Donald Root: Beyond the bookshelves at Free Library

Donald Root: Beyond the bookshelves at Free Library

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I used to work right down the street from the Central Library and regularly took advantage of the many things it had to offer, in addition to borrowing books. There is a fabulous print and picture department where you can borrow artwork, an extensive periodicals department, movies and music and so much more. Always LGBT-friendly, the exhibit hall currently is housing a tribute to LGBT pioneer Barbara Gittings. I spoke to the man who helped put it together, Donald Root.

PGN: Root is an interesting name. Tell me about your roots, if you will.

DR: Oh darn, I wasn’t expecting you to ask me that! I don’t know much. My father’s mother was adopted so there’s a whole quarter there that I don’t know anything about. My aunt has done a little genealogy, and I think the name traces back to England.

PGN: [Laughs] OK, I ambushed you. Let’s go to something more familiar, books. What was your favorite as a kid?

DR: Now this might be embarrassing: My fondest memories of books were from elementary school. Our teacher would read the “Nancy Drew” mysteries to us every day. Unlike the boys who were into “The Hardy Boys,” I was into “Nancy Drew.” I guess that should have been a hint!

PGN: I guess I don’t have to ask for the first sign you were gay.

DR: No, it was early. I remember having a crush on a boy in fourth grade, and then in eighth grade my best friend, a girl cousin, was talking about some boy that she liked — we shared everything, we used to play dolls together — and I said, “Oh yeah, he is cute.” And she turned on me: “What do you mean? You’re not supposed to say that!” and there I was at 13 getting the message that “you’re not supposed to be this way.” After that, I made a concerted effort to suppress it. I learned not to talk about it, even with my best friend.

PGN: You’d think playing dolls with her might have been another hint.

DR: Yes, you’d think so!

PGN: And where did you grow up?

DR: A really little town called Paw Paw, Mich., where my father was also born and raised. He was in the Air Force in the Korean War and was stationed in Newfoundland in an area where there’s a small French-speaking population. That’s where he met my mother. She moved to Michigan with him, so we always had a little foreign element growing up; she had an accent, which of course we didn’t realize. I was the first-born and next thing you know, there were six of us: four boys and two girls. It’s nice having so many siblings. We’re very close; I consider them among my best friends. My father had seven siblings and my mother had eight and none of them ever went to college, so I was the first to attend in a very large family. And after me, all of my siblings went, which made my parents really proud.

PGN: Wait, you were a French major? [Laughs] Wasn’t that cheating, with a French-speaking mom?

DR: Well, no. It was that era where if you were an immigrant, you tried to assimilate and didn’t really pass the heritage on to the kids. But she may have taught us some French when we were little. I think it did help me have an authentic accent when speaking French.

PGN: Tell me a little about Paw Paw.

DR: It’s a small town but, interestingly, Southwest Michigan became a hot place for growing grapes and, for a while, Michigan was the third-largest wine-producing state. So I grew up in a little farming area and went to Catholic school up until eighth grade. In high school, I was the “smart kid,” which I think is not unusual … for gay people to focus on studies instead of sports or whatever. I ended up at Kalamazoo College, which was a small liberal-arts school, and I’m forever grateful for them for educating me and allowing me to have my junior year abroad without charging extra tuition. Coming from a family with six kids, I was on a scholarship without much money and that year in France changed my life. I got to see the world and all sorts of different cultures in Europe. Being thrown into a completely foreign atmosphere on my own really made me look in the mirror. I turned 21 there and my sister sent me a card and the front said something about marching to the beat of a different drummer. I read it and looked into the mirror and simply said aloud, “I’m gay.” And with that, I was out. It was an important moment.

PGN: Having been raised Catholic, did you experience any homophobia?

DR: Not really, and it’s kind of amazing. I know looking back that I have certain feminine characteristics and my voice is too high, so it’s hard to believe that I came through all that fairly unscathed but I did. I had four good friends who I did everything with: biked around town, hung out and, as far as I know, they’re all straight and it never was an issue. I was called sissy or told I acted like a girl on occasion, but nothing physical or threatening. My father didn’t practice any religion, much to my mother’s chagrin, so we had some balance.

PGN: What made you choose library studies?

DR: Well, again going back to grade school, I always enjoyed going to the library. It was only a few blocks from home so I could walk there on my own. I enjoyed the “Nancy Drew” books and mysteries. This should tell you something: The librarian was a sweet old lady and she’d save books for me. I remember when I was in high school she said, “Oh, I have a new book coming in that I think you’ll like. It’s the biography of Andrew Jackson’s … wife!” [Laughs] It was a really good book, but I mean normally for a boy you’d recommend a book on the war or the president, not his wife! But it was sweet; she never judged me, just helped me find things I’d like. Then in college, because I was there on a scholarship, I did a work-study in the library. But I went to grad school to get a Ph.D. in French. That was in Madison, Wisc., and that’s where I really came out full force. It’s such a great city. But I decided I just couldn’t write a dissertation; I just didn’t have it in me, so I finished the master’s in French and thought, well, what do I do with this? So I used the time I’d put in at the library and switched to library sciences.

PGN: What had you planned to do with the French degree?

DR: Well, if you have the Ph.D., you become a professor. I’d done some student teaching and it was a nightmare! High-school students? That was one instance where I felt harassed for being gay. No thanks.

PGN: You’ve done a lot of library jobs, in several academic libraries such as Princeton University, Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, La Salle University and Community College of Philadelphia — and, closest to my heart, you worked in the Children’s Library.

