A friend in the library
Nancy Magnuson began her library career as a sort of one-woman bookmobile, driving to visit disabled patrons of the King County Library in greater Seattle to deliver books and recommend future reading.
“I had a little county car,” she recalls, “I’d fill it up, I’d pick out books for the people on my list, I’d go around, I’d sit and talk with them, give them new books, hear what they thought of the previous books, go back, and pick up more books for them.”
It’s the kind of personal touch she’s carried throughout her career, including the past 30 years as college librarian at Goucher, a position she will leave this summer when she retires.
Magnuson came east in 1980 to work in the Philadelphia Free Library, and was an assistant librarian at Haverford College before joining Goucher in 1987. She arrived during a transformational period for libraries and oversaw Goucher’s library as it became a focal point for learning and student life.
“She is a tireless advocate for the library and for libraries in general, for books and reading and community-building through books,” says Seble Dawit, director of Goucher’s Peace Studies Program, which Magnuson co-founded. As the other co-founders retired, Dawit says, Magnuson became the program’s institutional memory, and has taught courses and offered support to the program.
The college’s Special Collections and Archives used to occupy the space in the Julia Roger’s building that now houses the Psychology Center. It was dark, with a low drop ceiling, and, when Magnuson arrived, unstaffed. Now, archivists work with students and scholars on a wide-ranging collection of art and artifacts, from an internationally-known collection of Jane Austen books to early cuneiform tablets. On a recent morning, Magnuson sat in on a class working with records from the Epsom Farm, which once occupied the land where the college sits. Assistant Professor of History and Historic Preservation Tina Sheller, who teaches the class, praised Magnuson’s efforts to preserve the college’s collections and make them accessible.
“Few colleges of Goucher’s size can boast of a major center for archival and artifact research like Special Collections and Archives,” Sheller says. “My students have enjoyed numerous opportunities to do ‘hands-on’ history with the artifacts of the Epsom Farm collection, with the yellowing pages and wartime artifacts of the World War II diary of Vernon Goetz, with the personal correspondence of an old Baltimore County family, and with the college records of Goucher student suffragists. None of these projects would have been possible without the generous and visionary leadership of Nancy Magnuson.”
Under Magnuson’s leadership, the library’s collection has doubled, increasing both the print books and the digital collection which, when she arrived, was non-existent. She also played a large role in the planning of the Ungar Athenaeum, which now houses the library.
“I think of Nancy as the consummate college librarian,” says former Goucher President Sanford J. Ungar. “Eager to promote the service role of the library, but also contributing in her own right to the intellectual life of the college.”
In planning the new building, he says, “I have to say, Nancy was the perfect partner-in-crime. We worked from the principle that the library was a gathering place— that it was okay to come to the library for reasons other than books.”
“The students love it,” Magnuson says of the Athenaeum building, “which is what it’s all about.”
Working with the students, she says, has been one of the joys of her position.
“I just think our students are wonderful,” she says. “And we’re dealing with them one-on-one and we’re not giving them a grade. One of the things we like to do is just to somehow make a warm personal connection with the students, so they know the library is not a scary place.”
Her personal touch has not gone unnoticed. “Over the course of her career,” Sheller says, “Nancy has used her considerable energy, intelligence, and personal warmth to make the Goucher Library a lively and welcoming center for students and faculty alike.”
“Nancy always remembered our research projects that brought us to the library,” recalls Risa Gorelick ’91. “If she happened to come across something that she knew related to our project, she would print out an article, and we would find it in a hot pink envelope in our campus mailbox with a short note saying, ‘I think you’ll find this useful.’”
Magnuson’s connection lasted past graduation as well.
“She has helped preserve and promote the college’s rich history,” says Marilyn Southard Warshawsky ’68. “In addition, she has encouraged alumnae/i to take advantage of library programs, in person and online.”
Speaking at a gathering in May, President José Antonio Bowen praised Magnuson’s influence on the college. “You have transformed countless lives of students, staff, and faculty,” he told her. “You have made an indelible impression on this institution.”
“She’s unbelievably hard-working,” says Associate Professor April Oettinger, who teaches classes in the Book Studies Program, which Magnuson founded.
“And she really carries on all she does with good humor and grace. She’s one who connects with everybody, not just at Goucher, but in the wider community. She’s had a real effect on the history of Goucher.”
Warshawsky recalled a symbolic moment in Nancy’s tenure—the passing of books from the old Goucher library to the new, and “the enthusiastic human chain that gathered to pass the books from hand to hand between buildings.”
“It symbolized Nancy’s commitment and generosity of spirit,” she says, “passing the excitement and joy of a library and learning across the generations and into the future.”