ASSOCIATES (2007, November, v. 14, no. 2)


Annie Get Your Gumption

Michael D. Brooks
Saint Joseph’s University

flp1.gifWhen someone says, “librarian,” the image that usually comes to mind is that of a stereotype: a bespeckled, stuffy woman (or geeky guy) out of step with fashion and the times, and hell-bent on enforcing the quiet-in-the-library rule. Ann Dougherty is not a bespeckled, stuffy woman out of step with fashion or hell-bent on enforcing the quiet-in-the-library rule. (She actually bristles at what she calls “the shush factor.”) She’s a middle class, divorced, single mom of three trying to make a living and support her family working as a librarian for the Free Library of Philadelphia.I first met Ann in 1992. We worked in the same medical library until 1996 when we were laid-off (restructured). We’ve kept in sporadic touch since. When I got the go-ahead from Associates to write a personal profile, I thought of Ann Dougherty. I called her up and asked her if I could interview her on the job. She agreed unhesitatingly. Actually, she said, “I’d be honored.”

The day I arrived at her library, the Charles Santore Branch library, a rather small unassuming building in South Philadelphia, Dougherty was busy at her desk helping a patron find a book. So I waited next in line. (Dougherty sits alone at a small desk piled with books and a computer in the center of a large room filled with book shelves, magazines, and library patrons either typing away on computers or sitting at tables reading.) When she couldn’t find the book in the online catalog for him, she tried searching, but that effort came up empty. The patron realized that he might have the wrong author or title and said he would double check his information. Dougherty told him to check back with her as soon as he could. Then it was my turn. She greeted me with a warm smile, a big friendly hug, and a cheery, “Hi, how are you? How’ve you been? Pull up a chair.” Dougherty, whose short platinum blonde hair camouflages the telltale gray of a woman of fifty, has the appearance of someone ten years younger. She wore a short sleeve turquoise pull-over shirt, a pair of off-white summer pants, white sneakers, and the look of someone without a care in the world. We sat down, exchanged some friendly banter, and then got right to business. With relaxed anticipation, Dougherty started right in answering my first question with, “Well, let’s see. Where should I begin?”

She’s been a librarian since 1986, but revealed that a career in librarianship was not her first choice. In fact, it wasn’t even on her radar. Dougherty originally wanted to go into law, she recalls. She graduated from Smith College in Massachusetts in 1979 with a degree in history (she loves history), went to live with a friend in Washington, D. C., and worked for the Clean Water Action Project, an advocacy group founded by activist Ralph Nader.

Dougherty was unsure what to do with her degree. A lot of her history major friends were venturing into the field of law and she felt that she might want to go into law or education. Someone suggested she ask the Senate historian for advice. She arranged a meeting with him and got an eye-opening education. He told her that he got his masters degree in library science, did some research work, and then earned a Ph.D. in history. The prospect of doing research work intrigued her, so she moved to New York City, enrolled in the Library Science School at Columbia University in the fall of 1980, and majored in rare books and manuscripts. While working on her library degree, she worked for Chase Manhattan Bank in the summer of 1981 cataloging the personal papers of David Rockefeller. In the fall of that year, she began working at Temple University’s Paley Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania as a senior bibliographic assistant, answering questions at the reference desk. Dougherty refers to herself as somewhat of a perfectionist. Rather than complete the program in a year, she settled for incompletes for her courses and turned in her work only when she felt satisfied it was just right. She worked at Temple University while satisfying her course requirements. During that time she earned her library degree, got married, and had her first child.

In 1988 she worked as a rare book cataloger at the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware, but left when rumors of layoffs began circulating two years later. She found a job working in the historical library at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia where she cataloged nineteenth century books on tuberculosis until she was laid off in June 1996. After three months of unemployment, Dougherty worked briefly at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. She left there and worked at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia as a rare book cataloger until landing a job in January 1998 with the Free Library of Philadelphia. Her tenure with the FLP has included working at four branch libraries (not simultaneously) and working some Sundays at the Main Library (Central Branch). Dougherty believes earning her master’s degree in library science was one of the best decisions she ever made. Reflecting on her profession, Dougherty said, “Librarianship is one of those overlooked professions. If you love books and love working with people it’s a good choice.”

