When Elliot Shelkrot retired in December after 20 years at the helm of the Free Library of Philadelphia, he was looking forward to being alone and having vast stretches of free time to accomplish some pet projects.

Fond of the outdoors, he bought a kit and began building a 10-foot mahogany and fiberglass kayak. It was "a great big jigsaw puzzle" that required multiple coats of epoxy and varnish and endless hours of sanding, he says.

Then he doubled the size of the vegetable garden at his home in Mount Airy.

What happened next surprised him.

"I got bored," Shelkrot says.

"The isolation was good detox for a while, but I missed people and the whole social network at work. I began asking myself, what do I want to be when I grow up? What can I do?"

He shared his retirement restlessness with a friend who recruits leaders for nonprofits. She knew a place that was looking for help: the William Jeanes Memorial Library in Lafayette Hill.

Three weeks ago, Shelkrot began working as the library's interim director.

"My wife says I flunked retirement," says Shelkrot, 65, a Pittsburgh native.

He'll soon get another chance. The appointment is for only four months while the library's board searches for a permanent director.

"I have no interest in being permanent director - of anything," he says emphatically.

Shelkrot was familiar with the Jeanes Memorial Library. In April, he delivered the keynote address at the library's 75th anniversary celebration. When he declared that "libraries of the future are becoming magnets for community activity . . . gathering places of collaborative learning," it struck a resonant chord with the library's board.

The library is at a pivotal point. It soon will launch a capital campaign to fund the construction of a major expansion. The dramatically modern building, erected in 1971, has become overcrowded.

One reason the library's board jumped at the chance to hire Shelkrot is that he oversaw the renovation of the Free Library's many branches; the board hopes to tap his wisdom.

"We're just delighted," says Don Mattson, president of the library's seven-member board of directors. "We were flabbergasted that someone with his credentials, experience, background and accomplishments would even consider helping out a small suburban library like ours.

"Everything's going along just great so far. He's pretty much got his arms around everything, and the staff loves him."

Board vice president Sydelle Zove calls Shelkrot "a real catch" and "a morale boost for the board and the staff."

"He has a deep skill-set that will help take the library to the next level," Zove said.

The scale of the job is certainly different.

As director of the Free Library, Shelkrot supervised the huge Central Library at Logan Square, three regional libraries and 50 branches, including the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, as well as a $56 million operating budget and more than 700 full-time employees.

The Free Library system serves a population of 1.5 million, keeps an estimated 6 million catalogued items such as books, magazines, DVDs, and CDs, and has an annual circulation of nearly 7 million items.

Whitemarsh Township has one library, Jeanes Memorial, serving a population of 16,700. Including Shelkrot, there are four full-time staffers and a dozen part-timers. The operating budget is about $500,000. The library has 55,000 catalogued items and a circulation of 127,000.

"I'm at the ground level here," Shelkrot says. "It's been nearly 40 years since I worked in a little library."

Shelkrot's first job with the Free Library was at the Columbia Avenue branch, now the Cecil B. Moore branch, in North Philadelphia, where he worked from 1966 to '69.

"I'm spoiled in that I'm used to having an administrative staff," says Shelkrot, who is gamely performing such secretarial duties as typing and formatting correspondence.

In his present position, Shelkrot says he's more a consultant than an employee, and he's open to more interim-type consulting gigs in the future.

What will he do when this four-month labor relapse is over?

"I'll take another stab at retirement," Shelkrot says. "My wife has a long to-do list of projects."

Contact staff writer Art Carey at 610-696-3249 or acarey@phillynews.com.