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A Champion for School Libraries

Verne Oliver's passion is fixing up books and spaces for kids in New York

retired teacher verne oliver restores Catholic school libraries in NYC

Former teacher Verne Oliver has spent her retirement remodeling and building libraries at Catholic schools across New York City. She has completed over 100 - her latest opened in September. — Photo by Chris Crisman

Step by step, book by book, Verne Oliver has transformed dozens of libraries in underprivileged New York City schools. It’s a second career for the 89-year-old educator devoted to youth and literacy.

Oliver rescues usable materials from libraries in schools about to be torn down, and talks to pupils about the basic concept of a lending library. She also builds new collections or rebuilds older ones.

See also: Ways to volunteer in your grandchildren's schools.

"Most school libraries aren't well taken care of," Oliver says. In a much-needed overhaul, "the first thing to do is weed. You weed a library the way you weed a garden. You can't have a library with books that are out-of-date, ugly and incorrect."

Since her 1987 retirement from teaching, Oliver has worked as associate director of the Gilder Foundation, a private New York philanthropy that funds libraries in local parochial schools. The latest library with her imprint, at St. Brigid School in the East Village, opened in September.

"Mrs. Oliver took us under her wing," says H. Kay Merriman, director of marketing and development at St. Brigid, with 195 coed students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. "She is the reason we now have this incredible resource to share with our students."

Weeds out the outdated

St. Brigid's old second-floor library had been dismantled over the past decade, divided into a classroom and a small computer lab with books. Other books were distributed among teachers for classroom libraries. The new library is now located on the first floor at the school's entrance.

St. Brigid isn't air-conditioned, but the new library is. On hot summer days, Oliver sweated it out to repair, label, organize and catalog books. More than 90 percent of the school's students come from minority backgrounds, and Oliver enjoys talking to them about geography and their roots.

Lending her literary insight, she consults with a school's educators on which books stay on the shelves. "She directs the actual refurbishment of the libraries," says Daniela Muhling, grants administrator of the foundation created by entrepreneur and philanthropist Richard Gilder. "She's an expert in culling outdated materials."

Sometimes a library may have five copies of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, in which case she might give a couple to a school that doesn't have any. Sometimes a cover is partially torn yet worth mending. "We patch and clean," Oliver says. "But this is a generation that doesn't like old dirty books."

Wise and energetic

Raised in Elizabeth, N.J., Oliver majored in history at nearby Montclair State University. She earned her master's degree in European history from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

While teaching at Virginia Union University in Richmond, she met her late husband Clinton Oliver, who was head of the English department. They moved to New York in 1957, and she took the helm of a private coed school for students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

"A fountain of wisdom and energy, Verne thrives on interaction with young people," says Sister Margaret Dennehy, librarian at St. Aloysius School in Harlem. In 1997, Oliver helped realize a dream with a new library at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Middle School for boys, which addresses the special needs of inner-city youth in grades 6 through 8.

In subsequent years, Oliver enabled the Gonzaga campus to enrich its American history and literature collections, and to provide funding for field trips and library furnishings.

When asked whether she ever plans to stop working, Oliver, who has outlived her only daughter and has one grandson, replies: "No, what am I going to retire for unless I'm sick? I don't want to just stay home and read a book. Our kids are very needy. There's a lot to be done."

You may also like: Digital bookmobile spreads the electronic word. >>

Susan Kreimer is a writer in New York.

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