Among the stacks
New City Librarian Marcellus Turner works to renew faith in the written -- and digital -- word
egulars at the Seattle Public Library know you get three weeks when you sign out a book or CD and two for a DVD. Time limits, the theory goes, ensures everyone won’t have too long a wait for that copy of “The Hunger Games” or"True Blood: The Complete Third Season.” With less popular fare—“Eels: An Exploration, from New Zealand to the Sargasso, of the World’s Most Amazing and Mysterious Fish” anyone?—you can renew the item twice, which means you get to spend so much quality time with it, it’s easy to take it for granted.
Using this metric, new City Librarian Marcellus Turner has got to be one of the most popular items in the system.
Of course, Turner isn’t a book or DVD: He’s a person. And as the director of the entire city library system, with close to 1 million books housed in the downtown central hub and 26 neighborhood branches, the man is busy. Make that busy. It took more than two months to get an interview with him and even then, the 40 minutes had to be divided between a sit-down conversation and a photo shoot (see the cover). Through the hustle and bustle of being recorded and photographed, Turner smiled and chatted with an effortless Southern charm—brother hails from Clinton, Miss.—that made him appear less a librarian and more a relative who showed up for a family get-together. Albeit a relative wearing a suit and a very nice tie.
Seated in his office on the 11th floor of the central branch, Turner was joined by Andra Addison, communications director for the library, who was there to help answer questions on topics Turner, in his four months in his new post, may not have read about in his city librarian handbook. So with a clock above his shoulder counting down the minutes, Turner, who considers himself “soft spoken,” chatted about his childhood, his mostly unused college degree, digital access and his favorite children’s book.
Where’d you get a name like Marcellus?
It’s a long story, but to make it very, very short: My mother wanted three girls. She had three boys. She did not have a single name for a single one of us boys. Everyone else named us, and so someone else named me.
OK; I thought about whether I was going to [say] this, but: You’re a black man and you’re a librarian.
And you grew up in Mississippi?
What was your first experience with a book?
Probably the books that I received as gifts, as a kid growing up. And I’m saying probably around the first and second and third grades. Fourth grade is my first, very first true experience with a book because I started working in a library in the fourth grade. In Mississippi.
And how was that?
That was quite good. I grew up on a community college campus—a junior college campus is how they were referred to at the time—and the librarian at the school where I attended was a friend of our family’s. So it was just by happenstance that my school required everyone entering the fourth grade to work in one of the offices of the school. And I knew her, she knew me, so she asked me to come work in the library.
What did you do?
I shelved books and I made [construction paper] leaves for the bulletin board. I did a lot of bulletin board work. I shelved the red books. I remember this: The biographies in elementary school were all covered in these little red binders and they were maybe a little bit larger than a 5 by 7. They were only alphabetical shelving that I had to do, so that was sort of easy for me to do. And I checked out, stamped books in the fourth grade.
Did you ever think that—
—you would be a librarian?
No, no [laughs].
What did you think you’d be?
I don’t know what I thought at that age. My parents were teachers, so I guess I thought, in Mississippi, in that arena. But truthfully, I was exposed to so many occupations growing up on a community college campus and none of them ever rang a bell as something I wanted to do. I went to college truly not knowing. I did a lot of work in the sciences—zoology, biology. But I really didn’t know what that was going to look like. It wasn’t until my last year and a half of college that I really cemented the area I would work in. Which was not libraries. I have a degree in speech pathology and audiology.
How do you go from that ... to librarian?
I know, it’s such a weird thing. I graduated and went off to graduate school because the undergraduate degree was not a performing occupational degree. You needed your masters. I went to the University of Tennessee. I had [a] car. Three of my friends were library science majors. I spent most of my time driving them back and forth to the library school, and just by osmosis, what they were doing seeped over into my world, I switched careers just like that and went into library science. Although I strongly believe in it now, at that time it was just, “I’m gonna change to something else.”
I contacted Andra a while ago and it took a while to get an appointment.
It’s still busy.
Why are you so busy?
A couple of things. We’re dealing with budgets. There is the true acclimation in getting to know the city. So I’m meeting people. A third thing is that we have quite a few programs that go on at this institution. And there is work that we do as librarians that is for the profession.
Do you find that the early work you did in speech pathology applies to what you do today?
Not in the true sense of what I learned. In speech pathology I did have exposure to children because I was working with them on their speech program. And every now and then if I do something with children, I’ll remember some of the things about working with kids.
Well, when I went to college I told myself I was going to be a plastic surgeon. It didn’t happen.
You changed your mind?
I wanted to do it and then I went to college and wrote an essay, as a freshman, and the English teacher said that was great. And I said, “What do you mean?” He goes, “Well, you’re a writer. You’re a natural writer.” And I was, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Oh, I thought you wanted to be a writer.” Then he suggested I take a fiction writing class and I was hooked.
Think about how great a teacher that was. I think that’s the thing that’s missing as we talk about how libraries are changing. I think those connections that teachers and librarians make with the students go far beyond what we think. Because a kid can honestly say to us, “I want to be this or I want to do that.” They can’t necessarily say that to their parents.
On your website you have your strategic plan. One of your goals is to expand Seattle’s access to information, ideas and stories. So how has digital content impacted this library?
