By Anna Levine
Gail Johnson is something of a legend at the Penn Libraries. Colleagues might know her for her impeccable style, her outfits brightening the staff hallway as she walks to her office. Some may know Gail as a great conversationalist with the most cheerful disposition and the most infectious laugh. Others may know Gail as one of the hardest-working employees in the Information Processing Center, setting standards for herself that produce results which exceed what was thought to be possible. Others still might have first become aware of Gail as I did when I was hired: via the luxuriant “candy store” surrounding her office, neatly stacked and sealed towers of industrial-sized containers containing every type of miniature candy bar one might want.
Last month, much to the pleasure of generations of colleagues who have benefited from her warmth, humor, and intelligence, Gail celebrated the 50th anniversary of her employment.
As the longest-employed female staff member currently at the Penn Libraries, Gail has a treasure trove of stories to share about our workplace, and, as a self-proclaimed “people person,” she has an incredibly rich knowledge of her current and past colleagues.
Not only has she uniquely witnessed the changing demands of library work over half a century, Gail has experienced a lifetime of change in Philadelphia, parented three sons while working, and managed to stay relentlessly optimistic about life.
“Gail Johnson exemplifies our staff’s commitment to excellence, outstanding character, and richness of experience,” says Vice Provost and H. Carton Rogers III Director of Libraries Constantia Constantinou. “The Penn Libraries is truly upheld by its people, and we are lucky to have had Gail as a member of our community for such a remarkable period of time. I am humbled by her remarkable accomplishment, and will continue to value her unique contributions and service to the Penn Libraries.”
In celebration of her notable career achievement, read more about one of our longest-employed colleagues, Gail Johnson, below.
Gail grew up in North Philadelphia as the third oldest of seven children. Her father worked for the city of Philadelphia, first as the driver of a municipal truck and then as a crane operator for the water department, while her mother stayed home and managed the household. Even as a young child, Gail was incredibly determined to achieve success and operated with unusual focus and drive. To young Gail, success meant two things: the first was to attend Murrell Dobbins Vocational High School, which was widely regarded as the best and most competitive high school in North Philadelphia; and the second was to secure a highly coveted co-op job at Dobbins at the end of her senior year. Reserved only for students with the highest academic standing, Dobbins’ cooperative program offered students well-paying jobs related to their major and granted those students permission to work twenty hours a week while finishing their senior years, essentially ensuring them full-time positions immediately after graduation.
Despite being a light-hearted and bubbly kid, Gail pursued her education with the utmost seriousness. “I remember being eight years old and wanting a co-op job,” Gail recalls. “It was my mantra: I’m going to Dobbins and I’m going to get myself a co-op job.” Due to her drive, Gail not only got into Dobbins but maintained such an excellent academic standing that she was the first person in the Dobbins’ 1968 graduating class to get offered a co-op job.
Unfortunately, the job she was offered wasn’t quite what she had expected. Gail was known for her outgoing personality and her ability to strike a friendly conversation with anybody – and she had been assigned to work for the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, a place she assumed would be best suited to quiet types. “Everyone knows I love to talk. I wasn’t sure that working in a library would be good for me because I remembered librarians always asking me to be quiet because I couldn’t shut up,” Gail chuckles. Despite her uncertainty, Gail decided to accept the job offer. “I thought that I would go find another job later,” she recalls, believing that she would gain some valuable experience and then move on to a better-fitting job. Little did she know, she would choose to remain at Penn Libraries for half a century and counting.
On March 11th, 1968, a 17 year-old Gail walked through the employee entrance of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library to begin her job as a Library Typist. Her first job in the library was to operate a keypunch, an early computer that punched precise holes into pieces of cardstock in order to manage and process data. At the Penn Libraries, the keypunch was used to monitor book circulation. “Each book had a keypunch card, and the keypunch card lived in a pocket in the back of the book,” Gail explains. “Whenever someone checked it out, a librarian would put the key punch card in the machine, then put it back in the book.” In just two months, Gail was offered a full-time position and graduated from high school soon after. She earned a whopping $1.25 an hour, which she insists was plenty to live on. “When people complain about their low salaries, I let them know how much I started making here,” she laughs. “And I was just fine!”
Gail’s earliest years at Penn Libraries were punctuated by major life landmarks: she got married, purchased her first home in Logan, Philadelphia (that she lives in to this day!) with her husband, Charles David, and gave birth to three sons. Her world expanded in other ways, too: By closely working with an international staff of catalogers, Gail’s eyes were opened to new worlds and experiences. “When I started working at the Library,” Gail explains, “I was a black girl from the ‘hood. I didn’t know much, and I had never met anyone who wasn’t like me.” After she was transferred to the card preparation department from circulation, she worked closely with many “original catalogers,” librarians hailing from a wide range of countries who were responsible for processing material written in their native languages.
