A Talk with Marcellus Turner, City Librarian, the Seattle Public Library

By Matthew Halverson July 22, 2011 Published in the August 2011 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Andrew Waits

FOR A GUY who calls himself geographically challenged, Marcellus Turner gets around: The career librarian has catalogued the classics everywhere from Rockford to the Rockies—and even stamped books in Tacoma once upon a time. This month, after three years of heading up the Jefferson County Public Library in Colorado, he lands at Fourth Avenue and Spring Street as the new chief librarian of the Seattle Public Library. You might not see him on the floor—he is an administrator after all—but you might catch him out about town, on his way to remind the Dewey decimal doubters that the library still matters.

• • •

Seattle really, really loves its library. It’s always good to go to a job where people love what you do.

Most of my friends in graduate school were studying library science. I had the only car, so I did a lot of driving to and from the library school, dropping them off and picking them up. Just by being with them, I realized that it wasn’t a bad career.

It’s quite humbling to recognize that a city library is entrusted with holding so much information. But what I’m amazed by is the amount of knowledge in the minds of all of the people who work there. In Colorado we had a quick information line—Seattle Public has one, too—where you could call up and ask a question about anything and get an answer. Once we had a patron ask us to recommend a Chinese restaurant in the city—and we did.

Years ago I taught a class on how to use encyclopedias and dictionaries. One of my colleagues would joke, “If you have to teach me how to use an encyclopedia, I really am in the wrong profession.” But some people do grab tools off the shelf and assume that they know how to use them when they don’t. What librarians can offer are several ways to gather information out of that same tool that maybe you hadn’t thought of.

I don't recall ever catching anyone making out in the stacks in the academic libraries I worked at. But you also have to remember that sometimes you’re stationed in one particular part of the library, and as with most academic institutions the libraries are quite large. Students are quite clever at finding different spaces to use for something other than literary purposes.

Reading habits in a particular area really are reflective of the local population. When I worked at the public library in Atlantic City, I was quite amazed at how often people would come in to check out materials on gambling. It was interesting that they thought they could read something and change their luck overnight.

Being inquisitive is a trait that someone working in a library would do well to have. When a patron brings a question forward, just answering it may not be enough. It may require that you do a little bit of digging. It may require that you contact another agency to assist you with it. So you can’t just say, “The answer to your question is this,” and be content.

When you work on the floor, you have patrons who—I don’t want to say glom on to you, because that’s such a bad word—enjoy working with you or who appreciate your assistance on a regular basis. I had one patron in Tacoma who enjoyed bringing his questions to me, and I knew that I had made an impression on him when he brought me two 64-ounce cans of chili as a thank you. For whatever reason he felt that was an appropriate gesture, and I was quite pleased to receive it.

I’m a fiction guy, with two exceptions: I’ll read anything on how to get rid of clutter or how to save money. And I always say that if I didn’t have so many books on clutter, I probably wouldn’t have so much clutter lying around and I’d probably save money. My favorite fiction is the Harry Potter series. And I will own up to this: It is one of my favorites because I listened to the whole series on tape. I never cracked a book open. The narrator was absolutely amazing.

We don’t need to combat the Kindle. We really don’t. There are so many people reading on Kindles now who weren’t reading the hardbacks or the printed copies that we should just be pleased that it’s an option for them. That said, many of our citizens don’t have access to that kind of technology, so what libraries have to focus on is ensuring that these options are available to everyone. That might mean embracing Kindles and seeing how we can make those available to the public.

People always find a reason to come back to the library.


How We Got That Shot

“August’s Quote Unquote is the city’s new librarian,” the email read. Well, that sounds thrilling, I thought. Don’t get me wrong, I spend a lot of time at Seattle’s Public Library’s central branch downtown — Rem Koolhaas’s faceted jewel is the first place I take people when they visit Seattle — but think about the librarian stereotype: stodgy, quiet, and shushing anybody that makes a peep. Luckily, stereotypes are usually wrong: Marcellus Turner — MT for short — is friendly and talkative and can smile on cue.

Taking a break from house hunting (he’s moving from Colorado), Turner met us in his new office in the city’s architectural masterpiece. Willing to go along with any ideas we pitched him, he watched as we filled two carts with references books and brought them up to the top level of the library. Patrons milled about, unaware that this guy would soon be in charge. As I nervously opened up and stacked heavy reference book upon reference book, I waited for him to make a speech about the sacredness of every old, yellowed page. But no, that’s not MT’s style. It’s nice to know that our new chief librarian not only takes reading seriously, but that he’ll be happy to see you. Even if books come falling out of your bag. — André Mora

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