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Elliot L. Shelkrot, 72, headed the Free Library of Philadelphia

Elliot L. Shelkrot, 72, of Mount Airy, who headed the Free Library of Philadelphia during the time it became a world-class operation, died Monday at Pennsylvania Hospital from complications of heart disease.

Elliot Shelkrot
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Elliot L. Shelkrot, 72, of Mount Airy, who headed the Free Library of Philadelphia during the time it became a world-class operation, died Monday at Pennsylvania Hospital from complications of heart disease.

"For those of us who knew him, everybody has been jolted by this," said Siobhan A. Reardon, the library's current director and president.

From 1987 until his retirement in 2007, Mr. Shelkrot, as president and director of the library, set a high bar for what a big-city library system ought to be.

"He set the benchmark for quality library service to children and teens," Reardon said.

Despite city budget cuts in the late 1980s and 1990s, he spearheaded an ambitious project to renovate all 55 branches, and devised ways to keep open the libraries six days a week.

"He was a visionary leader with bold ideas - with the ability not only to communicate those ideas but to implement them as well," said former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr., who worked with Mr. Shelkrot both as mayor and later as chairman of the board for the Free Library.

"History will show the period that Elliot served was a time that the Free Library system in Philadelphia emerged as one of the leading library systems in the country," Goode said.

Short, with a bushy mustache and a penchant for ties bearing the images of books, Mr. Shelkrot hid a whip-smart intellect and a shrewd political sense behind a dry sense of humor.

But in his personal life, said many of his sons, he was deeply emotional and passionate - about everything from cultivating his tomato garden to caring for his four sons and his wife.

"The things he loved, he loved with intensity," said son Daniel. "He provided tomatoes to the whole neighborhood because he was so intense about it."

But with Evelyn Minick, his second wife, Daniel Shelkrot said, "he was most intense and passionate and in love with her."

In his professional life, he was a powerful pitchman for the libraries and he knew how to build a consensus to get things done. And as technology and the rise of the Internet threatened the future of libraries, Mr. Shelkrot became a fierce advocate for bringing computers and electronic books into branches in order to stay relevant.

"Under his stewardship, a unique, creative and flexible partnership [was] established between the Edward G. Rendell administration, Philadelphia City Council, and the private sector to renovate, restore and expand the service capabilities of all 55 Free Library locations," Alexander Kerr, chair of the Free Library board of trustees, and Roland K. Bullard II, chair of the board of directors of the Free Library Foundation, wrote in an Inquirer letter to the editor in August 1999. There are now 61 locations.

Rendell committed $25 million over five years, and the Free Library Foundation raised an additional $40 million for the project.

Once the renovation was underway, Mr. Shelkrot, then 50, turned his attention to making the library system more useful to patrons. Part scholar, part salesman, part showman, he "did everything but sing and dance to get book patrons in the door," the Inquirer wrote in 1993.

"We have to make the library inviting," he said. "We have to be an essential part of the community."

He and his staff arranged for preschool centers to open in the main library and in eight branches; children from first to eighth grade who joined the library's summer reading program received Phillies tickets.

And with the help of corporate sponsors - the William Penn Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts - the library began offering an after-school program to help children with homework and spark interest in reading.

"We know how important it is for children to work on the 'reading muscle,' " Mr. Shelkrot told the Inquirer on Dec. 2, 1993. "Studies show that the earlier kids are introduced to books and reading, the more likely they will do well in school and become productive adults."

A salesman's son from Pittsburgh, he graduated with an English degree from Oberlin College in 1965. Next, he went to the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Information Sciences, a path that led him to the Baltimore County library system in 1972, the directorship of the state library in Harrisburg in 1980, and, in 1987, to head the Free Library.

Mr. Shelkrot's career was not without controversy.

In March 1997, a librarian was found to have taken home 6,000 library books and stored then in her apartment in Roxborough. She returned them and was not charged.

"Some of these books hadn't even been opened," he said.

Around the same time, library officials were assailed for discarding 360,000 books over the previous three years rather than donating them to schools or prisons.

And in July 2010, there was a kerfuffle when an audit uncovered that the library trustees had paid Mr. Shelkrot supplemental compensation from 2001 to 2007.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz alleged that the payments violated the City Charter's prohibition on acceptance of gratuities by a city employee and that the money, about $265,000, should be returned.

The city's Ethics Board, though, declined to investigate the charge in August 2010, saying: "Because the payments to Mr. Shelkrot were compensation authorized by his appointing authority," they were not violations.

At age 63, Mr. Shelkrot retired.

The retirement didn't last long. He soon became interim director of the William Jeanes Memorial Library in Lafayette Hill. Whitemarsh Township's only library, it served a population of 16,700 with three full-time staffers and a dozen part-timers. He served as a consultant.

In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by sons Max and Benjamin; a brother; and a sister. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Janet Hazen, and son David.

A memorial service open to the public will be held at 2 p.m. Monday, March 28, at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.