The phone rang several times during the course of our interview and Dougherty excused herself each time to answer the calls and took as much time as necessary to help each caller. One was from a patron looking for voter registration information. Another was from a colleague about whether or not something could be done because they were short handed. (A support staff of 7 and 2 librarians service approximately 8,000 patrons a month.)

In addition to the phone calls, patrons approached the desk looking for assistance and Dougherty helped each one, devoting as much time as necessary. Like the one young man who asked for help with a resume that he was working on at one of the computers. She walked with him across the room to the computer he was working on and helped him resolve his problem. A middle-aged woman was attempting to make a photocopy when her quarter became stuck. Dougherty checked the copier like a mechanic inspecting a car, retrieved the quarter, and helped the woman make her copies. Then there was an older woman who was looking for some information for her son, and despite a language barrier, Dougherty helped the lady get the information and her own library card. Watching Dougherty perform her duties was like watching a master craftsman at work. To her, the work that she does is not just a job, it’s a calling. “I take a lot of pride in my work,” she said.

For a lot of people, the reward for doing their job is pulling down a paycheck. For Dougherty, the reward is helping a school kid find information for a book report or helping a patron compose a resume and then locate possible employers. The reward is listening to a domestic abuse victim’s story and finding the help they need or simply helping someone to find a book. Dougherty derives a sense of satisfaction when she feels she’s had a positive influence on someone’s life. She makes no distinctions regarding a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, age, learning abilities, religion, physical abilities, national origin, etc. She attributes this attitude to her parents.

“Both my parents were hard workers. They’ve been my inspiration.” So she finds it distressing to see her parents deal with serious health issues as they age. Her mother suffered a series of minor strokes in the last couple of years and her father has successfully battled cancer. But even with the support of three siblings, Dougherty wishes she could do more for her parents. She has also learned that her ex-husband, with whom she is on friendly terms, was recently diagnosed with cancer. How does she feel about this latest development in the life of someone she cares about? Well, to use one of her favored adjectives when describing her state of mind regarding things she stresses over, she’s really “bummed” about it.

Dougherty truly cares about what she does, the people she encounters, and the impact her work will have on them. She doesn’t just want to do a good job; she wants to do her job well. Seeing someone’s eyes light up when she hands them something they need gives her great satisfaction. She agrees with the assessment that she is a selfless giver. Dougherty gives of herself in a manner that is a model for the rest of us. She looks for the good in people or a situation, and usually finds it—whether it’s dealing with family issues or assisting patrons with theirs. She tackles issues with the dedication and drive of a football player rushing headlong toward the goal line, or the tenacity of a medical researcher searching for a breakthrough. Dougherty understands that life is a crapshoot; she’s been on the receiving end of some of its curveballs. From coming into work one day and being informed an hour later she had no job, to having a teenaged daughter take her only means of transportation without her knowledge and totaling it, Ann Dougherty has often had to make proverbial lemonade with proverbial lemons. However, she still approaches every situation with optimism. She has come to view herself as a “shy extrovert with a quiet dignity.”

The Free Library of Philadelphia has an outreach program where representatives travel to schools encouraging students to read and get involved with their neighborhood libraries. Dougherty is quite content to allow her colleagues the opportunity to espouse the benefits of these programs while she provides support from the sidelines.

When asked how she wants people to remember her, Dougherty replied, “I want people to remember that I was kind and a lot of fun. I really enjoy having a good time. I enjoy people a lot.” How she wants to be remembered dovetails quite nicely into her philosophy of life: Do what you enjoy and enjoy what you do. Make a difference. Leave things better than you found them.

First Serial Rights Only.
©2007 by Michael D. Brooks

Michael is an Acquisitions Technician at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has been a contributor to Associates since March 1998.