using emerging tools and technology.

Revealing Hidden Data, which involves identifying, preserving, and making discoverable historic science data at the U of M that is of interest to current researchers.

Mapping Prejudice, a project that documents and visualizes the history of racism revealed in the restrictive deed covenants of homeowners across Minneapolis. Upcoming work involves data transcription, database management, and website and web application development.

“We’ve really kind of focused on how can we, number one, help students and, number two, help good research get done at the University of Minnesota,” says Geri, who notes that people too often take libraries for granted. “We just assume that they’ll always be there, but it takes money to keep them at a high quality.”

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