“Libraries are in my blood,” Falmouth Public Library reference librarian Faith R. Lee responded when asked at what point she knew she wanted to be a librarian.
“My mum was a beloved trustee of the Wellfleet Public Library,” Ms. Lee said. “That cramped, tiny place with the funny smell seemed magical, and I figured I’d never be far from a library in my future.”
Twice, as a young adult, Ms. Lee considered going to “library school”—after college, when she opted for a master’s degree in art history instead, and a decade later when her art history career in San Francisco was stalled. At that point, she opted for a second career as a full-time mom instead.
When Ms. Lee and her family moved back to Cape Cod to settle in Falmouth 20 years ago, her daughter attended the Mullen-Hall School and Ms. Lee volunteered at the school library for then-media specialist Maggi Yates.
“I credit Maggi for inspiring me to finally go to library school,” she said.
At the age of 43, Ms. Lee commuted to Boston twice a week to attend Simmons College, graduating with a master’s degree in library and information science.
The night classes were tough, she said, because when she took the bus she did not get home until midnight and missed saying goodnight to her school-age children.
“I stupidly signed up for the two most challenging and time-consuming courses for the first semester,” she said: “‘Reference,’ and ‘Information Organization,’ and I didn’t even know how to use a computer. I didn’t know what ‘Google’ meant.”
Among all that she learned that first semester in Boston, Ms. Lee learned that she “loved reference.”
“I love doing research and finding answers,” she said, noting how much easier doing research with a computer is than in the 1980s, when “there was only the card catalog and I had to spend countless hours scouring shelves and shelves of paper indexes hunting for esoteric art history articles.”
Ms. Lee, who retired this week, has been a reference librarian at the Falmouth Public Library since 2008, living close enough for most of the time since then to walk or ride her bike to work, which she considered a “real treat.”
A little over a year ago, Ms. Lee and her husband moved to Wareham to shorten her husband’s work commute, and she has been listening to audio books while driving to work.
“This is new for me,” she said. “I make a point of choosing light and fluffy fiction—also new for me—so I don’t get distracted from the road. I keep the hard stuff for home, like histories, memoirs, and narrative fiction.”
At the reference desk, some of Ms. Lee’s favorite reference questions are those that involve Falmouth history or finding news items and obituaries in The Falmouth Enterprise and The Cape Cod Times microfilm collections.
These searches provide “the thrill of the hunt and then an interesting read as a reward,” she said.
When asked about “least favorite” questions at the reference desk, Ms. Lee said she does not have any.
“My view is that every question I am asked is important to the person who is asking it. It is not easy for many people to ask for help, so I feel privileged when someone asks me,” she said. “I treat all questions with respect and try to be as thorough as possible.”
There was one question during her tenure, however, that Ms. Lee could not answer, and it nags at her.
A few years ago, she said, someone showed her and a colleague a photo of US Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) sitting in his office in the US Capitol with something on the wall behind him.
“I seem to recall now that it was a panel with a row of stars,” Ms. Lee said. “The person wanted to know what the significance of the thing was. We couldn’t figure it out. I thought maybe it was a private elevator indicator light panel. I emailed a curator at the US Capitol and my colleague emailed Mitch McConnell, but we never received responses. It is tough to give up on a question.”
One of Ms. Lee’s favorite experiences at the reference desk was helping a woman about her age who was working toward a bachelor’s degree in social work. She came to the library regularly for a couple of years to use the public computers and printers.
In the beginning, Ms. Lee showed the woman how to use the computer and how to print. Then she showed the woman how to search her school library website and databases, how to identify the best articles for her research papers and how to use proper citation formatting.
“I helped her almost every time she came in, and provided encouragement all the way,” Ms. Lee said. “She worked hard, preferring the public library to her school library or home.”
“When she had her diploma, she bundled it up carefully on a torrentially rainy day and brought it to the library to show me. She was absolutely beaming. I was thrilled for her, and very gratified that I could help with such an important milestone in her life,” Ms. Lee said.
In 2016, Ms. Lee organized the Library Yarns program, which she remembers as another of her favorite experiences.
“Event planning is not my thing; I really sweat the small stuff,” she said. “But I needed to plan a program for teens and adults and I wanted to do something that would be connected to some area of our book collection, but different from our usual offerings; something that would foster community.”
Being a knitter, Ms. Lee said, she decided to “yarn bomb the library.”
This involved soliciting donations of yarn from crafters with “excess stash,” and a group of about 15 crafters at all levels of experience who met weekly on Saturdays during January and February to custom make unique creations out of yarn to decorate the library.
“We knitted, crocheted, wove, wrapped and knotted—you name it—with all sorts of flashy fibers,” she said.
“We installed our creations in all public rooms of the library for the month of March. There was an article in The Falmouth Enterprise, and on a couple of national library websites,” Ms. Lee said.
“The place looked fabulous. And the book collection? I got to promote our wonderful collection of knitting and crocheting books—the best on the Cape, I believe,” she said.
Reflecting on how technology has changed the way patrons use the library reference desk in recent years, Ms. Lee said that as technology has become a permanent fixture in many homes, there is less need for ‘ready reference.’”
This means, she said, there are fewer people asking for telephone numbers, weather forecasts, recipes, the birthstone for February (amethyst), or the appropriate gift for a 10th wedding anniversary (traditional: tin/aluminum, or modern: diamond) because they can look up those answers easily on the internet.
These days, questions for the reference desk are more about local history, “Who wrote that book?” Consumer Reports reviews, and help with ebooks, she said.
What advice would Ms. Lee give to someone thinking about going into library science today?
“Loving libraries is not enough,” she said. “You have to love people, too.”
Librarians, she said, connect people with information and books. In order to do this well, the best librarians have the ability to understand people.
“You also need an aptitude for learning technology and an attitude for welcoming constant change,” Ms. Lee said. “In library school they said that the only constant in a library is change, and I found that to be quite true.”
On a final note, Ms. Lee said that before the COVID-19 pandemic stopped in-person programming, the Falmouth Public Library was one of six libraries in the commonwealth to offer Next Chapter Book Club, a club for teens and adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
Next Chapter Book Club is an international organization with affiliate chapters run by local leaders. Ms. Lee started an affiliate chapter at Falmouth’s main library in 2017.
The group met year-round, she said, thanks to three generous and dedicated volunteers—Christine Serani, Maura Wilson, and Tammy Rausch—who facilitated the meetings each week.
Ms. Lee received a note from the daughter of a book club member who is in his mid-90s. “She wrote that her family was thankful for the sense of community the book club provided,” she said.
“My hope is that once in-person programs are allowed, this wonderful book club will resume,” Ms. Lee said. “That is what public libraries are about; connecting people with books and building community.”
“Faith is loved by all the people she has helped over the years, and has been a great joy to work with,” said Jill E. Erickson, head of Reference and Adult Services for the Falmouth Public Library.
“She was the energy behind our chapter of the Next Chapter Book Club, and she had a devoted following with the nonfiction book group she ran,” Ms. Erickson said. “May I also mention that she was the best editor/proofreader that I ever had?”
Ms. Erickson met Ms. Lee when the library was relocated to a building on Carlson Lane during the library’s renovation on Main Street, and Ms. Lee was a library science graduate student at Simmons.
“Little did I know that she would end up working as a reference librarian at the Falmouth Public Library for many, many years,” she said.
“Faith has been a go-to person for her department, the library, and for information on the Town of Falmouth for the past three years that I have worked with her,” Falmouth Public Library assistant director Jennifer A. Woodward said.
“She is truly a great librarian, one of the best I’ve worked with. We will all miss her!”