It's the day before Thanksgiving. The Central Library is closed to the public due to a water main break. Down on the first basement level, Carrie McDonald is days from retirement. It should be a great opportunity for kicking back and reflecting on nearly 30 years of service.
But "kicking back" is not in Carrie's vocabulary.
Before we can ask what she's going to do with her retirement, the Library's Outreach Manager for the past 18 years jumps from her desk chair, strides between stacks of children's books, and scribbles labels on a stack of Books to Go boxes with a Sharpie.
Before the ink has even dried, she's back at her desk, giving directions to a confused delivery driver who has dropped in to pick up books.
"It's wonderful how a finite number of hours in my career has helped me focus," she says.
Carrie's working life was quieter 27 years ago when, as a student in Emporia State University's graduate library science program, she was hired part-time to maintain databases on a late shift in the old Main Library. After a few months, she moved up to the reference desk at the Plaza Branch.
After getting her degree, she became the librarian at the Landing Kiosk inside the eponymous mall at 63rd and Troost. It was during her seven years there, working inside a booth without so much as an adequate place to sit down, that Carrie developed into a customer-service-obsessed librarian. As a result, she has served as a role model for just about everyone she's worked with since.
"Some people saw it as a hardship post, but it was a really fun job," Carrie says. "I didn't make customers get their Library cards out because I knew all their names. That was probably frowned upon, technically, but that's what I mean by personalized service. I've been a rulebreaker ever since."
"People are more important than books," she adds.
Carrie's philosophy rubbed off on Gabi Otto, her former Landing Kiosk coworker who is now working with teens at the Southeast Branch.
"Carrie taught me the meaning of excellent customer service," Gabi says.
Carrie found ways of reaching even more customers when she became Outreach Manager in 1993. With help from a $36,000 State Library grant, she launched the Books to Go program, which has grown into the largest of its kind in the nation.
"It was like building our own business," she says. "You can be so creative in Outreach."
Each month, Books to Go delivers books to approximately 6,000 children at upwards of 300-400 non-Library locations, including Head Start and early childhood classrooms, private and parochial preschools, and in-home child care facilities.
The program's Home Bound Books subsidiary, managed by Gayla Honeycutt, delivers more than a thousand books each month to half a dozen senior residential sites. Additionally, Outreach makes frequent appearances at community events, where staff members award free books to children who participate in the Book Game - often to the tune of hundreds.
"It's so important to get books to kids who don't have their own books at home," Carrie says.
Indeed, Carrie McDonald has built an empire. As she leaves, the Library is already making plans for that empire's next phase.
First, as the search for a replacement for Carrie continues, Books to Go will roll along in the hands of Outreach staff members Peggy Farney and Tiffany Alexander.
"Carrie has a way of demonstrating and living public service that inspires me to try to do the same," Farney says. "From Carrie I have learned that while we may toil in the basement of the Library, our mission is important to thousands."
Next, through funds obtained via the Library's Building a Community of Readers initiative, a new Outreach team has been formed to conduct Stories to Go programs at sites previously served by Books to Go. (Kansas City children's author Derrick Barnes is a part of the team.)
And even though she's no longer at the Library, Carrie plans to continue her Outreach work on her own time, possibly by handing out books on city buses.
"Sharing books is what I do, and I love what I do," Carrie says.
Jason Harper is the web content developer and social media manager at the Kansas City Public Library.