Technology

As Seattle wins ‘Library of the Year,’ Chief Librarian Marcellus Turner sees key role for tech in pandemic

Marcellus Turner, executive director and chief librarian at Seattle Public Library. (Seattle Public Library Photo)

After the Seattle Public Library was named the 2020 Gale/Library Journal Library of the Year this week, Executive Director and Chief Librarian Marcellus Turner was excited to discuss everything that contributed to the prestigious recognition.

And he was nervous about another honor — his choice as GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week.

“It’s not that I’m afraid of being a geek,” Turner said. “I’m afraid that I won’t live up to the definition of a geek.”

Turner has nothing to worry about, as you’ll see in his answers below. And like any good leader, he’s quick to give credit for the Library’s success to the people he works with everyday.

“This award means so much to the staff — I refer to them as the 700 ambassadors for the organization — because it shows the work that they are dedicated and giving themselves to do,” he said. “I challenged them to become the most socially conscious library that we could and they took off running with it.”

The Library’s technical strides in recent years have been well documented — the WiFi hotspots it offers are the most circulated item in its collection, for instance. And its technical and digital advances have been especially critical with the closure of SPL’s 27 branches during the coronavirus pandemic.

In a note to patrons this week, Turner spelled out some of the ways the organization is continuing to serve the community, with expanded digital resources such as e-books and streaming content; virtual story time and classes; instant digital library cards; remote learning resources for students; and more.

And while some new digital lessons will carry over and continue to be applied once branches reopen, Turner has his eye even further into the future and what role technology will play in services.

“We’re working on a big project at SPL called ‘Future Readying Your Library,’” he said of a program that goes far beyond the question of whether there will be fewer books and more digital content.

“That’s not my worry. What I do worry about is, ‘What is AI going to do to our profession? What is the state of education going to do to our profession? What does climate change do for our system?’” Turner said. “There are these disrupters and this is how I get my excitement and energy. Libraries can either get left behind or they can figure out how to embrace it.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Marcellus Turner:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I’m the executive director and chief librarian of the Seattle Public Library. I do it for several reasons, but one of them is because I really like being a librarian. I believe that it is a service and I believe in service. It is, in my view, an essential need to help people better themselves. And I’m a director because I like working with staff to move forward the programs and services that they want to see occur. I like setting a vision for a library or for an organization, and then trying to inspire them to reach it.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? It’s such a known one and a worn one, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say it, which is we don’t read as often as we would like to. People assume we get to read all the time. I think the other one is, “Are books going away? Isn’t everything on the internet?” And the answer to most of them is, “No, books aren’t going away. Everything’s not on the internet.”

Where do you find your inspiration? If you’re asking me, where do I find inspiration for the work that we do, I love observing and watching other industry. My favorites are grocery stores, department stores, and airports and hotels. I look to see how people are treating their customers, and if you’re treating your customers well, they will love your product. That is where I get my inspiration for what our library is going to do and where we’re going to go.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? It’s everyone’s answer, but I couldn’t live without my phone. I couldn’t live without my microwave either, but I really couldn’t live without my phone. The best feature is the alarm, because all I am doing is setting alarms for virtual meetings everyday.

Inside Seattle Central Library in downtown Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I do go into work about two or three times per week, and I have a workspace at work and I have a workspace at home. With all the virtual meetings and everything, I have my laptop and workspace set up so that when I reveal myself or open my video it shows the corner of the ceiling where the two walls and the ceiling meet. That is all I would give anyone access to!

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) I have recently started walking again, and that has really given me the ability to pace and relax, and the tip is connecting with others. I’m from the South and I’ve lived on the East Coast, so I use that time walking every day to talk and connect with friends.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Picard.

What are you reading right now? I am reading lots of things. I have two books that I checked out before the closure: “The Nickle Boys” by Colson Whitehead and I’m a very big “Top Chef” fan and I’m reading “Notes From a Young Black Chef: A Memoir” by Kwame Onwuachi.

Favorite author? David Baldacci. I really do like him.

Digital or print books? Both, though lately I’ve been doing print. Digital is a medium that I enjoy, I just don’t explore it as well. I believe that if I carry the [physical] book it will force me to read it.

Brick-and-mortar bookstore or Amazon? I have to stand up for the indie bookstores because I want to see those businesses thrive. I believe in them, that they still give you that opportunity to browse. The best part of reading is finding that book. You get a chance to see the book and you get a chance to judge the book by its cover. But there is nothing like the convenience of Amazon — convenience and technology are our biggest threats to service.

What’s your favorite spot in the Seattle Central Library? There are a couple of favorite spots. My favorite floor is the red floor because it’s just such a surprise for anyone. When I give tours, I sort of save that for last, because it just boggles their mind to see it. There is a space on level seven that is just unexpected where a person can be walking through the shelving looking for books and then you find a spot where you can just sit and no one even knows the seating is there. I love that.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Do you know what a cloak of invisibility would give a black man right now? I’m not trying to turn this into anything political, that’s just representing the time. … A cloak of invisibility has to be the coolest thing. Do you know where you could be? You could stand up on the airplane when they were telling everyone else to sit down. You could go into a restaurant and have food. I could be out after curfew.

I once waited in line for … 3 1/2 hours for Franklin BBQ in Austin, Texas, in the sun. And I got there at 7 a.m. It wasn’t that great, but it was good. I love trying food. It was worth it. Also, every year I stand in line for the Seattle International Film Festival.

Your role models: First of all, I’d say my parents. After that, I’m going to give you obvious choices. I think President Obama was very cool under pressure, and he had an ability to connect with people. Oprah Winfrey has an ability to connect with people and the ability to say the right things at the right time. And Gayle King on CBS. She has been able to connect on some of the major interviews that she’s done in a way that expresses the interest of the people. They all have the trait of making people feel comfortable, and that is what I like doing as well.

Greatest game in history: I am a big women’s basketball fan; any game where the University of Connecticut loses is the best game — I’m a University of Tennessee Vol. Also, my mother always loved Chinese Checkers and I enjoyed playing with her.

Current phone: iPhone, I think it’s an 8. I am very brand loyal and I have been using Sprint for 35 years and it broke my heart when they merged with T-Mobile.

Favorite app: GoPee or RunPee. It tells you when you can leave a movie to go to the restroom and it tells you what happened during that period.

Favorite cause: I try to give to local causes for whatever city I live in.

Most important technology of 2020: I have to go back to the phone, because it just continually evolves to accomodate whatever we think we may need.

Most important technology of 2022: Something that reverts us back to something simple. The print book.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Let the world see you. They will be happy to have met you.

Website: Seattle Public Library

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