Carol Goris’ 50 years at Lawson McGhee Library

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When you see Carol Goris, you may take her for a professional rock climber. She is compact and wiry and efficient. Her hair is short enough never to be a problem. She wears practical clothes that won’t get in her way, and good tennis shoes.

She just celebrated, in her modest way, a half-century as a reference librarian at Lawson McGhee Library.

I went in to see her on Saturday, and hardly recognized her, just because she was sitting down. She does not do much of that. She is, by nature, as if it’s a basic personality trait, afoot. She was dealing with a patron on the phone who was trying to find an elusive out-of-print book.

She lives at a slightly higher frequency than the rest of us. She may not say a word to you, but if she does, it’s either interesting or useful, and it arrives at an impressive clip. In terms of words per minute, they say John Kennedy was our fastest-speaking president. Carol Goris is faster. She knows you and she both have other things to do. She speaks at a reading rate.

She is originally from Biloxi, the old port town in Mississippi, and attended Millsaps College, the tiny liberal-arts college in Jackson. The state capital was a city she didn’t like much when it was still resisting desegregation. Goris was there in 1963, when civil-rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated within walking distance from campus. Uncomfortable in her home state, she transferred to the University of Tennessee, where she had some family connections.

“I felt like I’d died and gone to heaven,” Goris says. Knoxville wasn’t America’s most progressive city, but compared to Jackson, it seemed fresh and open. She moved into Fort Sanders, as it was developing a bohemian reputation. In 1965 she went to the Civic Coliseum to see Bob Dylan.

She studied Spanish, planning to teach, but minored in library science.

Fate, and war, played a hand. In the summer of 1966, one librarian’s husband was drafted to fight. He fled to Canada, and his wife followed, leaving an abrupt vacancy. With no degree in library science, Goris applied for the job and was surprised to get it.

She reported to work in the elaborate old terra-cotta library building on the hill, north of Market Square. At the time, Knoxville’s library system was strictly a city amenity, but to take advantage of Johnson Administration federal funding for countywide systems, the library was planning a big, new, modern facility to serve city and county both.

She got to know some interesting patrons. Some were already well-known, like author Wilma Dykeman and Richard Marius, the charismatic professor-novelist. One was a young writer who just published a novel under the name of Cormac McCarthy.

“He seemed kind of shy,” Goris says—though he was already attracting interest from strangers, who would approach him at the library to ask him about the fates of characters.

“We used to have James Agee pilgrims. Now we have Cormac McCarthy pilgrims. They ask, ‘Was he weird?’”

No, not at all, she always tells them. She admits she doesn’t know for certain.

Lawson McGhee moved into the current building in 1971. The city later tore down the beloved old place to build Summit Hill Drive.

Things changed again beginning in the late 1980s, when the library got its first informational computers. In the early ’90s, computers started to replace the card catalogue.

Today, Goris says, people her age often ask, “Don’t you wish you could go back to the old days?” She does not. She likes the online resources that help her serve her patrons much better now. “It’s wonderful,” she says.

She admits there are limits to the Internet, which might offer a hundred versions of a famous quotation, with dozens of attributions. “If there’s a book, we just go to the source.” Books are imperfect, too, but tend to be more trustworthy.

At one time, computers seemed to sound a death knell for brick-and-mortar libraries. Goris says they’re busier than ever. Sometimes every seat’s taken. Many patrons come into the library just to use the computers. For thousands of Knoxvillians, the public library is their only access.

“We used to help people find books. Our new job is to help people find jobs. To apply, they have to go online, and they don’t know how to do it. We help them.”

Older than many retirees, she still loves her job. “I should be paying them,” she says. A reference librarian is a detective, she says, and she loves the mystery of each question, with one exception.

“I hate fish questions,” she says. “Fish have different names all over the world.” It’s hard to keep track.

For Goris, scholarship is an athletic endeavor, as it should be. No one moves around the library as swiftly and frequently as she does, in search of an elusive book, pushing around a well-laden cart. The lively intellect gathers no moss, nor pounds.

She still lives in Fort Sanders. “I love the energy of the kids,” she says, charitably. She’s more energetic than most kids. She walks to work, about two miles.

She walks back home for lunch, another two miles. She takes a very long lunch break, about seven hours. She visits friends, gets things done around the house. Then she walks back for the night shift. “It’s my choice,” she says. “I’m the scheduler.” And she does have seniority. She likes working the early-morning shift, and the night shift, every day.

This septuagenarian walks eight miles a day, not counting a few more miles of walking around the library. She’s creaky in the morning, like most folks her age. But a vital job can get you up and moving around. The aches and pains vanish, she says, and soon she’s back at her unpredictable job, helping strangers figure things out.

She is not nearly finished with that job. “It’s been a wonderful 50 years, and I hope I can hang on a little longer,” she says. With that, she abruptly excuses herself. She has things to do.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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