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Shirley Viviano, Pratt Library reference chief, dies

Shirley Eve Viviano, who headed the Enoch Pratt Free Library reference department — a job that had her finding phone numbers in Paris and settling disputes about points of grammar — died of pneumonia June 26 at Homewood at Crumland Farms in Frederick County.

She was 81 and had lived in Guilford.

Born in Frederick, she was the daughter of the William Martin Luther Gaver, a Fort Dietrick worker, and his wife, Mary Frances Slifer.

She graduated in 1953 from Frederick High School, then obtained a bachelor of arts degree at Hood College.

In August 1957 she joined the staff of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and initially was assigned to its Central Library.

She left Pratt and completed a master's degree in library science at the University of Pittsburgh, then returned to the library in June 1959. She joined the Fine Arts Department working alongside James Dickson and Joseph Viviano.

She and Mr. Viviano married in 1966.

Because of a library rule that prohibited spouses from working alongside each other, she was assigned to a separate building, the George Peabody Library on Mount Vernon Place. There she helped organize its sprawling, neglected book collection.

"She cataloged the rare books in the collection because the library really didn't know what they had," said Charles F. Trunk, her brother-in-law and a Frederick resident. "She said it was a mess and dirty too."

In 1966 she was re-assigned to the Central Library to work alongside Marion Bell in the the General Information Department. Mrs. Viviano was promoted to assistant department head and ran the Pratt's telephone reference service. In 1986 she became the head of the department.

Colleagues recalled that she ran a telephone service that centered on a oversized circular wheel with 800 books. She stocked numerous phone books, as well as phone directories for European cities.

"The ready reference staff, a SWAT team of information delivery, now answers questions at a rate of about 2,300 answers a week," The Sun wrote in a 1997 story. "For the kids of the Baltimore area, the need is to get their homework done, and the service gets a surge of questions every school day between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m."

"'We treat students the same as anyone else,'" Mrs. Viviano said in the article. "Everyone who calls gets the same type of service.'"

The article noted that she and her staff tried to stay on the phone for about five minutes per call.

"'You know how people are on the phone,'" she said. "'People like to talk. ... to give opinions. We don't give opinions. We're not here for that. We're here for facts.'"

The story noted the odd nature of some of the calls. One caller, it noted, sought help finding "a mausoleum where I can see the whole city through a telescope." Another asked if the library had a "noble Republican." It turned out the caller wanted a notary public.

The call-in service worked so well, colleagues said, that Ms. Viviano supervised its enlargement to a night owl service late in the evening, and a toll-free number for Maryland residents.

"She dressed beautifully and was an elegant person," said David Donovan, a member of the Pratt staff who worked with her beginning in 1990. "She was a great steward of that department. In the middle of answering all those questions, she maintained a dignity that ran throughout the reference section."

Mrs. Viviano later became head of the Fine Arts Department and retired in 2008.

"Shirley actively engaged the public, encouraged interest and enthusiasm in art and music and... antiques and collectibles," said a colleague, Wesley Wilson, Central Library chief.

Her sister, Mary Frances Trunk, also of Frederick, recalled Mrs. Viviano's knowledge of art. "If you visited a museum with her, you learned so much about the paintings. She was interested in Matisse — her husband had met him in France after World War II — and Jackson Pollock."

Library colleagues noted that the fine arts department also included books on sports, and Mrs. Viviano brought Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps to the library for a public program aimed at interesting young adults in swimming and other sports.

She maintained a lifelong membership at Evangelical Lutheran Church in downtown Fredrick.

As a young woman she played the violin and enjoyed classical music. She and her husband enjoyed trips to restaurants and were regulars at the old Marconi restaurant near the library.

Graveside services will held Friday at 10 a.m. at Zion Lutheran Church Cemetery, 107 West Main Street in Middletown.

Survivors include a sister, Mary Frances Trunk of Frederick; and cousins. Her husband of 33 years died in 2000.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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