On October 6, 2016, George R. Stewart will be inducted into the CCIS Hall of Fame, an award that recognizes his leadership and significant contribution to the field of Library and Information and Studies education. Stewart’s career spanned 33 years with the Birmingham Public Library System and an additional four years as director of Jefferson County Library Cooperative, totaling 37 years of commitment to the LIS field.
As an administrator for BPL, Stewart recognized the need for a Library and Information Science program in the state and served on the committee to secure initial accreditation for the School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS) at the University of Alabama. Upon retirement, he and his wife Nancy began working with a non-profit library consulting organization and he still works with the BPL two days a week or more. Stewart has continued his efforts to champion education and promote SLIS with the creation of the George R. Stewart Endowed Scholarship, awarded annually for a student in SLIS based on scholastic potential and financial need. Stewart’s efforts to improve the lives of others through library and information services continue to benefit SLIS, countless students, and millions of visitors to the Birmingham area.
Stewart grew up walking distance from the Central Park Library in Birmingham, Alabama, in a working-class section of town, where his father was a carpenter and craftsman. He loved to read and was taken by his mother to their local branch in the first grade to get his library card. By high school, Stewart was familiar with the library, and in 1960, was offered a job at the Central Park Library as a page, shelving books and working the reference desk. He was soon given additional responsibilities and promoted to library assistant.
A 1966 Samford University graduate, Stewart worked in the Southern History department of Central Library during college and during the completion of his master’s degree in history in 1967. He loved the work, and with a little good fortunate and guidance from library director and mentor, Mr. Thornley, Stewart was quickly promoted again to department head and was encouraged to pursue his MLS. At the time, the closest MLS program was located at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, so Stewart commuted to classes and continued working for the library. Stewart was appointed to the Associate Director position in 1969, pending forthcoming completion of his MLS at Emory. In January 1976, Stewart was named Director of Central Library, a position in which he served for an additional sixteen years.
“If you don’t like people, you are in the wrong job,” Stewart advised. And Stewart did enjoy working with people of all backgrounds and interests. Stewart noted that, in the 1960’s, libraries in Alabama were segregated public service facilities, a status of which Stewart did not approve and in his career actively worked to alter. Even as library services began to integrate, library staffs were still segregated across Alabama. Upon his acceptance of the director’s position at Central, Stewart reformed the staff in significant to create a more equitable and rewarding work environment. He created a unified pay scale – “equal pay for equal work,” without consideration of race or gender. Stewart implemented a five-day workweek, allowing for a flexible, more satisfactory staff schedule, which increased morale. Stewart also insisted that new staffing policies included full integration of the library staff, allowing all people the opportunity to work at the Birmingham Public Library.
As director, Stewart began attending the Jefferson County Commission meetings, building positive working relationships with elected officials, and began to introduce the idea of countywide cooperative library services. When Jefferson County Commissioners asked Stewart to investigate ways to improve library service for the entire county, Stewart took the opportunity to prepare a long-range plan for a countywide system. Stewart secured what some feared was impossible, approval and cooperation from the directors, boards, and governments of all of the municipal libraries to begin countywide cooperative services. Thus, under the capable administration of George Stewart, was born the “One County, One Library Card” Jefferson County Library Cooperative (JCLC) that is still enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of local residents today. At the time of this decision to offer countywide, shared services, no library suffered a reduction in funding and every library in the county saw an increase in usage from the beginning of the cooperation.
While serving as Director of Birmingham Public Library, Stewart was integral in the planning, gathering of support and funding, and construction of many new libraries in Jefferson County. Mr. Stewart also developed the first system-wide Internet access and first digitally accessed databases in the state. Over the years, Stewart has served in executive council positions with the Alabama Library Association and on numerous committees with Alabama Public Library Service, including the committee that secured initial State Aid Legislative funding for Alabama public libraries and LSCA/LSTA advisory committees. He has also directed a partnership with the Cartographic Lab at UA to digitize and catalog tremendous map collections amassed by the BPL.
In a true tale of “romance in the library,” George met his wife of 52 years, Nancy, one day after scolding Nancy and her girlfriends for being too loud in the library. “I was the page at the library desk, and I will never forget when she came in with an umbrella, an arm load of books, and enough personality for several people. She and her friends were making too much noise, so I told her she could be quiet or she could leave… so she left. But she came back! Soon, I asked her to join me on my afternoon breaks across the street at the drugstore soda fountain, and like became love.” George and Nancy have 2 sons and 4 grandchildren and continue to enjoy their life together as partners in good times and in bad. After an accident in 2010 left him unable to walk, George credits Nancy with having the strength needed to bring him to a place of acceptance as they adjusted their home and their life to this new normal. Their story is featured in a book aptly named, The Romance of Libraries (Lefebvre, 2006, The Scarecrow Press). “Our lives have been blessed. It is hard to imagine what my life might have been like if that noisy little gal had not come into the Central Park Branch so long ago.”
By Jessica Ross