by Lisa Edge
In some areas, libraries are simply brick and mortar structures providing a crucial service to the community. They may even go unnoticed by those who don’t need to use them, and they rarely take center stage. Enter the Seattle Public Library (SPL) system, a beloved institution representative of Seattleites’ adoration for reading. When Executive Director and Chief Librarian Marcellus Turner arrived here in 2011, he didn’t know just how much of a library town he’d relocated to.
“It was amazing how many people recognized me the first couple of years I was here,” said Turner. “While walking down the street, I would often get asked the question was I the chief librarian.”
That appreciation was a pleasant and welcome surprise, but it didn’t put more pressure on Turner. Rather, it increased his awareness that it was more than just library staff and the board of directors keeping tabs on his performance. The Seattle community would also be a vocal stakeholder.
Turner, or “MT,” as he’s known around the office, is leaving at the end of the month for a position in Charlotte, NC. He’ll be the chief executive officer and chief librarian for Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. The new post is also a return to his southern roots after many years away. He’s originally from Mississippi and has a master’s degree in library science from the University of Tennessee. SPL Director of Programs and Services Tom Fay will serve as interim chief.
Turner’s list of accomplishments over the last 10 years include helping to secure financial stability for the library through supporting a levy in 2012 and 2019, eliminating late fines in January 2020, and making strides over the years in applying an equity lens to SPL’s approach to programs and services. Adding Wi-Fi hotspots to circulation is a part of the equity lens and addresses the digital divide. Last year SPL was recognized as the 2020 Gale/LJ Library of the Year by the Library Journal. As part of the application for the distinguished award, SPL highlighted their engagement with agencies and organizations around the city and how they were trying to make program services attainable to all, but Turner acknowledged that SPL dealt with controversy along the way.
“We also took that as an opportunity to share about our learning experiences and how we didn’t get everything right — we didn’t try to paint this rosy picture,” Turner shared. “And I think that was a moment of reckoning for us to recognize that we didn’t do everything correctly.”
For Turner, the role of a library is to be a place that fosters imagination, supports education, and where people can be themselves. That vision was challenged while SPL navigated a now-yearlong pandemic. He described libraries as emotional places where people go to connect and to be surrounded by books. COVID-19 lockdowns took that aspect of the library away, so they had to pivot. When they moved programs online, they were able to expand capacity beyond the 350-person capacity limit of the auditorium. Curbside pickup is now available and e-books have increased in popularity.
“There are people that say ‘I will be a print reader forever,’ and then something like this comes along, and they begrudgingly give an electronic book a try, and then they realize ‘Okay this pretty cool. I can get used to this,’” said Turner.
There’s no rule book for non-medical businesses on how to navigate a pandemic. Staffer C. Davida Ingram speaks highly of Turner’s leadership during a time of uncertainty and appreciates being able to work from home. She’s the public engagement programs manager and has worked at SPL for six years.
“I think Marcellus has been a quiet and thoughtful leader,” said Ingram. “What I appreciate most about Marcellus is that he embodies the notion of intellectual freedom at libraries.”
One of SPL’s largest public engagement programs is Legendary Children. The yearly multi-arts event celebrates queer and trans Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. Ingram said Turner’s support is an example of how SPL is intentionally investing in communities of color.
As to the equity groundwork Turner started, Ingram wants to see his successor build upon it. She’s looking for a bold, inclusive leader.
“I definitely want to see a leader who wants to change the complexions of the staff at the library, so we have more representation from the communities that we mention when we say we prioritize equity,” she shared. “I want someone to really understand that an equitable library is a race and social justice change tool.”
Now that his time is coming to a close, Turner said he’s looking forward to seeing how the library will evolve in the coming years. He’ll miss the relationships he’s built here, the city’s genuine love for reading, and yes, he will miss the rain as well.
Lisa Edge is an award-winning reporter who most recently covered the arts for Real Change. In 2013 she relocated to Seattle after working as a reporter and anchor at several television stations in the south. Lisa most enjoys telling stories about people and how they are making an impact with their voices.
Featured Image: SPL Executive Director and Chief Librarian Marcellus Turner (Photo: Susan Fried)
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