Librarian closes book after more than 60 years

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by Ashley Imlay, courtesy of Deseret News Utah

Though libraries might be places of quiet, Lenore Lewis proves that the life of a librarian is anything but dull.  Lewis, 79, has seen a hostage situation, three building changes and countless cultural shifts brought on by the internet, viewed from behind the librarian's desk. Sixty-one years and countless books later, she will soon turn the page to retirement.

Lewis recently sat down with the Deseret News at the Salt Lake City Main Library to tell her story.

The daughter of an English teacher and granddaughter of a bookstore owner, she worked at the South High School library while she was a student there. After high school, she was set to attend the University of Utah, but needed to find a job to pay for it.

So she applied to work at the library in Sugar House. It's been a lifelong love affair since.  "I've loved the people I've worked with. I love books. I don't own a whole lot of them, because I figure I've got them all here, and most of the patrons are very, very lovely, so I'm happy," Lewis said.

"I just think, with all the things that are in these books, I'll never get to read all I want. And I just love … it was so gratifying when (visitors) come back and say, 'Oh, I loved that book. Give me another one like it.'"

By the time she graduated from the U., many of her friends had already married.  But she had different plans.

"I dated and I had guys who wanted to get married, and this is weird for someone to say, but I'm not fond of children," Lewis explained.  Back then, "the few of us that didn't get married were looked down upon, that there was something the matter with us," she said.

She went on to earn a master's of library and information science from Brigham Young University.

"My father just said one year after I got out of college, he says, 'Lenore, I don't care whether you get married or you don't get married, but I want you to be able to take care of yourself. And even if you do get married, there's a chance it won't last. You have to take care of yourself,'" Lewis recalled.

Because she didn't want children of her own, she never married, but says she has nieces and nephews whom she loves.  Her sense of independence may have been what helped her in 1994, when Clifford Lynn Draper jumped on a desk and pointed a gun at her.

"And he took his eyes off me and started pointing at people that he wanted to go into the conference room. And that's when I kind of snuck away and got to the back workroom where I could call the police, not knowing that three other people in the building were calling the police," Lewis said.

She says she could not describe what Draper looked like, "but I can tell you every inch of the gun."

When she went back to the room, no one was there. So she got on the elevator and went outside. Officials opened the Salt Lake City-County Building and gave escapees quarters to use payphones and tell their families they were safe.

During the incident, Draper told several hostages being held in a room on the second floor that if he didn't get what he wanted from police, he would begin shooting those who drew the wrong straws to get his point across to authorities.

Nearly 5 1/2 hours later, a plainclothes police officer who voluntarily became a hostage shot Draper three times in the chest, mortally wounding him. He died shortly after in a hospital.  According to Lewis, workers at the library have "had some disasters that we've lived through, but everybody rallied around and made it better," she said.

A few weeks ago, some of those co-workers and friends gathered in a conference room at the library to celebrate Lewis' career. Guests received "Lenore buttons" with a vintage photo of her printed on them and posed for pictures in front of a purple background.

Many there described Lewis' retirement as a loss for the library.

"She's a wealth of information. I would just describe her as stalwart, somebody who's reliable, who shares information and shares knowledge with new staff," Lewis' manager, Katie Thompson, told the Deseret News at the party.

"She has a long relationship with a lot of the library patrons who come in. … She's seen a lot of change in the library system, from before we had computer technology. … She's like an encyclopedia of the library," Thompson said.

During her time at the library, Lewis held a variety of positions, from book selector to manager, and performed countless tasks to help the library function.  "It worked out really well, and I've been at the headquarters library, oh golly, since 1966, I guess," she said. "I'd only planned 50 years. I thought, you know, that's a good career."

Lewis said she stayed the extra 11 years because of a program that delivers books to senior high rises — she was concerned that if she left, no one would keep it going. When a co-worker hired this summer offered to take over the program, she said, "OK, I'm out of here."

"Except now I'm wondering if I made a mistake. It's getting kind of scary to know that I won't have to get up any morning and go to work," Lewis said.  But you can't keep her away from the books and the people she loves for long.

"I'm gonna miss the place. For a couple of months. I said I may come in and walk. We walk a lot in here. This is a big floor to cover. And I think what I'll do is maybe in the afternoons a couple of times a week, come down, I'll walk on the next floor because no one knows me up there. And I can walk without anyone asking me where a book is."

She also plans to volunteer at the library.