“We must not think of learning as only what happens in schools. It is an extended part of life. The most readily available resource for all of life is our public library system.”
Lawson McGhee is located on West Church Avenue, a short drive from my University of Tennessee on-campus dormitory. Inside is a reader’s fantasy: the reference collection houses 6,758 unique titles and 4,816 multi-volume sets, with a supplement of 4,690 unique titles and 14,633 items in reference storage. The reference department, which includes 13 librarians—twelve with a library degree, one grandfathered in—watches over the troves of tomes.
I observed the reference area on Sunday, September 16 from 2 PM, an hour after doors opened, until 3 PM, though I stayed a bit longer to apply for a library card and browse the upstairs music collection. Though there was no special event taking place per se, Lawson McGhee remained relatively busy, as it is the only public library in Knox County open on Sundays.
The reference area—“Reference,” as Lawson McGhee calls it—was immediately visible upon entering, occupying the center of the main (bottom) floor; it clearly served as the intellectual oasis of the library, with patrons constantly flocking to the area to ask questions. Two professional reference librarians staffed the desk, one mostly answering calls and typing at the computer and the other interacting directly with the information-seeking public. The colors of the room, especially the reds, were bright and beautiful, completely unlike the dull, tired tones most people think of when asked about libraries. Also, natural light poured through big windows, flooding the room with a welcoming glow. Perhaps the most interesting attraction: giant signs, not unlike the ones you might see in, say, Barnes & Noble, hung from the ceiling. For example, the one above the reference desk included a globe and an encyclopedia, with the words “Reference” and “It’s the smart place to be!” written directly under them. As a result, the library felt very modern, while still retaining the feel of a conventional library.
The reference area was heavily trafficked, though most patrons (I saw around 15-20, mostly adolescents with parents and people between the ages of 40 and 60) did not have research questions per se but rather wanted to know how to gain access to the Internet.
Regardless, both librarians interacted with patrons with great courtesy, understanding, and interest. The librarian staffing the phone had a lively voice, answering all calls promptly and thoroughly (including one, I think, that had her quickly Googling the real name of a popular WWF wrestler I recognized from my boyhood). She answered close to 5-7 calls and spent around 2-10 minutes with each caller. The other librarian, a younger woman, smiled at and addressed all patrons, young and old, and took notes when handling unfamiliar or complicated queries. She left the reference desk several times to show patrons how to sign up for computer use. In her greatest effort, she located valuable research books on a specific Civil War battle for a student who might have had to visit another library for a particular book. She flipped through two books and showed the student that, with a little effort, she could easily find the same information in the book that was in circulation at another library. Though she did not spend an extraordinary amount of time with everybody, she answered all patrons’ queries.
The reference librarian who mostly dealt directly with the public was undoubtedly approachable. She seemed aware of all patrons in the area—those she already helped, those who looked like they might need help—and was perpetually ready to interact with all patrons. For example, during a brief lull in reference traffic, the librarian was flipping through several books for pictures of Rush Limbaugh (a patron, I surmised, was specifically looking for a picture of Limbaugh smoking a cigar), but as soon as patrons walked up to her, she greeted them with a warm smile.
Both librarians were born listeners. For the Civil War query, the librarian jotted down several notes while talking to the girl about what she needed for her paper. The librarian sensed the girl’s frustration—the library, after all, did not have the book she had her heart set on—but by listening intently and asking specific questions, she was able to locate similar books that provided the same information. She even went a step further by taking the girl’s mom aside, telling her that she would do her very best to find resources for her daughter. The older librarian answering calls was lively, yes, but also warm and earnest. She asked open-ended questions when trying to discern the callers’ exact queries, ultimately being able to offer answers with the speedy technology of what appeared to be Google. During one call, the librarian kept asking the caller to repeat a particular word—“I hear ‘dusk.’ ‘D-U-S-K.’ Is that right?”—but ultimately getting nowhere. She remained calm, however, and persisted, finally demystifying the stormy incantation: “dust.” She confirmed the word once more, looked pleased that the fire was out, found the book in the system, and placed a hold on it.
That day all information-seekers at Knoxville’s Lawson McGhee—especially me—were indeed satisfied with the librarians’ skill, savvy, and overall cheery courtesy.