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PBSC librarian helps tell story of local libraries

To say that Palm Beach State College alumna and employee Janet DeVries Naughton is interested in Palm Beach County history is an understatement.

Naughton, a librarian and associate professor at the College’s Lake Worth campus, is not only curious, she has devoted many years of her free time to author or co-author 10 published books on the topic. She’s also contributed chapters to Florida history anthologies published by her colleagues.

Her latest co-authored book, “Overdue in Paradise: The Library History of Palm Beach County,” honors the work of the volunteers, institutions and municipalities that founded a range of local libraries. Other authors of the 278-page book are Graham Brunk, Dr. Ginger Pederson, vice president of information service at PBSC, Shellie Labell and Rosa Sophia.

She sat down to answer a few questions about the book, her childhood and some facts about Palm Beach County libraries that she says aren’t well known.

What did you learn from Overdue in Paradise that you didn’t know before?
Overdue in Paradise taught me that ideas can take shape very quickly when one sets goals, makes definite plans, and enlists in other like-minded individuals. Overdue in Paradise was a team effort. I conceptualized the idea, steered the ship, and contributed to a few chapters. However, I could not have done it without the other talented and driven contributors. Over 40 individuals and libraries collaborated to produce the book. My colleague Penny Brown, a library technician on the Lake Worth campus, co-wrote the chapter on the Palm Beach State College libraries with me. Penny, a four-decade college employee, possesses a rich knowledge of our institutional history. Dr. Ginger Pedersen’s technical skills and design skills, and her Palm Beach County history knowledge ensured the publication’s great success.

Where did you grow up?
The south side of Chicago. The cold winters were conducive to reading, researching and writing. Summers were spent swimming and reading in trees.

When did you first enter a library and what made you fall in love with them?
The first library I remember was a Chicago Public Library branch. I was about seven years old, and my mom would drop me off on Saturdays where I spent entire mornings. The card catalog and cross referencing fascinated me. A patient librarian taught me how to find additional books written by authors I liked and suggested other books on my then favorite genres—mystery and adventure. One year, my school had a reading contest, and I read 100 books over the summer to win the bookworm prize. I was hooked on reading.

You have been a Palm Beach County resident since 1987; what led you to move here?
My parents moved to Boynton Beach to be closer to my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandfather. We’ve had family members in South Florida since the 1930s. My grandfather appraised real estate in Broward County. I’m a Palm Beach Community College graduate and proud alumna.

Is there one book in particular that you are especially proud of and why?
“Pioneering Palm Beach: The Deweys and the South Florida Frontier” (The History Press, 2012) with Dr. Ginger Pedersen because our revisionist history revealed that a woman owned and platted the land that became Boynton Beach. Without our research and publication, her story remained lost to time. Women and minority groups are still under-documented in history books.

In your book, “Legendary Locals of West Palm Beach,” you write about dozens of people who influenced the county. What are the ethics of writing about historical figures?
As a historian, I research primary resources and combine the information with secondary sources to narrate an individual’s contextual role in cultural, social, political, or economic events of a particular time period. There are ethics of writing about historical figures for historical fiction authors, but my books are all factual.

From your research, what do you believe is the most significant thing that people don’t know about Palm Beach County or its libraries?
People don’t realize the sheer diversity of Palm Beach County and its libraries and the fact that much of the county was rural until the 1960s. The earliest libraries were housed in tiny post offices, closets, laundry rooms, churches, and even in yacht and country clubs. Volunteer women’s clubs initiated many municipal libraries, and the library extension arm of the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs sent traveling trunk libraries via Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway to several of our fledgling Palm Beach County settlements. Today, we have dozens of academic, municipal and specialized libraries with rich collections and passionate, knowledgeable librarians.

What do you like to read in your free time?
Did you say free time? Ha! These days I read mostly non-fiction―Florida history and biographies in particular. Two of my favorite books of all time are “The Devil in the White City” by Erik Larson about the 1893 World’s Fair, and “A Walk in the Woods” by Bill Bryson because its informative and hysterically humorous. I’m currently reading “The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies” by Jason Fagone.

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4 comments on “PBSC librarian helps tell story of local libraries”

  1. Hello, thank you for recording the history of our local libraries. My father, Norman Robson, designed the original West Palm Beach Library on Clematis Street, which was his favorite building in his long career as a registered architect. He chose the location, so patrons could enjoy the panoramic water views while they read in the lobby. The front was intended to attract children with the water falls coming down the steps and fish in the moat surrounding the building. I have great memories of my grandmother taking me to check out books and feed the pigeons under the trees in front of the library. Surrounding the entire building was a Miro-like band that mirrored a brightly colored puzzle, making the building unique, fun, and artistic. Only one panel from that band still remains today. Sadly, the West Palm Beach mayor and commissioners chose to destroy the beautiful library, so they would have plenty of space for events like SunFest, where many people come to get drunk and drive away drunk. The politicians decide what kind of community they want to create … one that encourages intellect and reading and the arts or one that encourages partying and generates income. Does anyone care about 25 years from now? 50 years from now? We need our libraries as intellectual oases in a society that is spinning out of control. Our grandchildren may wonder what these buildings were. Thank you for keeping a record of it.

    1. Hi Marilyn,
      Thank you for your comment and for sharing the information on your father, Norman Robson. He designed many elegant West Palm Beach area buildings. The Palm Beach State College library has copies of “Overdue in Paradise” available for checkout. The West Palm Beach Library history is on pages 53-68, and there is a photograph of the library in Flagler Park.

  2. I have not read the book yet, but look forward to doing so. I hope that an audio version will be available. I was wondering if you included, in the historical writing, the libraries for colored people in Palm Beach County and when we were allowed access to the other libraries?

    1. Hi Karen,
      Thank you for taking the time to ask this important question. The book includes segregated libraries such as the Roosevelt Junior College library, the Carter Woodson library in Delray Beach, the Phyllis Wheatley library in West Palm Beach (all with photographs), and the City of Boynton Beach library operated by Mrs. Ezell Hester at the Wilson Center. All of these libraries were absorbed or closed after integration. If you’d like to read the book, we have copies available for checkout at the library.

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