A lifetime devoted to books

Retirement: Faye Houston, a `librarian's librarian,' is leaving the Enoch Pratt Free Library after 33 years of making a living loving books.

August 30, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Faye Houston is having none of this talk about myopic, spinsterish librarians with pinched noses and hair pulled back in tight buns.

Houston, chief of humanities at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, once crowd-surfed at Lollapalooza. So there.

Still, she does have one thing in common with those storybook librarians. Houston, 56, loves books. She thinks of them as friends with stories to tell.

They have been with her ever since her girlish days in Springfield, Ohio. And they will be with her long after tomorrow's retirement party honoring her 33 years of library service.

"She's the librarian's librarian. She's the model," says Carla Hayden, director of the Pratt. "She has encyclopedic knowledge of her own subject, and then she has her own life experience, which gives her another depth."

She's a culture maven with tickets to the symphony, the theater, the opera. She sings in the Handel Choir. And there's Lake Trout, the local band that features her son, Michael, 24. The constant, though, has been books. She recalls a colleague telling her "books were like people that were constantly talking, constantly telling their stories."

"It's a fairly romantic image," she says, "and I didn't really think about it until I saw `Fahrenheit 451,' where the people were talking their books so they wouldn't forget."

Sometimes, when straightening the shelves, or checking the stacks, Houston finds herself thinking, "Who's going to take care of these babies when I go?"

Starting Wednesday, Johnnie Fields takes over humanities while the Pratt searches for a new department head.

Libraries were different places when Houston arrived in October 1965, "fresh out of the egg," she says, from graduate school at Drexel University. A certain relaxed graciousness held over from earlier days. There were couches at the Pratt. The Edgar Allan Poe Room was open to the public.

But let's not get carried away by nostalgia. There were no photocopiers. Magazines and other publications were constantly being ripped apart by students looking to complete a book report or a current-events test. The card catalog's accuracy depended on someone putting the cards back in the right place.

At one time Houston thought of giving up library work for law, sales, some field where she could put in 80 hours a week and take home more than a librarian's salary. She couldn't make the move.

"This probably sounds romantic, but we [librarians] are charged with being the preservers of our civilization," she says. "I think that's much more rewarding than trying to get somebody to buy another pair of shoes."

Her affair with books began in Springfield, where she grew up with her aunt and uncle, Evelyn and Alonzo Moss. They became her parents, guiding her through childhood. She calls them mom and dad. Houston wasn't a tomboy. She wore glasses and read. For her, a library card was a passport.

"You could be somewhere else and not Springfield, Ohio, and not black," says Houston. "Books really do set you free. You can be somewhere else. You can be someone else."

She was 11 when Alonzo Moss gave her the idea for a career, telling her, "You read all the time. Why don't you be a librarian?"

"And it went, Click!" she says. "That is, if I wasn't going to be an archaeologist or a detective."

Soon, she was working in school libraries, gaining access to "Andersonville" and "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," books that were off-limits to most students. By 1960, her family had moved to Baltimore, while she attended Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

"It was a very optimistic time. The world belonged to youth and we were it," she says. "And black people were going to be a part of it."

She studied English but didn't want to teach.

"I didn't know exactly how you got to be an archaeologist, except that you had to go to school for years and years, and I didn't want to do that," she says.

And so, as Alonzo Moss had suggested, she became a librarian.

"I think the major difference now is speed. People expect it," she says. "In those days it was more leisurely. Now, it's `I saw this book on Amazon, and I want it now.' "

That's part of the work of being a librarian. People come to you expecting answers, not a shrug of the shoulders. As Houston moved through the system, other concerns took hold. A library is a living institution with new books arriving all the time, crowding out the old volumes. Administrators think about shelf space, what has to be kept, what can be let go, sold.

Yet it all revolves around the individual volumes.

"One of the things I think is very different for librarians in the electronic age is that they have to be encouraged to handle the books," says Houston.

Hayden, the Pratt's director, sees the same thing. Much of today's training is toward the online world and the Internet. Books are not necessarily the all-consuming heart of library science.

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