Nelda Hill isn’t one to shy away from asserting preference, or so it rapidly becomes evident when she sits down for a libation at Preservation Pub after another day of work at Lawson McGhee Library. She decides on a pint of ale rather than her usual red wine, given the Pub’s huge beer selection and comparatively small wine list—a choice that entails only a select handful of lagers.
She finally settles on a Blue Moon draught, which, upon arrival, she promptly de-citruses by removing the obligatory orange slice. Which is in contrast to her water glass, ordered with a squeeze of lemon, and which she drinks to wash down a slice of free happy hour pizza from which she has carefully removed the toppings.
It’s not that Hill, manager of the library’s Sights and Sounds Department, ever comes off as difficult or finicky; on the contrary, she’s as pleasant and engaging a Happy Hour conversationalist as one could hope to entertain. It’s just that if you look past the conviviality, you’ll catch the full measure of the discerning intelligence that is currently ushering the library’s non-print department through the rapid technological changes of the 21st century. There are things going on beneath that easy façade.
For instance: One little-known fact from Hill’s past—one that catches many of her downtown friends off guard, she says—is that she is a graduate of Carson Newman, the small, conservative Southern Baptist school in Jefferson City. “The truth is I learned to think at C-N, and I don’t think I could say that if I had gone to some big state-sponsored school,” she says. “The teachers were actually critical thinkers who thought profoundly and deeply about subjects and encouraged us to do so as well. The religion professors also encouraged us to question everything we had been led to believe.”
As an English major, she took special interest in Southern writers, and Appalachian writers in particular. Hill also availed herself of film studies courses, in an era when film studies were only just becoming recognized as proper university fare.
Her first job out of college was with Knox County in 1977, at the Fountain City branch library, and she’s been with us ever since, save for a brief, month-long detour at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, while working toward her Master’s in Library Science in the 1980s, organizing the old civil defense collection.
“It was a trip,” she says, laughing. “There were these old pamphlets from the ’50s and ’60s. I remember one distinctly. A note for secretaries: What to do the day after the bomb. ‘First, make coffee for your boss—he is going to be very busy.’ I knew right then I had to get out.” She made a hasty return to Knox County.
She was elevated to her current station in 2005, upon the retirement of former Sights and Sounds head Dale Watermulder. In a nutshell, she is responsible for selecting movies and music for the audio and video departments, and audio books as well.
But sometimes it’s tricky. “The world was still relatively divided between DVD and VHS in 2005,” she says. “Our budget was tight, so we predicted everyone would go DVD in 2006, and that’s pretty much what happened. We hit that one right on the money.”
She notes that theirs is the first library in the state to offer downloadable audio books, and they plan to offer downloadable e-books after the first of the year.
But some of Hill’s most notable accomplishments can’t be seen or heard within the confines of any branch walls. Along with local jazz pianist/composer Donald Brown, she co-founded the Knoxville Jazz Festival in 2006, and has acted as its managing director each year. The festival was funded primarily through the library its first three years, then incorporated as a non-profit, with the library acting as a partner in an educational role in 2010. Hill helped produce a documentary on jazz in Knoxville in conjunction with this year’s festival.
“It goes back to being 16, and falling in love with Billie Holiday,” she says. “I’ve always loved the American songbook, and the best place to hear it was always through jazz artists.”
Hill also conceived Media High, a three-year program that introduced Knox County students to filmmaking through a grant from the Jane L. Pettway Foundation. The program resulted in a pair of impressive student documentaries on the history of Market Square.
For Hill, it’s all part of a day’s work. Though maybe it doesn’t always seem like one.
“First of all, I get to hear great music,” she says. “And I also get a lot of pleasure seeing other people discover great music. Or in the case of something like Media High, watch kids learn new skills. Hey, I wouldn’t have kept coming back for 35 years if it wasn’t a great job. I get to talk about my favorite subjects all day, and I’m surrounded by such smart people—the people I work with, and the patrons of the library.”
But Hill’s love for her work is perhaps best summed by an anecdote, something that happened upon the death of Eudora Welty, her favorite writer. “The next day, people actually sent me sympathy notes, stopped by, because they knew how much I loved her,” she says. “That blew me away. Where else can you work that when your favorite author dies, people send you cards?”