Ancil George’s legacy reaches outside the stacks

After retiring in 2019, the long-serving Penn figure continues his work in community outreach in West Philadelphia.

From early in his tenure at Penn Libraries, George recognized that many students from underserved communities arrived on campus with “little or no research skills” and wrestled with their coursework as a result. Now a full year into his retirement, he’s still passionate about underserved students and libraries—but his focus has shifted to instilling research skills in kids before they even reach high school.

Ancil George leans on The Button sculpture in daylight in front of Van Pelt Library.
Since his retirement as community outreach librarian in 2019, Ancil George continues to volunteer at the local Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia. (Pre-pandemic image: The Pennsylvania Gazette)

His devotion to school libraries is how George wound up as the 2020 commencement speaker for Henry C. Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia. He’s been helping to stock, staff, and grow Lea’s library—and libraries in other Philly public schools, too—since 2014, when he was named Penn Libraries’ first community outreach librarian.

Born in 1948, George grew up an only child in Trinidad. He never met his father. His mom worked as a nurse, and though they weren’t wealthy, “we were never poor,” George says. After his mom was recruited to work in the U.S. during a nursing shortage, she invited him to visit. 

George applied to Penn’s College of General Studies, and worked as stack attendant on the fifth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center. Over the next six years, George earned a Penn degree in sociology while working full-time at the library. From there, he went on to get a master’s in Library and Information Science from Drexel.

Over the years, he advanced from stack attendant to reference librarian and, in his last five years at Penn, the community outreach post. “If reference librarian was my dream job, this was my ultimate job,” he says. Along with more than a dozen work-study students—many of them from low-income families—George began to revitalize and run the library at nearby Lea Elementary. He helped select and buy books, updated the catalog, and found volunteers to staff checkout. He even brought groups of Lea students to Van Pelt so they could learn about the reference work that university librarians do. Today the program he created has expanded to over 20 public schools around Philadelphia.

Since officially retiring from Penn in July 2019, George has continued to work closely with the Libraries’ community outreach program as a volunteer, and soon the library at Lea will be named in his honor.

This story is by Molly Petrilla. Read more at The Pennsylvania Gazette.