It all began with Nancy Drew: the adventures of Pamela Lipscomb-Gardner


Noah Frank

While many know her as the person that checks their passes and reminds them to sign in on their way into the library, Pamela Lipscomb-Gardner does much more than that behind her crowded desk.

Gardner discovered her passion for books at nine years old when her mother, a librarian, gave her 100 volumes of the “Nancy Drew” series for her birthday. “I always enjoyed reading, because with her being a librarian, there were always books around,” she said. “But when I worked my way through that “Nancy Drew” series, I would get in trouble so much because mom would say ‘lights out’ and I’d go underneath the covers with the flashlight and keep reading.”

In 1968, Gardner became one of the first Black students to attend Alice Deal Middle School. Deal, along with Wilson, had previously been comprised exclusively of white students due to redlining laws. “People of color were not allowed to purchase homes in white communities. [Tenleytown] was a community that was redlined,” she said.

“As a matter of fact, I recently saw a map of DC in 1965, and you see people of color all over the city except for this area.” To rectify this, the city extended Deal’s boundaries to include neighborhoods, such as Gardner’s, east of Rock Creek Park.

Being a part of Deal’s integrating class was a unique experience for Gardner, and one that changed the school’s environment forever. “We were bused from 16th street every morning to come over here, which caused some white flight in this community because people didn’t want their kids to go to school with Black kids,” she said. Local law enforcement also took some time to adjust to the new students coming to the school from farther away and thus facing  longer commutes. “I remember getting arrested a lot for truancy. The special   bus would drop us off, and before we could cross the street over to Deal, they would arrest us for truancy because the bus was late. It was crazy.”

From Deal, Gardner went to Wilson, where she was accepted into the workshop for careers in the arts, a half-day program which is now Duke Ellington School of the Arts. Upon graduating from Wilson, she decided to stay in the District and studied theatrical production at Howard University, seeking a career in an artistic field. “It was not my intention to ever be a librarian. I’m a kid of the ‘70s, so I was really into music, I was really into theatre, and I was into art,” she said.  

After college, she became the production manager for an international touring company, prompting her to move to New York City for 10 years. After some time, she began to model for the same company, while also keeping the role of production manager. “I would talk into the headphones: ‘alright crew, standby to pick up the model coming offstage’, and then the model would be me.”

Gardner quit the touring company and moved back to DC after being diagnosed with cancer in 1986. “At that point, I decided I had to change my lifestyle,” she said. “I had this really erratic lifestyle, with me into fashion, just getting over cancer, with my husband into music, and my daughter coming.”

That was when Gardner made the life-changing decision to become an educator.  “My mom said: ‘you know, when you’re raising a child, the best thing is to be on their schedule, so you should go into education.’” But Gardner didn’t want to sit in a small room all day, teaching the same material over and over again. She decided to become a librarian, where she could sit in a large room filled with information, and do various tasks throughout the school day.

She then attended the University of the District of Columbia, where she earned a master’s degree in Library and Information Science. “The job of a librarian really is a specialty job. You can’t be a librarian without a master’s in library science, which technically makes us ‘library scientists,’” she said.

Gardner started her career as a librarian at Richardson Elementary School in Northeast DC. When the school closed in the late 1990s, she quickly joined the effort to revive it. Gardner, along with a few parents and former staff members, helped convert it into the Arts and Technology Academy Charter School, which sparked a national movement before closing in 2014. “It was the first arts and technology public charter school, starting the arts in education movement in charter schools,” which continued around the country. “We were listed as one of the top 10 charter schools in the ‘90s by the U.S. Department of Education.”

When Richardson Elementary closed, Gardner had a brief stint working for the College Board in their DC office, while simultaneously owning a gospel entertainment restaurant in Hyattsville, Maryland for about five years. “We were pretty good, we got some reviews nationally as well as being in the Washington Post,” she recalled.

It was then, in 2005, that she ran into Omar Muhammad, the librarian at Woodrow Wilson High School at the time, who informed her that there was an opening for a second librarian. Gardner set up an interview with then Wilson Principal Stephen P. Tarason and has been the school’s librarian ever since.

Twelve years into her tenure at Wilson, Gardner has no clear-cut plans for the future, and would like to remain a part of the Wilson community for as long as possible. “I figure I’ll just die in here one day when I’m 95 or 100 years old,” she joked. “I’ve been invited to join a couple of educational organizations, but I haven’t taken any. My daughter wants me to start another restaurant. But I haven’t made any other plans. I plan to stay at Wilson. I love my Wilson Tigers.” •