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In Memory of Meg Spencer

Meg Spencer

President Valerie Smith shared the following in a community message earlier today:

Dear Friends,

Our community lost a beloved member when Cornell Science Librarian Meg Spencer died in a car accident last Thursday. We have lost not only a dedicated, innovative professional, but an enthusiastic and generous mentor and advocate for all students.  

Colleagues remember Meg as someone with whom they could share a love of champagne and popcorn as easily as a deep appreciation of the work of Toni Morrison or the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante. Students also recall her as a thoughtful, witty, and essential part of campus whose presence they continue to feel.

“I adored her,” says College Librarian Peggy Seiden. “Service informed everything Meg did. She just exemplifies the highest standard of skill and dedication.”

Meg came to Swarthmore 34 years ago as a research assistant in the Psychology Department. She joined the library staff as an assistant science librarian in 1983, later serving as acting science librarian for almost two years. After a national search, she formally took on the role in 1999.

Meg’s early tenure coincided with the complicated transition from analog to digital resources, as well as the creation of the Tripod system that connects the library systems at Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford Colleges.  She played critical roles in both efforts.

During the construction of the Science Center, completed in 2004, Cornell Library transformed from a stand-alone building behind the old DuPont building to an “activating hub” for the new plan. As a member of the project’s design committee, Meg is remembered for gently but effectively defending the functions of the library she knew mattered most to students.

“I could always count on her thoughtfulness, creative ways of solving problems, forthright communication, and sense of humor,” says Walter Kemp Professor in the Natural Sciences Rachel Merz, the design committee’s co-chair. “Meg’s desire was always to have Cornell Library be an inviting setting with students at its center. Under her leadership, that has certainly been the case.”

Indeed, a recent study of library use across campus shows that Cornell is as busy, if not busier, than McCabe. “I think Cornell’s success as a center for students,” Merz adds, “is because of Meg’s mix of practicality, playfulness, and ability to imagine the next interesting thing.”

“Some of us were lucky enough to teach a course or seminar in Cornell,” says Professor of Biology Amy Cheng Vollmer. “The support of librarians like Meg of our academic mission is really invaluable.”

Perhaps the most recent example of Meg’s commitment to that mission is her support of students in the inaugural class of Swarthmore Summer Scholars. To make students feel at home in Cornell, she devised a scavenger hunt that sent them all over the library to locate different books, journals, oversized volumes, and the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Society room.  

“The student mentors who watched the hunt remarked that, as a result of the activity, the scholars knew Cornell better than they did,” Vollmer says. “I will always be grateful to Meg for facilitating their transition to studying science at Swarthmore.”

Meg’s influence also extends beyond campus. She actively participated in the Spectrum Scholar Mentor Program, an initiative of the American Library Association, in which academic and research librarians serve as mentors to library school students.

In addition, and for more than 10 years, Meg co-led with Head of Research and Information Pam Harris an internship program designed to interest undergraduates and underrepresented U.S. minorities in pursuing careers in library science. Initially supported by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, the program continues primarily with support from McCabe Library’s book sales.

“Meg would say to me all the time, ‘The most important work we do is the intern program,’” Harris says. “’We change lives.’”

With their students, Meg and Pam traveled widely to explore the hidden treasures of our cultural history. “Over the years, our students have handled cuneiform, papyrus, illuminated manuscripts, grimoires, and Audubon’s elephant folio prints,” Harris adds. “Meg didn’t teach about the tasks or work of a library; she taught her students to love the feel and the smell of books and the dignity of their place in our lives.”

Meg, 55, grew up in Wallingford. After graduating from the University of Richmond with a B.A. in sociology, she lived in Paris while working at the Sorbonne Summer Division of the American Institute for Foreign Study. She later earned an M.S. in information studies from Drexel University.

During recent Staff Development Weeks, Meg led successful reading groups in which participants were encouraged to bring whatever they were reading and talk about it. Last year, she co-lead one of the Aydelotte Foundation-sponsored book groups and worked with organizers to design this year’s programming.

Indeed, Meg’s love of reading may have been her most noted characteristic, and she shared that love with everyone. No matter the topic, she served as a reader’s advisor for many across campus and would unfailingly find the most appropriate book for the occasion – gifts of newly published books for faculty members that reflected their research areas, so-called “pop science” books that helped introduce students to the field, and the list of summer reading recommendations she curated and shared with the campus community for many years.

“There's a stack of books in my living room, many of them given to me by Meg,” says Diane Fritz of the Biology Department. “Reading them will be bittersweet.”

Meg, who lived in Woodlyn, is survived by two sisters, a brother, and nieces and nephews. A memorial service will take place at 1 p.m. on Wed., Oct. 7, in the Lang Concert Hall, where she often sang in the College Chorus. Gifts in her memory may be made to the Meg Spencer Memorial Fund (by naming the fund in the designation area at, established to support the Library’s internship program she worked so hard to build.


Valerie Smith

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