Remembering our dear friend Janet Axelrod: Community Leader, Philanthropist and Visionary
We are deeply saddened to share that Janet Axelrod, a beloved Cambridge Public Library Foundation Board member and Chair of the Library’s Board of Trustees for more than 20 years, died on Sunday, December 26th at her home in Cambridge. To have known Janet was a blessing. Quick to laugh, quick to call out injustice, quick to suggest a solution, Janet was an integral part of elevating Cambridge’s beloved library system.
Committed to progressive work in both her professional and personal life, Janet dedicated decades to improving, expanding and enhancing the Cambridge Public Library. She knew that the library could (and should) actively promote equity and accessibility, privacy and dignity for all people.
In the early 2000s, Janet led the Library Trustees during the robust community process advocating for the construction of the new library, which she did with determination, humor, and kindness. She was resolute in her support of Susan Flannery, the former Director of Libraries, in overseeing the $95 million development of the Main Library which opened in 2009. “She was the right leader for the right time,” says Susan. “Her method and style were always respectful, friendly and honest. [Janet] was always thinking about how the library could better serve the community and expand it beyond the traditional people who use it.”
Even in the final weeks of her life, Janet was working to expand the library’s reach into every neighborhood in Cambridge, remaining actively involved in the exploration of a major Central Square Branch renovation. “There’s a difference between opening the doors and saying everyone is welcome, and going out into the community and showing people that they belong at the library. That’s what Janet did,” says Donna Davis, an instrumental figure in founding the Library Foundation and a Library Foundation Board Member emeritus.
Janet was part of the team that helped welcome and orient Dr. Maria McCauley as the new Director of Libraries almost six years ago. Dr. McCauley shares, “Janet understood and internalized the mission, vision and values of the library. She fully supported and embraced everything we were doing to get library services out to the public, especially to vulnerable populations. She was a very wise leader; we at the library miss her every day.” Dr. McCauley and Janet partnered closely on many library projects, including the successful series Our Path Forward (which encourages education and dialogue around democracy), the renovation of the Valente Branch, and the opening of The Hive makerspace at the Main Library.
Janet was a passionate philanthropist who held fast to her belief that “the people doing the work should decide how the money should be spent.” In 1974, Janet was the first hire at the Haymarket People’s Fund, which raised money from young progressives with inherited wealth and redistributed it to grassroots organizations fighting for racial, economic and gender justice throughout New England. In that role, Janet helped develop a model of activist-led philanthropy, putting decision-making power in the hands of local activists, rather than donors. Decades later, she was instrumental in the creation of the Cambridge Public Library Foundation, which she believed was necessary to garner private support and ensure the library's bright future.
The President of the Library Foundation’s Board of Directors, Shippen Page, remembers Janet as “a towering figure in the modern era at the Cambridge Public Library. Generous with her time and treasure, Janet could be counted on to support an all-embracing library and to work hard to make sure sufficient resources were available. As a vital member of the Foundation’s Board of Directors, Janet was present, forceful and respectful. On behalf of the entire Board, Janet is sorely missed as a colleague and a friend."
The Cambridge Public Library, the Library’s Board of Trustees and the Cambridge Public Library Foundation are honored to remember Janet with a named fund in the library’s endowment: The Janet Axelrod Memorial Fund. This fund will help the library fulfill its mission and uphold the values of equity, democracy and intellectual freedom that Janet held so dear. Nancy Woods, who served as a Trustee with Janet, says, “[Janet] was steadfast in her belief that the library belonged to everyone and must aspire to serve the needs of everyone. She firmly believed that private funds were crucial to ensure that our great library does just that.”
If you would like to make a gift to the Janet Axelrod Memorial Fund, you can mail a check to the Cambridge Public Library Foundation or make a gift online through our secure donation portal. All gifts that have been made in Janet’s memory since January will be added to this Fund. Please email Foundation Director Katie Welch at email@example.com with any questions.
If you would like to read more about Janet’s life and her incredible impact in Cambridge and beyond, we invite you to read her obituary published in the Cambridge Chronicle.
The Cambridge Public Library Foundation is dedicated to supporting the Cambridge Public Library and its programs that educate, inspire and respond to the needs of our diverse community.