Remembering a librarian


Earlier this month, as 2014 was ringing in, a quiet and touching tribute to Princeton Public Library’s former special collections librarian, Terri Nelson, was published in Town Topics. You might have missed it, just like you might have missed seeing Terri, "the librarian on the bench." Library staffers found the piece to be an interesting personal testimony, and we shared it together. We hope you will, too. 

Stuart Mitchner wrote:

Remembering a Librarian

The death of a Joseph Frank or a Peter Lewis is major local news and so reported, but every now and then, as happened this year with bibliophile Peter Oppenheimer, you begin to wonder why you haven’t seen an 'old Princeton acquaintance' on the street only to receive the shock of the news off the record, without benefit of an obituary. This is how I learned about reference librarian Terri Nelson, who retired in 2010 after 22 years at the Princeton Public Library and died this past July at 66.

Terri started out as a children’s librarian around the time my son turned 13, let his hair grow long, began wearing army jackets with peace buttons, and listening to sixties music. Like all Princeton kids of various ages, he was fond of Dudley Carlson, but the sixties person who knew what he was feeling and where he was coming from was Terri Nelson, who had gone to school at Berkeley and had opinions about politics, race relations, and rock and roll. While I got to know Terri, a fellow Hoosier, through volunteer work with the Friends of the Library Book Sale (I regularly set aside Princeton-related materials for her), my son knew more of her Vietnam-impacted story than I ever did.

According to Ellen Gilbert’s Town Topics article (“A Passion for Genealogy Inspires Princeton Librarian’s Seminars on the Past”), Terri’s fascination with genealogy was inspired by the discovery that her family could be traced back to the Starbucks of Nantucket — meaning, of course, the family of Captain Ahab’s steadfast first mate, not the coffee makers. In July 2008 when the article appeared, Terri was not only overseeing the Princeton Room and numerous online resources on Princeton and African American history (including a site devoted solely to Paul Robeson), she was teaching classes on genealogy whose students included two Mayflower descendants. According to Library director Leslie Burger, Terri was also instrumental in designing and maintaining the library’s 'very first website.'

The comment from one of Terri’s colleagues at the library, who remembers her as 'a brilliant person whose life was tragic,' reflects the complex story behind the familiar figure seen over the years by people driving down or idling on Sylvia Beach Way behind the new library. As John [Lennon]’s song says, 'All these places have their moments.' Perhaps you remember her as the lady on the bench, smoking a cigarette, a lonely community cameo worth a special thought at this time of the year, a special cup of kindness.


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