Janet Tom greeted me at the underground parking lot of the San Francisco Public Library, a slight woman with short cropped hair, a concerned look and refreshing enthusiasm. As we walked to her office, I congratulated her on receiving the 2019 “I Love My Librarian” award, given to the 10 best librarians in the country every year, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the New York Public Library and the New York Times.
She thanked me, “How thrilling it was to have my name in the New York Times!” she remarked, with a wide smile.
Tom, of Asian origin, grew up in North Beach, one of six children. Her parents had an arranged marriage. Tom’s father, who was living in America at the time, made a quick decision by selecting one of the two pictures of women presented to him. He later took a ship to Guangzhou and got married, but had to leave his bride behind because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. So, the newlyweds communicated through letters in Chinese. “Dad was a soldier, and it was only after the War Brides Act in 1945 that my mother came to join him in America,” Tom said.
Her dad was a bookkeeper who became a small business owner after he bought E & M Market — a mom and pop store on Valencia. She remembers working at the store after school. “We ate a lot of candy,” she said smiling impishly, recalling how the candy was placed on the counter within reach of young hands.
After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in sociology and a minor in journalism in 1973, Tom worked at local radio and television stations in the Bay Area before moving to New York to work on Broadway productions including West Side Waltz with Katharine Hepburn. But soon she came to the realization that she didn’t like the “commercial” aspect of her job. “I was really a community gal,” she said chuckling softly.
Tom went on to get a degree in library science in 1999 and began her career as a librarian. She did a stint at Queens Public Library before coming back to San Francisco.
Sure, there’s more people, more cars, and the homeless and the new wealthy are more visible, but San Francisco is still a great place to live with a “terrific, thriving performing arts scene, from the largest (SF Opera, SF Ballet, SF Symphony) to the smallest dance, theatre and music companies,” Tom remarked.
She indulges her love for community by spending most of her free time volunteering as an usher for local productions. “I started 19 years ago and I’m still doing it.”
“It’s not necessary to be married to be a whole person,” Tom said, explaining her decision to remain single, using an apt metaphor to clarify: “You have all these books on the shelf, and you don’t have room to put anything in between,” referring to her life rich with work, friends, family and activities.
Tom became a reference librarian at City College of San Francisco in 2001and at the San Francisco Public Library in 2002. The most interesting aspect of working in a library is the “human connection” said Tom. “[W]hen a person comes to the Reference Desk to ask a question, look for a book, ask for recommendations for what to read about a subject they are interested in. I like helping people find things and it’s quite gratifying when they get something and are excited and happy about it.”
At the library she is responsible for making recommendations on books to buy on the subjects that she manages — health and wellness — and these include books on holistic health, aromatherapy, healthy diets, medical exam books, vegetarianism and even “craniosacral therapy.” She remembers recently ordering Dr. Michael Greger’s books, “How Not to Diet,” and “How Not to Die,” both bestsellers that cut across her abiding interests on healthy living and healthy dying.
It’s fascinating to observe how the topic of dying animates Tom. One of the reasons she was nominated for the “I Love My Librarian” award was for the Death and Dying discussion series that she curated. The topics in the series ranged from the different traditions and rituals surrounding death and grieving to “How to Die” and “What Happens to My Body When I Die?”
“I think it would be an easier process if we knew what to do,” she explained the rationale behind the series. Tom, who is in her late sixties, said that she’d like her body to be used for science or to have a green burial, one that emphasizes environmental sustainability by using biodegradable materials, and a more cost-effective alternative to traditional burials. “My wish is to have my close friends and family around me. I would like to have some music, perhaps some Hildegard. I would like to know that I lived a good life,” she said ending her death musings with her hope that she died “making the world a little tiny bit better.”
Her zest for life is evident in the observations Tom makes and on the reactions she elicits. “I see small acts of kindness all the time, on the Muni, on the street, in shops, in public places,” she wrote in an email to me. As we walked around the library I observed how friendly she was with colleagues and patrons, eager to introduce me to those she knew. Goodwill appears to be her stock-in-trade. As Sheila Malkind, the director of the Legacy film festival on aging said of Tom, “Isn’t she wonderful? Creative, intense, caring, and indefatigable!”
Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.