LONG BEFORE the Street administration created the Neighborhood Transformation Intitiative, Free Library President Elliot Shelkrot had his own version.

He decided that instead of overhauling the central branch, he would renovate and refurbish the 49 branch libraries in the system. Raising $65 million in state and private funds, he expanded hours and sent a signal to the city of the library's key role in the city's communities.

Shelkrot announced last week that he will step down from his job after 20 years at the library at the end of the year. The city is losing a passionate advocate, not only for books but for access - to knowledge, information and ideas.

Shelkrot had to fight against perennial budget cuts, as well as against critics of the kind of free access to information (in the form of videos and Internet access) that he's so passionate about. He also has battled to find the money for a dazzling renovation of the central branch by architect Moshe Safdie; that ongoing campaign promises to bring the library into the 21st century and beyond.

The city owes Shelkrot thanks for carrying the torch first lit by Ben Franklin, and making it burn a little brighter in all corners of the city.*