Staff Q&A with Ancil George

Ancil George, the inaugural community outreach librarian at Penn Libraries, has worked at Penn for almost 50 years, and he can still remember the exact date of his first day on the job. On Jan. 5, 1970, he began as a stack attendant shelving books on the fifth floor of Van Pelt Library.

“I remember my [job] interview first, being a little nervous when I saw the size of this library because I didn’t know a library could be so big,” says George, who came to Penn from Trinidad and Tobago. “Our public library wasn’t this size.”

While working full-time at the library, George attended Penn part-time in the College of General Studies (now called Liberal and Professional Studies).

“I’d take two classes each term and work full-time,” he says. “Sometimes I was crazy enough to take two classes each summer session. That is why it only took me six years to graduate instead of eight. It’s the immigrant mentality: ‘I can do it all, I have to do it all, or else.’ I started in ’70 and got my [sociology] degree in ’76.” He later received his master’s degree in library and information science from Drexel.

As community outreach librarian, George oversees a staff of 14 work-study students who engage locally, nurture existing community relationships, and seek out new partnership opportunities. George and his work-study students spend a lot of time volunteering at the library at Henry C. Lea Elementary, a pre-K-8 school at 47th and Locust, through an initiative created by Penn Libraries Director H. Carton Rogers.

George, a humble and modest man, also serves on the advisory board of the African-American Resource Center and the Greenfield Intercultural Center.

The Current sat down with George in Van Pelt to discuss nearly half a century at Penn, the joy of working with Penn and Lea students, the importance of libraries, and the censoring of books.

Q: How did you end up at Penn?
A: My mother was a nurse. She was working in New York and I came up on a three-month vacation. After high school, I worked for three years and I never took vacation from my job. In Trinidad, when you start working at a job, you get a month’s vacation, so I came up and she had decided already that I wasn’t going back.

Q: What made you want to become a librarian?
A: The associate director here at the library at the time kept asking me to apply to grad school, but a librarian just didn’t seem like something I would want to do. Although I worked here in the library, all I could think of was a woman in a flower dress with her hair in a bun and glasses on a string. It just didn’t feel right, and in a moment of weakness I said, ‘You know, maybe I’ll think about that.’ That was really the continuation of this wonderful journey I’ve been on since I came to Penn.

Q: What has kept you here for 46 years?
A: It’s going to sound like the old cliché, but it really is the people. I love the people I work with. I also love working with students. One of the great things about working with Penn students is that I learn from them. I learn from them all the time. Also, one of the things that I’m enjoying now at Lea Elementary School, you can see the change that is made by exposing students to this environment because we bring a lot of those kids to Van Pelt Library. A couple months ago, we brought them on campus for an exhibit. When we bring them here to show them exhibits, we try to have a couple activities. In one case, we were showing them a book that was in Arabic, and the person who was doing the talk said, ‘Here’s this book, it’s a manuscript from a specific time, but it’s in a language I can’t read.’ And one kid said, ‘All our books at home are like that,’ and started to read what was in that book. Now that’s a game-changer for everybody, for him and for the kids in the class. It was a sense of pride for him; now he is included in everything. He doesn’t have to feel timid about his language or hold anything back. He can be a complete person.

Q: It sounds like you really enjoy working with the Lea students.
A: The stuff I’m learning from those kids, you can’t learn in a book. Every time they come here they feel more and more comfortable about this environment, and suddenly now they can dream about coming here. Before, they didn’t have a chance to dream about this because they knew nothing about this. But every time they come here they learn something new and they’re asking different types of questions. Their idea of a librarian is someone who checks books in and checks books out, and the truth is the only ones who do that here are Penn students that we hire. A lot of the librarians are behind the scenes doing reference work, doing things with computers. When [the Lea students] hear that librarians use computers, suddenly this profession is not so scary anymore, not so boring anymore. I’m on the Garden Court Community Association and we have an education committee, and our education committee focuses on Lea, so I’m involved in Lea through that angle. I also belong to another board called the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools and our focus is on Lea. We’re doing a big project called ‘Greening Lea’ where we’re adding a lot more green to the playground.

Q: I’ve been at Penn for eight years and the University has changed a lot. I can only imagine how much it has changed in 46 years.
A: It has changed a lot. In some ways, because I’ve been here for all the changes, I keep forgetting when the changes were. When I was first here at the library, the reference desk was [someplace else]. When I first came here as a student, I was the only person of color in a lot of the classes I sat in. But a lot of that has changed now, and that is wonderful. We didn’t have things like the Greenfield Intercultural Center or a lot of these other cultural centers that are around that do really great work not just for their populations, but for everybody.

Q: Why do you think it’s important for schools to have a library and librarian?
A: I’ll tell you what my experience has been. I depended very heavily on the library when I grew up. I was an early reader because I had books at home, but I also went to the library a lot. It’s hard for me to understand why we would get rid of libraries. One of the things that you hear all the time is that kids who can’t read by third grade tend not to go to college, and are more likely to go to prison. What concerns me is I hear a lot about building new prisons, and I would think that if you know that if kids don’t have that basic foundation in reading, then you would say, ‘Well, wait a second. How do you prevent kids from going to prison?’ What I see now, really, is we are creating a pipeline for prison because we’re not giving kids the academic skills they need to succeed. Instead of putting that money into prisons, shouldn’t we put it in the front end in education? I think most kids would prefer to get a good education than to go to prison. I suspect that I’m right in that.

Q: A school in Montgomery County recently removed ‘Huckleberry Finn’ from its curriculum because students objected to its use of the N-word, while other schools in the country have used a new edition of the book that substitutes the racial epithet with ‘slave.’ What is your opinion on the censoring of books?
A: I don't think books should be censored. I think we should be able to read everything. Look at some of the books that the kids at Lea read and like; they’re books about farting and graphic novels, but they’re reading. You can’t sanitize literature. When I teach Penn students about research, I say, ‘OK, you’re looking for articles on African Americans in 1850, how do you construct that search?’ And they all say, ‘1850 and African Americans.’ I say, ‘Try searching for that in The New York Times. Limit your search to that time period and use the phrase African Americans.’ Then they say, ‘Oh.’ Once you start doing research, you have to throw political correctness out the window because, frankly, if you don’t use Negro or colored, or ‘coloured’ to get the British point of view, you’ll be missing a lot. You have to know how to use those terms in context. I understand how we feel initially about those things. I know how I react when I hear terms that I’m uncomfortable with, but I have to realize that this is the world I live in, and for me to understand all of this, I have to see how it was presented.