As a profession and as a whole, how it has impacted us is no different from any other library system. What is happening with regard to electronic reading is amazing and astounding. It’s bringing in a whole new world of readers. It’s bringing in a whole new world of titles. It’s opening up a whole new publishing venue. All of that is so different for us, but it’s something that we’re embracing.
One thing that brings me joy, and there is no way to address it right now, is how do we handle self-publishers? Because it’s one thing if you can submit your book through one of the traditional publishing houses and they make it available as electronic reader, or through Amazon or something like that. But what about the person who just has written their own thing and, for whatever reason, can’t get it published through a traditional publisher, but has a story to tell? How do we get that out there? I am welcoming the day when we can do that.
Do you own a Kindle or an iPad?
I own an iPad.
Do you like it?
[Laughs] How do you answer that? I do like it. I don’t use it as much as I should. It’s very convenient for the quick lookups, for the Google-this, for the Wikipedia-that. I don’t do much with it in other venues. It’s just one more piece of technology to pack, carry. I have it sort of set up by the bed so that I can quickly Google something in the middle of the night. I have a couple books on my phone that I read, but I’m not a big reader electronically, either.
What I’ve found is that people tend to check out more books electronically and it’s easier to say, “Oh, I’m not going to read this, I’ll just put it back.” Whereas when you check out the physical copies, you think, I brought this big heavy book home, I better try to read it.
What are some access issues around electronic media?
First and foremost, everyone can’t afford the technology. I mean, it’s just not possible. So that makes us think seriously about how do we keep that balance of the haves and the have-nots, for people who can’t afford an e-reader. We have to make sure that we have a print copy in supply. We also have to be very cautious that we don’t just automatically move to electronic and forget about the print. And the serendipitous finding of an item on the shelves because it’s next to another book doesn’t just happen when you’re doing it electronically. I have a friend who has an iPad and has like 200 books on it. He has gone out and bought a copy of another book because he forgot he had the book already. So it’s just that type of thing.
At Real Change we have vendors, and sometimes they say they have a little tension in libraries, being homeless people. How does the library work with homeless patrons?
I’ll defer to Andra on a little bit of that because she knows policies a lot better than I do. When you ask what have I been doing, it hasn’t been studying all of the policies. Then I want to add to what she says.
Andra Addison: Most library systems have rules of conduct, and it establishes an expectation of a certain environment in the library that people should feel welcomed and safe and comfortable. But there’s a list of behaviors that we make sure that patrons adhere to in order to maintain that environment. Everybody should feel comfortable and safe, no matter if they come in a three-piece suit or a three-day-old beard. So we try to be very respectful, and we have done outreach. In fact before we built [the central library], we actually met with homeless patrons because we felt they were an important patron group, to ask them what spaces would be most helpful and what services they would need. And it was the same thing that everyone else wanted: We want more computers, we want more books, we want comfortable seats, and we want places to study and read our newspapers. So it’s really all about behaviors. If someone’s an arrogant businessman, screaming, they will be issued a warning that they’re violating our rules of conduct.
At my branch in Columbia City, there are a number of people that I’m pretty sure are homeless. I’ve seen them every time I go. They might be in the same chair, no matter what time of the day.
Marcellus: The only thing I was going to add is, I hope our homeless patrons feel comfortable bringing concerns to us. One of the things that I’ve often noticed is that they’re hesitant to come speak to us because they think we’re going to address something about them or about their behavior. I want [an] atmosphere where they feel comfortable enough to come and talk to us. It’s interesting: In the time that I’ve been here, I’ve noticed a few who seem like regulars and they speak to me and I speak back, and I think they’re actually surprised when I speak to them.
So we’re running out of time. So what are the rules around viewing pornography on the Internet?
Andra: We allow open access to the Internet to constitutionally protected content on our computers in adult areas. But we do have filtered computers in the children’s areas. What people view is confidential and so the library’s not going to look over people’s shoulders.
Marcellus: I was just going to talk about intellectual freedom but she did it.
So here comes your moment of intellectual freedom. What is your favorite book? You can have a few titles actually.
Let me talk about it from a professional standpoint.
There is a series by an author named Patrick Lencioni and he’s written books about business and management and running jobs. The first book I read by him was called “Death by Meeting.” I fell so in love with that book that I started reading everything that he wrote. There’s one called “Getting Naked,” which is about exposing yourself so that your clients can see that you’re truly you. And I think he is just absolutely wonderful. He tells the message through stories and they are very quick reads, maybe 200 pages.
Personally, I’m a big David Baldacci fan, so I love all of his writing. I listen to most of my books on tape. The “Harry Potter” series: I read the whole series by listening to books on disk. The narrator was absolutely astounding and amazing. I tell everyone when they say, “I’m not a listener,” “Just put one in.” I think it’s just so amazing, his reading.
In terms of children’s books, there are some books, I call them the-day-after books. They’re books like what happened to “Jack and the Beanstalk” the next day. I had to go to Fraser Valley and do story time for the elementary kids there, because they have some kids who work in the library and so the librarian asked me to come read to them. The one that I read was “Look out Jack! The Giant is Back!”
I’m reading “The Godfather” [by Mario Puzo].
Oh, lucky you!
It’s so good.
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