Greetings ~ I am honored to offer my tribute to Izzy Worthen.
Most of you have known Izzy longer than I have; most of you know that this library as it is today owes so much to her energy, creativity, and dedication. Izzy’s contributions to this small town are better known to old timers than to me.
In fact, I will leave it to others to offer recaps of all that Izzy has accomplished over her years here in Old Forge. What I want to talk about this evening is Izzy’s role as godmother to so many happenings and as mentor to so many people both young and old. At the risk of talking about myself, I look to my own experience for examples of Izzy’s extraordinary skill in building a library community and in seeking and sharing the talents of other people.
While making notes for this tribute, I did what writers often do and what the Internet makes so easy: I browsed among comments and quotations about libraries and librarians. And I was neither inspired nor satisfied that they had much to say about this library and its library director, Izzy Worthen. We all know that Izzy has been deeply involved in the evolution of this library for many, many years. From volunteer book shelver to director, she has pushed, shoved, and shepherded it forward, through moves, expansions, remodeling, and the explosion of the information technology. Most of what people are quoted as saying and thinking about libraries and librarians has to do with books and knowledge, answering questions, keeping silence, promoting reading. Most of it says little about my experience of this library.
In Izzy’s vision of a library for a small town in the Adirondack Mountains, books are important, of course; the OF library has a modest collection and access to endless titles through MidYork library system. Information technology is vital in today’s world, of course, and Izzy and her staff have taught themselves and many members of the community how to avail themselves of its myriad uses. Pleasant and comfortable surroundings, what Hemingway might call “a clean, well-lighted space?” We have that here as well. We do not, however, have the deep somnolent silence, the almost reverential obeisance to the printed word enjoyed in scholarly solitude that so many comments deem essential to a library. The OF library is not an enclave for quiet scholars; instead it is a lively, often noisy community center devoted to literacy in its many forms for patrons of all ages and interests.
Izzy’s vision of a library is, I think, suggested by something Scott Douglas said when he was in training to become a librarian: “There’s something deep in the heart of every person that wants to protect culture. …I began to see it was the community, not the librarian, that was important to the library. Librarians were only as important as the community they inspired. If I was going to continue with this career, my job wouldn’t be to protect information, it would be to bring the community together and inspire them to appreciate everything a library stands for.”
This statement does not diminish the role of librarian as protector of culture. Instead Douglas expresses what Izzy has inspired as the specific and overt role of this library. What Izzy has done and continues to do is inspire the community to collaborate with the library in creating a uniquely Old Forge literacy culture. Sure, we come here to collect and return books or to link into WIFI or to read newspapers or catch up on the local news at the desk. But think of all the other activities we come here to enjoy. Think about the programs for kids, from bicycle and babysitting clinics to reading partners, parent-child reading groups to drama celebrations and Valentine’s Day bake-offs and poetry and illustration contests, and so much more. I am sure there is not a young person graduating from TOW schools who has not spent productive time in this library. And most adults, both seasonal tourists and local residents, take advantage of activities here too: all manner of presentations, nature and travel slides, music, storytelling, evenings when the community comes together to learn, celebrate accomplishments, share ideas, laugh together.
As for her role as mentor, for me Izzy offered a chance to become part of a new community from the time she met me and got to know a little bit of what I might have to offer. She invited me to lead the Summer Writing Workshop, sponsored by the NY Council on the Arts, to co-edit an anthology, to facilitate discussion groups sponsored by the NY Council for the Humanities. As the person leading such groups; I had the visible presence, but behind every workshop and contest and seminar, Izzy spent hours writing the grant, dealing with sponsors, making sure the reports were submitted on time, creating the budgets. Those of us who had the opportunities to lead the various groups know how much Izzy did to support and encourage us. If one has an idea, Izzy will leap like a trout to make it happen, as I know after proposing a series of film discussions. (A shout out to Albert here, too, who was always on hand to set up projectors and speakers, to walk me through the on and off buttons.) Among my happiest memories are planning sessions up in Izzy’s office, shuffling our calendars and lists of ideas among the papers and folders on her overburdened desk. Last minute deadlines, sponsors’ sticky rules and regulations, making coffee, moving tables and chairs – Izzy was there, doing it all. And perfectly and fashionably groomed as well. And always grateful to those of us for whom she made these adventures possible. Self-deprecating to a fault, Izzy deflected praise and applause, heaping credit on others, never herself.
Some of my most fulfilling times in OF were spent in this library, talking about books and movies with community members, leading writing workshops, hanging at the desk chatting with Karen. When Izzy asked me to write a play about the history of the library in honor of its centennial celebration, I was challenged, not having written a play since high school. But if Izzy asks you to create a play, believe me, you create a play!! As I researched the library’s history, helped of course by Izzy’s files, I realized just what a community activist Izzy has been and still is! She is the Saul Alinsky of the library world, the fairy godmother of community literacy and culture.
I want to add two more notes. The first is a personal tribute to Izzy as friend and confidante. Up in her office, over that cluttered desk, we have talked often of our own lives, being as we are of a certain age! I know Izzy as that rarest of individuals: a good listener and an honest responder. I have asked her for advice, shared concerns with her, and teared up in her presence. She has listened with interest and empathy. When I first moved here, I was afraid I would not find a place to fit in. Izzy made creative spaces for me; she brought out the best in me, believed in my skills and encouraged me to become part of this library family. I doubt that Izzy realizes what gifts her encouragement of and faith in me were. This is a personal thank you, Izzy.
And finally, while Izzy and I may differ, even disagree, on points of politics or culture, Izzy is the most open and tolerant person I know. To her the idea of censorship is anathema. She and I share the belief that literacy must be the open door to freedom and democracy. Michael Moore, that radical challenger of the status quo, could be describing Izzy when he says, ““[Librarians] are subversive. You think they're just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They're like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn't mess with them.” Izzy plots the revolution with every program she fosters, every book she orders, every computer she makes available, every voice she empowers. It’s a revolution that wants to overturn ignorance, burn the barricades to knowledge, and unfurl the flag of literacy. As one commentator, R. David Lukes, asserts, “To be a librarian is not to be neutral, or passive, or waiting for a question. It is to be a radical positive change agent within your community.” Izzy has been and remains a powerful positive change agent for this small community. I have sat often around a table in this room, discussing books and their great and beautiful and provocative ideas while deer graze or snow drifts outside the windows, while crisp Adirondack air drifts through the screens and coffee brews in the kitchen. I have listened to poems and stories composed here by young and old. I have talked with thoughtful men and women about Harry Potter and Hamlet, about nature and the spiritual life, about poems and history books, films and our country’s future. Behind the scenes and sometimes with us, Izzy Worthen worked her magic to secure funding and refreshments, photographs for publicity, and most of to involve people in the exchange of words and ideas. A library can be a place where, with inspired and stubborn leadership, community collaborates with institution and they become one. The result of that collaboration makes us all wiser and more understanding of one another. Years ago I said that this library is the heart of this community. I say it again tonight: This library is the heart of this community, and Izzy Worthen keeps that heart beating steady and strong. Thank you, Izzy Worthen.
Paula Alida Roy