These colleagues brought perspective and life experiences into Gail’s realm for the first time, many of them profoundly shaped by World War II. “One cataloger I knew, Magda, had two kids who went to Penn,” Gail recounts. “They were a very driven family. I always noticed that Magda had a tattoo of a number on her arm – she never hid it. At the time, visible tattoos on women were rare, and so I asked someone else what was up with her tattoo. That person shushed me and said, ‘That tattoo is from a concentration camp.’” Gail remembers learning about the Holocaust in school, but it felt entirely different to have met someone who had experienced it and survived. Gail also remembers listening to the affecting stories of another cataloger, Ms. Hayashi, whose family and home was destroyed by the Nagasaki bombing.
Not every encounter with the unfamiliar at the Penn Libraries was as weighty, however. Gail recalls — with great pleasure — trying baklava for the first time, homemade by an Israeli colleague. She also remembers an amusing incident with Kostas Ostrauskas, former Head of the Albrecht Music Library and celebrated postmodern Lithuanian playwright, for whom she often typed cards and brought to his office. She and others held the accomplished Dr. Ostrauskas in high esteem. One day, she spotted him walking down the ground floor corridor from afar — a very surprising location to find him, she thought, since she had only ever seen him on the fourth floor. To catch his attention, she walked towards him and yelled down the hallway as loud as she could: “YO, MUSIC MAN!” Dr. Ostrauskas stopped in his tracks, turned around, and burst out laughing. “He put his arm around me and said, ‘From now on, you can call me Kostas,’” Gail chuckles. “And from then on, we became the best of friends.”
Gail has witnessed a tremendous amount of cultural and technological change over the course of her five decades of service to the Penn Libraries. For one, the treatment of women — and the roles that they were allowed to inhabit — drastically changed. “When I began working at the library,” Gail recalls, “women weren’t allowed to walk through the main entrance if they were wearing pants. I wore pants to work, so I always entered through the back.” Later, she remembers that her female coworkers advocated for a women’s steam room in the Hutchinson Gym by walking around naked in the men’s steam room. “It was a different time,” she laughs. Technologically speaking, Gail has witnessed many iterations of data management and input at the Libraries. What began with manually entering holes into keypunch cards and maintaining a physical card catalog eventually turned into entering computerized data into a local database and, later, into the cloud. Gail’s ability to transition to computer-based data management speaks to her impressive adaptability, and also came with some surprising benefits: “When I’m sitting at my desk, I’m always working — because I never got into Internet browsing!”
Something that has remained constant in Gail’s 50 years of employment is her exceptionally strong work ethic. “I have always wanted to do my job the best I know how,” Gail says. And she does: Gail quietly sets personal standards for herself each day, sometimes cataloging up to 125 books a day. As her success-filled path to her first co-op internship demonstrates, Gail has always demanded excellence of herself.But her hard work isn’t exclusively self-motivated. “One reason why I work so hard is that when I left my job to have my first son, there wasn’t anything like maternity leave for staff members,” Gail explains. She got her job back after her son’s birth, but she had no salary to make up for her absence. “[Then- union president] Howard Deck negotiated an extra week’s pay for me. He said, ‘Gail, whatever you do, you have to stay in your job for at least a month because I put my neck out for you,’” she recalls. “I’ve always wanted to be the kind of worker that Howard wouldn’t be ashamed that he put himself out there for.” Gail appreciated Howard’s kindness so much that she used this promise to him as a mantra. And it worked: whatever job Gail was given at the Libraries, she produced results.
What is it like to have worked at the Penn Libraries for a lifetime? Gail believes that her long tenure has been “a spectacular blessing.” In her words, “Penn has always been a nice place to work. So many people get up and go to jobs they hate, and I’ve never had that. I enjoy coming to work. I used to tell my kids when they were younger that it’s important to find something you like to do.” The most important element of this blessing has been the strong relationships she’s forged during her time here. “People here have touched my life and left footprints in my heart. I only hope that there is some small way I have given back some of the love, encouragement, friendships, and knowledge to those who have crossed my path here,” she says.
It is evident from colleague testimonies that Gail made a deep impact on others, too. Former Vice Provost and Director of Libraries Carton Rogers recounts many ways that Gail touched his life. “There are so many things to celebrate about Gail–her warmth, her welcoming personality, her great cooking, her balanced approach to her life and the work environment,” said Rogers. “That great smile of hers lights up any room she’s in.” He’s particularly grateful for how welcoming she was to him during his transition from the Business Office to become the Director of Technical Services. “It was a disruptive time, and her embrace of me as the new boss gave me the space I needed to begin to understand my new situation,” he said.
Please congratulate Gail Johnson on her 50 years of service to the Penn Libraries. She continues to be an invaluable addition to our community. Thank you, Gail!