An Interview with retiring library staffer Deborah Madrey and two decades' worth of observations from behind the circulation desk

By Michelle Laboy, member of the board of the Friends of the South End Library

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This December, we say goodbye to our long time librarian Deborah Madrey, who will retire in January. Deborah has been part of the South End Library for the past 22 years.  She started at the Boston Public Library as a student in Emerson College, working part time at the Copley library from 1971 until 1973. She graduated with a degree in education and moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to work as a teacher. In 1995 she moved back from California to her native Boston, and thanks to her previous experience at the BPL and the good impression she left with former colleagues, she was offered a full time position with the library. She started in the South End in October of 1995 and has worked here since.

She still remembers how the library felt when she arrived. The renovation in the late 1980s that added an elevator had just been completed, and the interior was freshly painted. She describes many changes that happened since, when the library started to get computers and when tapes and DVD’s became a “hot commodity,” so much so that she thinks libraries helped put Blockbuster out of business.  And of course she notes with some reservation the increasing availability of digital books for Kindles. But the biggest changes have been people's tastes in reading. She recalls how popular V. C. Andrew was back then, especially the novel Petals on the Wind. She has not seen western novels and science fiction in a long while, noting, “Now they watch it more than they read it”. She recalls when urban fiction became very popular, with the work of Terry McMillan, which open the door for other black writers who became well known. 

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Deborah has also noticed how much the neighborhood changed during her time at the library. She still loves the South End where she observes, unlike other branches, a more diverse population coming together at the library: poor and rich, white, Hispanics and blacks, native-born and immigrants. She has seen the neighborhood get more “yuppified” and welcome many more families. For Deborah another important constituency is her doggy friends, for whom she keeps a box of milk bones behind the desk, to go outside and greet them with a treat every day. Library patrons who love sports will also remember her passion, as a self-described rabid Patriots fan who has won tickets to their games three times. She also loves to watch tennis matches. According to her co-worker Margaret Gardner, the children’s librarian, many teenagers who grew up coming to the library still come by to say hello to Deborah. Many other library users know her for her kindness and welcoming greetings as you pass the circulation desk or check out a book. When mentioning how much people say how nice she is, her answer says so much: “It's harder to be to be nasty than to be nice".

Her best memories of working at the South End Library are the holiday parties and the jazz concerts. Seeing people that come in during evenings for author talks really makes her feel like the library is doing something good for the neighborhood, that they are rendering a service. She is always impressed by how much we do in such a small space. Deborah loves that she knows many people here, and she will miss the patrons the most. She will also miss her doggie friends and the staff.  She shares how happy it makes her to know that she has many friends in the community, and proudly says that some of the homeless who frequent the library are her friends too; evidently knowing a few of them by name and noticing when they are going through an especially difficult time.

She loves the library, and loves books, which she says, “take you places”. Her friend and long time South End resident Ms. Fanny Johnson stopped by to talk to Deborah, and shared with us the incredible importance of the library to her as a child. “If you grow up in the inner city, the library opens your world; it lets you know that it is bigger than these three or four blocks.” Deborah worries that children don't read as much anymore, especially when she observes them wanting “as little text and as many pictures as possible.” And she cannot understand why some are more interested in the movie than in the original book, noting that they will be miss the imagination that reading inspires.

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For Deborah, the most important role of the library is to give people an opportunity to gain knowledge. But she also sees the library as an essential resource to so many who come to do their taxes, or to use a computer to search for homes and jobs, to do resumes, or use the free resources available to the community. While she recognizes that “we cannot be Bates Hall” and that it is important for a neighborhood branch to be able to be a little bit louder sometimes, she stressed that she will not miss some of the bad behavior that she has experienced on occasion from some of the library users. She is concerned about the challenges the library faces, as she says they cannot be everything to everyone. She knows the library is an important place for many, including the homeless who need a place to be; but she acknowledges that doing all of these things comes with challenges that they grapple with every day.

As we look towards the future without Deborah in the library every day, and we prepare to embark on a new renovation to allow the library to better serve the functions the community needs, her wisdom from years of experience working in this space should be treasured. When thinking about the future of the library, Deborah says that she hopes real books are preserved and that the library does not go all-digital. She thinks there is wisdom in hardcopy books that is shared and passed on from one user to the next.  When asked what the library needs the most, she said she would like to see that dedicated teen space, but that we don’t need a coffee shop!

These few blocks hold many memories of Deborah’s youth. Growing up, she attended the church just across the street at the corner of West Newton and Tremont Streets. Deborah is the youngest of seven children, born and raised in a house on 741 Shawmut. She moved to Roxbury when she was three, and still lives in the same house. She remembers how growing up she felt she had to have a library card. Deborah describes herself as extremely shy, and while she taught in school, she claims that her ability to speak in public was learned in church. The last few years Deborah lived with her brothers; one of whom passed away recently, and she still has another brother who lives in Jamaica Plain. She misses her siblings dearly. But she looks forward to retiring and having time for many new things. She wants to do some traveling, especially to Europe, although she is not crazy about planes.

Deborah will be missed by so many friends of the South End library. We were fortunate to have her kind presence in the library for so many years, and we will remember her always. Most importantly, we want to take this moment of her retirement to celebrate the great community that Deborah helped cultivate in the library, the heart of our beautiful neighborhood.  We wish Deborah a happy and healthy retirement, full of wonderful trips, many new friends, and a few more wins for the Patriots. And we hope that when she is not traveling, she continues to join us during summer concerns, holiday parties and author readings. All the very best wishes to you, Deborah!


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