This Trinidadian immigrant has devoted a half-century to libraries—at Penn and in public schools around Philadelphia.
The doctoral student lay on Ancil George CGS’76’s office floor, cradling her swollen stomach. She was in her final weeks of pregnancy, working a staff job and straining to keep up with the demands of a PhD program. Like George, she had grown up in the Caribbean, but she was still adjusting to university life in the US. “She’d come after work, lie on the floor, and I’d help her with her research while she’s rubbing her belly,” George remembers.
She wasn’t the only student who spent time in his office over the 49 years he worked for Penn Libraries. Many viewed it as a peaceful study spot that included ready access to George’s expertise. Now retired, George says some of his best times at Penn were the hours he spent helping students, and especially students of color, “change Fs into As” by mastering the art of academic research.
“I would make it a point of sharing my home phone number,” he says, “and tell them, ‘Listen, we are family. I want you to use my phone anytime, day or night. I don’t care if it’s midnight, two o’clock in the morning. If you’re struggling with something, please call me.’”
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.
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.
Gearing up for his virtual Lea graduation speech this past June, George thought, wrote, thought some more, and rewrote. How should he address a group of eighth-graders and their families, some of whom are immigrants and virtually all of whom are considered economically disadvantaged, in the midst of a global pandemic? How could he discuss the reality of the current world without depressing or scaring them? Eventually he decided to inject some of his own story.
“Much like my single mother a long time ago, many Lea families have made the difficult decision to leave their friends and family members behind in their birth countries so that they could create a better life for you here in the United States,” he told Lea’s Class of 2020. “This is a sacrifice that you should not take for granted, but should also help you understand the amount of love that has been bestowed on you.”
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. What they lacked in running water and a refrigerator, the land and sea around them made up for in fresh-caught fish and abundant produce.
After his mom was recruited to work in the US during a nursing shortage, she invited him to visit. He planned to take a three-month vacation with her in New York. Two weeks in, she had already found him a job at Liberty Mutual Insurance in Brooklyn.
When he spoke about his interest in college, some friends of friends connected George with the late Ambrose Davis C’66 G’68 GrD’82, who was then an office manager at Penn, and later became a director of recruitment for the University. At the time, George assumed Philadelphia was just another New York City borough that he hadn’t yet visited; he only realized his mistake when his train sped away from Penn Station, taking him on an interstate trip to Penn he hadn’t seen coming.
Davis, who was himself an immigrant from Jamaica, urged George to apply to Penn’s College of General Studies and even paid his application fee. Davis also helped him find a job that would provide free tuition: stack attendant on the fifth floor of Van Pelt Library. Over the next six years, George earned a Penn degree in sociology while working fulltime 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.
“The quality of education you get should not be determined by your ZIP code,” says George, who has lived in the Lea neighborhood since 1973. “It breaks my heart when I meet kids in some of these schools who I realize are really bright and have a thirst for knowledge, but you look at what they have access to and realize that their chances of going to college and getting out of poverty are pretty low.”
But he believes that better access to a strong education, extracurricular activities—and of course, books and libraries—are key to breaking the cycle. As he told the Lea graduates and their parents in his speech last June: “The education that you received here at Lea is a foundation you can build on in high school and beyond to continue learning and making our country, and our world, a better place. Keep in mind that one of the things that no one can take away from you is a good education. Hold onto it and grow it.”
—Molly Petrilla C’06