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Librarians from Samuel Swett Green to Penelope Johnson.

Byline: Albert B. Southwick

COLUMN: Albert B. Southwick

The retirement of Penelope Johnson as head of the Worcester Free Public Library marks the close of a remarkable career and reminds our community of the dedicated librarians and staffs who over the years have done so much for so little.

The library has been one of Worcester's permanent success stories, ever since it opened its doors to the public in 1860 in two rooms in the Worcester Bank. Generation after generation of Worcester folks have found it an unfailing source of enlightenment and entertainment. Uncountable numbers of Worcester children have found it their first access to the realms of gold. Some notable people - like S.N. Behrman, Stanley Kunitz and the Rev. T.E. Murphy, S.J. - along with millions of other ordinary folks - held it fondly in their memories for their whole lifetimes. Immigrants and the children of immigrants have used it for more than a century as a pathway to democracy.

In its 148 years, the library has had some remarkable librarians. Three in particular stand out: Samuel Swett Green, Thurston Taylor and Penelope Johnson.

Mr. Green, nephew of Dr. John Green, whose bequests of thousands of books and many thousands of dollars had launched the library, had a remarkable career. He was appointed a trustee of the library in 1867, after the death of his uncle. Frail and small, with eyesight so weak that he spent much time in darkened rooms while being read to, he hardly seemed destined to become a giant in the library field. He had trained to be a minister and had worked briefly for a Worcester bank. After he produced a 25-page report for the library board on how to improve the cataloging and circulation of books, he was appointed librarian in 1871 and held the post until 1909. He became one of the nation's preeminent experts on library administration, although he had never taken a course in the subject. He was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Library Association and the American Library Association and served as president of the ALA in 1900-1901. He also was a member of the International Library Association.

In Worcester he worked tirelessly to introduce people to books. He was one of the first to organize regional exchanges of books among libraries. He opened the library on Sundays - a striking innovation at the time. He circulated library books to schools and workplaces. He bought books published in several different languages to help serve Worcester's many ethnic and national groups. Plagued with poor eyesight, he emphasized visual aids of various sorts and used the library walls to show hundreds of pictures and photographs. Stephen Salisbury decided to found the Worcester Art Museum after he had seen a display of paintings at the library.

Samuel Swett Green left a lasting heritage.

Thurston Taylor was librarian at a difficult time - the 1950s and 1960s. It was an era of demagoguery, from Sen. Joseph McCarthy in Washington down to George Wells and the Worcester City Council. Anything with a hint of radicalism or "communism" was fair game, and "Thursty" Taylor soon became a target. He was accused of communist leanings and underwent an investigation by a special committee - a humiliating experience, even though he was fully exonerated. He was accused of having improper books on his shelves. When he permitted the library to be used for a supposedly pornographic movie being promoted by Abbie Hoffman, he was attacked. From first to last he stoutly defended the library and the principle of noncensorship.

At the same time, he was making plans to move the library from its fusty old quarters on Elm Street to a new building on Salem Street, across from the Common. That was the site of the Worcester Knitting Company, which mounted a strenuous campaign against the whole idea. Egged on by Mr. Wells and other city councilors, the company packed a City Hall hearing with its clamorous employees. It was not until 1964 that the new library opened. Although some remember it as antiquated with a leaky roof, it was miles ahead of the old Elm Street building, which dated from the 1860s and 1880s. Mr. Taylor is remembered for his courage, his convictions and for having brought the old library into the modern era.

Penelope Johnson, now headed for retirement, will be remembered not only for her unfailing support of the library and its mission, but also for the remarkable transformation of the 1964 library to the current elegant edifice. That required the removal of all its half-million books and thousands of CDs and other items to the old Farber factory on Fremont Street, the conversion of the factory to a temporary library and supervision of the $20 million renovation and then the return of the books and the staff to the new premises.

That renovation transformed the old building into perhaps the finest public library in Massachusetts west of Route 128. It was a sterling performance. She presided over that complicated transition with cool competence and warm imagination.

Through all that, she was an eloquent and persistent advocate for the library and her staff. She did not win all her battles. At a time of fiscal stringency, she had to oversee cutbacks. The library now has only two branches and no bookmobile - hardly a great advertisement for the city that likes to promote itself as the "city that reads."

Another part of her heritage was the establishment of the Worcester Public Library Foundation, an agency separate from the city government and jump-started by a $150,000 gift from a resident of Sutton. It is dedicated to various undertakings not covered by the regular library budget. For example, on Friday, Oct. 17, it is sponsoring a "Celebration of Authors" at the Worcester Technical High School. It will feature a discussion of the coming election by luminaries such as Michael Dukakis and Juan Williams.

Some institutions outlive their usefulness. By contrast, the Worcester Public Library is more important than ever. At a time when the ability to read is being challenged and compromised by the Internet and various electronic developments, there is no substitute for the library or for printed books. In a striking way, our civilization, our way of life, still is powerfully supported by the extraordinary skill for reading acquired 6,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.

Which is why our society should continue to honor people like Samuel Swett Green, Thurston Taylor and Penelope Johnson. We owe them much.

Albert B. Southwick's column appears regularly in the Telegram & Gazette.
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Oct 9, 2008
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