Peggy Peterson

Family photo of a young Margaret S. "Peggy" Peterson, who grew up in Baltimore as an avid patron of the Enoch Pratt Library, and left a substantial donation to that system as well as the Baltimore County Public Library. (Photo courtesy Peterson Family / July 11, 2011)

A former employee of the Baltimore County Public Library, who died in 2006, has left nearly half a million dollars to the foundation that supports to the 17-branch library system.

"It is the largest one-time gift in the history of the Foundation for Baltimore County Public Library," said foundation president Jeffrey Smith.

The gift of $475,000 came from the estate of former librarian Margaret "Peggy" Peterson, whose 23 years with BCPL had made her a familiar face at the Reisterstown, Catonsville and Pikesville branches, and at the BCPL administrative offices in Towson.

"We are grateful to Ms. Peterson for her generosity and for her careful planning," Smith said.

"Like" explorebaltimorecounty's Facebook page

Founded in 1991, the foundation provides funding for projects that encourage children and young adults to cultivate a lifelong enthusiasm for reading and learning, and acts as an advocate for BCPL to ensure that library services continue in the future.

The donation came just as the foundation was planning a $1 million endowment campaign to fund children's literacy efforts throughout the system, according to Heidi Gillis, foundation executive director.

"We were looking at ways to raise the money when news about the gift came," Gillis said. "It was a very welcome surprise. That's for sure. We're very excited."

The gift puts the foundation well on its way to raising the $1 million for the endowment fund, she said.

The interest the fund generates will be used to pay for "early childhood literacy projects," though Gillis declined to talk specifics. Future projects could be different from the projects that are now on the table, she said. "We want to keep it vague so we can remain flexible."

Peggy Peterson, who was 80 when she died, also bequeathed $475,000 to the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"She was very excited about leaving money for the two organizations that had meant so much to her during her entire life," said Lynn Wheeler, a close friend and former BCPL assistant director who now heads the Carroll County library system.

Peterson was "a wonderful woman and a librarian admired by both colleagues and customers for her accessibility, intelligence, energy and marvelous sense of humor," Wheeler said. "She was an inspiration and informal mentor to many staff members."

Who was Peggy Peterson?

Who could have guessed that little Margaret Schwartz, reading on the front stoop of her home in West Baltimore would make such a difference herself?

"She loved to read and libraries were her second home," Wheeler said. "She spent many happy hours in the central library and community branches of the Enoch Pratt."

Later, after she grew up and moved to Pikesville, the county library became "the great blessing in her life," Wheeler said.

Wheeler said Peterson found a job in circulation — and a career — at BCPL's Reisterstown branch when she was nearly 40. After a son had grown and left the house, she and her first husband divorced and she struck out on her own.

In the process, "she found her tribe," or calling, Wheeler said.

"She was on her way to becoming a very, very good librarian with an excellent knowledge of books and great skill at connecting readers with books they would like," she said.

In 1965, she became a member of the first class of the Library Associate Training Program in Maryland. It was established to meet the demand for highly trained public librarians in the rapidly growing Baltimore area public library systems.