DR: Yes, that was quite a change, but I’m a Sagittarius so we embrace variety. There was a very rigorous and lengthy training for it. We had to learn storytelling and all kinds of activities and I loved it. It’s so wonderful. You get to just be yourself. The kids are not judging you at all, you can act goofy or lay down on the floor and the kids love it. I got to work in some of the underserved areas in Philadelphia and thought, Oh, I want you kids to enjoy this and maybe see a path, a scholarly path, that you didn’t know of before. I tried to be an alternative to what was going on in the streets.

PGN: And what is your title now?

DR: I’m the chief of Central Public Services Division. I oversee all of the public services that you’d find at the library. If you want to go to the music department or the art department or the rare-book department, they’re all under my purview. We have exhibitions. Right now we have one celebrating Barbara Gittings and the Annual Reminder days. I’m really proud of it.

PGN: There’s so much going on here. I was actually here Tuesday for a workshop on crowd funding, and when we finish our talk I’m headed over to the E-Gadget help desk for a computer problem I’ve been having. And I’ll be back next week for a workshop on grants. You have some very impressive author events coming up, including U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera in September and actor/author Wendell Pierce and, one I’m planning on checking out, Margaret Atwood in October. You can get help with all sorts of things: getting a GED, health insurance, healthy living and eating classes. On Aug. 23, there’s a free concert in the music hall with world-class opera singers accompanied by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra. I think a lot of people don’t know you also have the largest lending library of orchestral-performance material in the world. I used to come to find sheet music and listen to recordings. And before smart phones, I used to call the “Ask a Librarian” hotline for all sorts of things, especially to settle bets! Now you can ask for help online. You can even reserve books and movies and download podcasts. [Laughs] OK, I’ll go on and on. Your turn!

DR: That’s so great that you’re going to the programs. One thing that I’d like to stress is that we’re like an open university. Especially here at Central, we try to build our collections so that someone doing research on a master’s or even a Ph.D. level would be able to utilize us. We’re a place for lifelong learning; truly from birth to senior citizens, we have services for all. The fact that we’re free and open to anyone is attractive. We have free WiFi and a café and plenty of space. We get a certain number of homeless people and for them, it’s a cool, quiet place in the summer and a warm place in winter with computers people can use. We don’t turn anyone away. We have a ton of children’s programming, and the kids’ library is great for children who might not have a computer at home.

PGN: Do you still have the cafeteria on the roof?

DR: No, it’s now a culinary-literacy center. It’s one of our new initiatives, teaching cooking skills to teach other disciplines. When you follow a recipe, you need to apply reading and math and science! It’s great, libraries all across the country are trying to become more community centers, places where people can learn and share. As you mentioned, our author series is world-renowned. Libraries are changing, but we still have books too, both print and over 10,000 eBook titles.   

PGN: That I’m definitely taking advantage of! Now back to you: Do you still like mysteries?

DR: Yes, I still read them occasionally. They’re sort of like comfort food. If I’m going on a trip, I like to tuck an Agatha Christie book in my bag. That sounds really old-fashioned. I read a lot, and I keep an account of all my books at GoodReads.com.

PGN:  Hobbies outside of reading?

DR: I play bridge. Ha, that sounds old-fashioned, too! At age 60, I’m the youngest guy in my bridge club; the oldest guy is 90. It’s really a dying game so we’re trying to attract some new people. I work out; it’s not a hobby — I don’t enjoy it, I just do it. I used to play tennis and, though I don’t play much anymore, I’m an avid fan.

PGN: Favorite player?

DR: I grew up in the Martina/Chris Everett era, and I really loved Chris — being the girly girl — but now I love Martina too and what she’s done for the community. I always preferred women’s tennis players like Monica Seles and Arantxa Sánchez but currently none of them really appeal to me. So now I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Roger Federer fan. I adore him! There’s never been anybody like him: the talent and poise and grace on the court and the smile.

PGN: Hey, I enjoy watching him play so much my family has questioned my sexuality!

DR: I get it! [Sighs] It’ll be a sad day when he retires: I’ll just have to learn to accept it.

PGN: Something you’re proud of?

DR: I pride myself in being an advocate for the homeless. I was appointed to the Philadelphia Food Access Collaborative, which is trying to find a way to give meals to everyone in a dignified and safe manner. Through that, I volunteered at a soup kitchen. I figured, if I’m going to be on the commission, I need to see what’s going on. At the recent annual meeting of the American Library Association in San Francisco, I was part of a panel that presented “Communities in Need,” describing the library’s role in serving the homeless and underserved communities. I also marched in the San Francisco Pride march under the banner of the American Library Association.

PGN: If I owned a race horse, I’d name it …

DR: Midnight … if it was black.

PGN: My guiltiest pleasure …

DR: A few years ago I would have said smoking, even though I’d only have one with a drink, but then I decided I should quit even that. I guess now it would be sunbathing. I love the beach.

PGN: Single or partnered?

DR: Single. And I was in San Francisco when the gay-marriage decision came down and I thought, This is great, now I just have to find someone to marry!

PGN: With those blue eyes? Shouldn’t take long. What’s you favorite Motown song?

DR: I’m from Detroit so it would have to be from The Supremes! “Baby Love,” or, it wasn’t from Motown, but Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out.” And I love Stevie Wonder; of course, he’s from Detroit, not far from where I grew up. I named one of my cats Saturn, after a Stevie Wonder song — one of his idealistic songs where he was imagining a place with no guns, no war and no pollution, on Saturn.

PGN: Or perhaps the library!  

For more information on Central Library, visit www.freelibrary.org

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