Editor’s note: This story was originally published in January 2020.
Punxsutawney Phil: Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, Weather Prophet Extraordinaire, and … perhaps the World’s Most Famous Library Resident?
You read that correctly. When Phil isn’t swarmed by media and visitors clamoring for his shadow-dependent spring predictions on Groundhog Day every February 2—in 2019, 25,000 people gathered before the stump at Gobbler’s Knob—the well-known woodchuck lives in a burrow at the front of Punxsutawney (Pa.) Memorial Library.
American Libraries talked with Jessica Church, director of Punxsutawney Memorial Library, about Phil’s free time, what his renown means for the small town, and the mainstay marmot questions the library gets asked.
The world knows what Punxsutawney Phil does on February 2. How does he spend his other 364 or 365 days a year?
A lot of time, he’s hanging out in his burrow. He enjoys his napping and snacking on his favorite foods, which include leafy greens, carrots, cantaloupe, and even Ritz Crackers and Nature Valley granola bars. Sometimes he goes out on fun adventures—a farm show, Pittsburgh’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, school appearances and assemblies, bus tours, weddings, baseball games. He’s a popular fella.
Who looks after Phil and what does that entail? Does he ever come out of his burrow and sit for storytime?
It’s all through the Groundhog Club and the Inner Circle, and he’s wonderfully cared for by them. Food and water daily, fresh bedding, and his burrow is temperature controlled, so he doesn’t have to put up with the cold Pennsylvania winters. The Groundhog Club is licensed through the USDA and the Pennsylvania Game Commission in order to take care of Phil.
[Caretakers] have a large circular cylinder that they can put Phil in, so he’s been to storytimes. We have a long children’s section in the library, and one wall has a window [into his burrow], so he can look into the library just as people can go into the library and look into his burrow.
What does Phil mean to the community? How many years has he been living at the library, and has his celebrity helped raise its profile?
Phil means a lot to many different people in Punxsutawney. He means pride, tradition, local history, and community. [He’s] a symbol for western Pennsylvania. He’s been here at this address since the 1970s.
We get people year-round, from all over the world, who come to see Phil. It’s on their bucket list, so they’ll come and talk to us about what Phil means to them. One was a woman from the South, and she came with her father. They host Groundhog Day parties because everyone has Christmas parties, everyone has Super Bowl parties, so they host the groundhog party every year. After 15 years she finally had a chance to make it up here and meet Phil, so it was an awesome conversation to have.
[People] not only come to look at Phil, but because we’re a library, people like to see what we have to offer. We’re located next to what is called Barclay Square [at the center of town], so our library gets a lot of foot traffic.
Does the library get a lot of groundhog-specific requests or reference questions during the year? Do you ever tap the expertise of the Groundhog Club to answer queries?
We get a pretty standard slate of questions. Some of them include: “How old is Phil?” and the answer is that Phil is at least 134 years old. [According to Katie Donald from the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club: Each September, Phil gets the Elixir of Life, a magic groundhog punch that extends his life by seven years with each sip.]
People also ask, “How many Phils have there been?,” and there has only been one Phil. “Does Phil have a wife?” He does: Phyllis, and they cohabit in the burrow, and they don’t have children. Then they’ll also ask, “Is this where they pull Phil out?” and they point to the square in the middle of town, and we direct them to Gobbler’s Knob—that’s about a mile out—that’s where they have a beautiful ceremony and a big open field and they now have a brand-new visitor’s center.
Another question we get is “Is this where Groundhog Day was filmed?” and we have to break their hearts and say no. [Editor’s note: Most of the movie was filmed in Woodstock, Illinois.]
Those questions are pretty standard, but if anything oddball comes up, we can just email [Katie] or call her. People generally just want to know the same things. They’re all curious about Phil.
How do library staffers look upon Phil’s prognostications? As a librarian, do you trust Phil’s intuition, or are there other weather and climate resources or meteorologists you prefer?
We look forward to his prediction every year, but as librarians we like to gather from multiple sources: Weather Channel, NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association], Accuweather.
Also, we have Punxsutawney Weather Discovery Center, an interactive museum, since Punxsutawney is known as the weather capital of the world. Each year around this time, they select a weather expert or meteorologist to go into their hall of fame. They’ve had Greg Forbes, Jim Cantore, and Jen Carfagno at the Weather Channel; Fred Gadomski and Richard Alley of Penn State; and a person from NOAA.
That’s the nice thing about this community—everyone comes together when it comes to Phil.
Has Phil always been a famous figure in your life? What has been your favorite or most unusual Punxsutawney Phil memory or story?
I grew up as far northwest as you can get in the state, a town called West Springfield. Being up there close to Lake Erie we experienced all four seasons, so the Weather Channel was like background music in my house. We grew up knowing about Phil and weather and whatnot, so when I got this job, my mother was very excited.
When I first started here, the other staffers liked to tell me the story of when Phil got out. They had to call the Inner Circle to come get him. I didn’t think it was a story I could tell, but [the Inner Circle was] telling the story at last year’s Groundhog 101 event at the celebration tent, and I was like, “Oh, okay, I guess I can talk about it.” [Phil] had worked his way up his tree and was in the ceiling running around. But he was safe—it’s all good.
The library’s catalog has a lot of groundhog-related items. Does the staff have any favorites?
We have a display of them year-round. We love seeing and reading our groundhog books—the illustrations, the texts—for their depictions and appreciation of our local history. What we would love to see, though, would be a Who Is Punxsutawney Phil? book from Who HQ.
Does the library have any books written in Phil’s language of Groundhogese?
What book are you currently reading? What media is Phil currently consuming?
I do audio books for my commute, so I just finished The Silent Patient [by Alex Michaelides], and I’ve moved on to The Queen by Josh Levin.
With his big day coming, Phil is really focused on giving it his all. But during the rest of the time, he really enjoys the nonfiction that’s around him.