In the Washingtoniana Room of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library you can work the shelves for hours before discovering G.R.F. Key, an elderly, bespectacled man in high-top shoes, plain aggy slacks, a worn pinstriped jacket and mismatched tie.
Key, 85, is the receptionist. He chooses to work her than retire. He handles his books like tender fruit and consumes them with the delight of a gourmet. He knows the shelves that hold the history of this city almost like he knows himself. After all, they both are repositories of wisdom, guides to lore and life styles in a cityways seems to change but underneath, in many ways, manages to stay the same.
"When I was a student at the oad to walk three miles every day to get a book from the library," said Key, articulating the root of his apprereedom to read.
"There were no open shelves back then and persons were required to come to the libary and f to get a book. Those who could not write could not get a book to read and we frowned on people who could not get books."
Now, with computers and bookmobiles, it is easier to get books frlibrary but Key laments that many people don't know how to use a library. And some still can't read.
Instea who could possibly share his experiences, Key answers the telephone a lot, taking calls mostly from people whsearch for them. They want him to find books of which they don't know the titles, then look up the informationphone.
"We are not supposed to do research, ma'am," Key said politely to a woman who wanted him to look up s of a piece of property.
There was a pause. Key smiled. "You say you know me--that's saying a lot," he toldnced at her reply. "Oh . . . that's the kindest thing I've heard all day," he said with mock humor.
He saidhim he was "too dumb" to work at the library. Now a hold button was flashing on the phone while somebody else waited for him to look up an unlisted number in the library's Criss Crelephone and address directory. Key braced himself for more insults.
It seemed unfair. Here was a man with tion at his fingertips playing telephone operator, complaint attendant and real estate hot line man.
But Ke. He declared that he was no saint either, and had simply vowed never to be discourteous to anyone. This is paoniana, a certain inbred southern charm and style.
Key has worked in the library for l5 years and taught in schools for many years before. Mainly, he likes talking about the good old days and savors the feel of histor them to life with his own experiences.
"Back in my day," Key said, indicating a picture of the old Tivoli t and Park Road NW, "a movie had to have a love story. You had one or two that featured a bank robbery. Then, 920s, they did something real different. They put music in it . . . . "
"You heard about those two congresshe Hill," Key continued, peering over his glasses professorially. "Well, that's been going on ever since they put that Capitol up there. Remember that lady who jumped in the Tidal Basin? And the one who couldn't type a word? That'll never cou know, when I was growing up we were not told about sex," Key added with new enthusiasm. "My mother didn't talk about it because her mothet talk about it. You were just supposed to know. Nowadays, a person can walk into the library technology sectirything they want to know about babies. Not that this has made a difference."
The library is filled with maps and pictures of Washington, documents and codes outdated sed. There are clippings from newspapers, including the entire Washington Star archives. There are books titled "Natural Washington," and "Washington Itself," but the real Washingtonian shelf. It lives at the reception desk.