|George Stewart working on a map in BPL's collection|
For 37 years in his career at the Birmingham Public Library (BPL) and with the Jefferson County Library Cooperative, George R. Stewart touched thousands of lives of librarians across metro Birmingham.
He played a role in getting a Library of Information Science program established at the University of Alabama, integrating the workforce at BPL, and helped convince the Jefferson County Commission to allow the creation of the Jefferson County Library Cooperative that tied nearly 40 libraries in the county together under one umbrella.
On Thursday, October 6, 2016, Stewart received one of the highest honors in the library profession in Alabama as he was inducted into the University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Sciences Hall of Fame. The award recognizes his leadership and significant contribution to the field of Library and Information Science education.
Stewart was featured in an article on the University of Alabama website. See link below:
Stewart's career spanned 33 years with the BPL System and an additional four years as director of the Jefferson County Library Cooperative. BPL Interim Director Sandi Lee said Stewart was a mentor to many at BPL and remains active at BPL as a map consultant in the Southern History Department in the Linn-Henley Research Building.
“The Birmingham Public Library is extremely proud of Mr. Stewart,” Lee said. “We are glad to see him be recognized in the UA College of Communication and Information Sciences Hall of Fame for his many accomplishments.”
Pat Ryan, executive director of the Jefferson County Library Association, said she is among many lives Stewart has touched in libraries across metro Birmingham. She said Stewart mentored a myriad of librarians in Jefferson County and Alabama as director of the BPL System and while serving in professional organizations.
“I worked at BPL for several years early in my career and every time I would see Mr. Stewart (the director) at that time, he inquired as to how I was and when I was going to begin work to complete my MLS,” Ryan said. “Once I started the MLS program, he always asked about my progress.
Ryan said even today she has not forgotten his friendliness and encouragement, adding that she tries to model those traits in her own encouragement to younger librarians.
“I am not sure without his encouragement I would have had the courage and confidence to follow the MLS path which set me on the road to a library career I would never have dreamed I would attain,” she said. “Basically, he changed my life by caring. And I know there are many others that could speak to a similar experience."
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 BPL two days or more a week. 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 the 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 fortune 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 the Central Library, a position in which he served for an additional 16 years.
When Stewart began working at BPL in the 1960s, libraries in Alabama were segregated, a status he didn’t approve of and in his career actively worked to alter. Even as library services began to integrate, library staffs were still segregated across the state.
When Stewart became director at the Central Library, he helped create a more equitable and rewarding work environment, including a unified pay scale—"equal pay for equal work"— without consideration of race or gender. He also insisted that new staffing policies included full integration of the library staff, allowing all people the opportunity to work at BPL.
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.
Under Stewart in 1978 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. While serving as director of BPL, Stewart was integral in the planning and gathering the funds to build many new libraries in Jefferson County. He also developed the first systemwide Internet access and first digitally accessed databases in the state. Stewart also partnered 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," Stewart 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 armload 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."
Stewart and Nancy have two sons and four 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, Stewart 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," Stewart said.