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VOL. 11 | NO. 10 | Saturday, March 10, 2018

Novel Approach

Memphis Public Libraries’ next chapter merges technology, access

By Bill Dries

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The smallest of the city’s 17 public libraries is also one of its most used. The Frayser Branch library is a brick-and-glass rectangle on a half-acre at 3712 Argonne St. With some modest columns and shrubs, a few planters and cinderblock lattice work, it is shoe-horned into the side of a hill in a residential neighborhood a block from the commercial corridor of North Watkins Road still dominated by churches.

Its midcentury look in one of the subdivisions built shortly after Frayser was annexed into the city in 1958 is where the city’s northern boundary still isn’t too far away.

That is the case with many of the library buildings, which are being transformed from rows of book shelves organized under the Dewey Decimal System to places of programming and access.

“We have a lot of 1950s architecture here throughout the Memphis Public Libraries,” said Keenon McCloy, director of the library system. “And that’s a little bit deceptive because what’s happening inside is exciting and it’s transformative and it’s impactful and we just want to share that story and to be able to welcome more people in and have more people come.”

Pam Sandlian Smith, president of the Public Library Association and director of Anythink Libraries that are part of the Rangeview Library District in Adams County, Colorado, uses the words “learning space” a lot.

“I think libraries are becoming more places where people understand you can go to the library to learn and you will learn in a lot of different formats,” Smith said. “Books are still so important, but we also learn from the internet. We learn from each other. We learn from experts. We learn in teams. It’s all of the above.”

The city is looking for land elsewhere in Frayser for a new library. A new Raleigh library is part of the plans for the Raleigh Springs Town Center, which is past demolition of the old Raleigh Springs Mall and is about to begin construction.

A larger public purpose

Even the city’s original public library, Downtown’s Cossitt Library, is being renovated.

Founded in the 1880s with $75,000 donated by philanthropist Frederick Cossitt, the library at Monroe Avenue and Front Street had shelves when it opened but no books. It was a red sandstone castle with turrets and high ceilings before a mid-20th-century renovation lopped off the castle and replaced it with a modernist box.

It is the midcentury addition that is getting a renovation with some grant funding through the national “Reimagining The Civic Commons” foundation and other financial help as part of the Fourth Bluff effort Downtown.

The city’s original public library, Downtown’s Cossitt Library, is being renovated with some grant funding through the national “Reimagining The Civic Commons” foundation and other financial help as part of the Fourth Bluff effort Downtown. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

The Fourth Bluff is an area that takes in Memphis Park and Mississippi River Park to the north, the bluff area behind the University of Memphis Law School and the Cossitt.

Maria Fuhrmann, city project manager for the Fourth Bluff, talks about the library being a cultural capital that features lots of programming for the parks depending on the time of year.

“Downstairs there will still be a collection that we will be rotating depending on topics of interest and maybe other things going on in the library,” Fuhrmann said. “A café is planned with indoor and outdoor space. There are some quiet meeting rooms. But I think a lot of the library will be movable, flexible seating so a group can gather and chat. The same inside as outside.”

The Cossitt entrance on Front Street has changed over the years from a fountain with modern sculpture surrounded by trees to a sunken area without the adornments.

“The impact of the changes at Cossitt in the front area, like new steps from Front Street, is really going to improve the streetscape there along Front Street and make the entrance and front area much more welcoming and inviting,” Fuhrmann said. “It’s pretty foreboding with the sunken courtyard and walls and fences.”

The Cossitt plans got a boost with last summer’s decision by the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art board to move from Overton Park to Front Street Downtown, where a $110 million museum will be constructed on the block between Union and Monroe avenues. A proposed pedestrian plaza near the end of Monroe Avenue would connect the museum with the Cossitt Library.

The plan, which is at least five years from reality, is to then connect the museum and library to Mud Island’s south end with a pedestrian and bicycle walkway across the harbor. An aquarium is planned on the island’s southern end.

“Nobody could have seen that coming. We are halfway through the civic commons grants for three years,” Fuhrmann said. “I don’t think anyone could have predicted that a move as big as the Brooks was coming to basically the Fourth Bluff.”

The idea is that the Brooks and larger riverfront plans can generate momentum for a renovation and repurposing of the rear of Cossitt, which is a historic part of the original red sandstone castle.

“The historic portion of the building has always been a bigger puzzle. It’s a ton of space and a lot of work that needs to be done,” Fuhrmann said.

The Memphis Library Foundation has raised private funding for the Cossitt’s return.

The Memphis Public Library's Frayser Branch. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

Foundation executive director Diane Jalfon says system-wide public funding alone can’t sustain “thousands of events and constant influx of new resources needed to operate at the level our community deserves.”

Smith says public libraries across the country are dealing with the same funding shift.

“I think this is one of the things that whether you’re a library or whether you’re a business or a school, adapting and absorbing the technology and the rapid changes in technology is something that 50 years ago nobody worried about it,” she said. “Now everybody has to budget for it and manage it so it becomes a priority. You simply can’t exist without staying on top of things. There’s no way to not incorporate it into a budget.”

McCloy says the Cornelia Crenshaw Branch on Vance Avenue near Lauderdale is a leading example of a library that serves as a source of information and programming across many fronts for children, teens and adults.

But its corrugated concrete exterior is something she would like to change to make it more inviting, even as the library’s staff is already excelling at community outreach.

“If you walk in, you know you have an oasis inside of any Memphis library,” McCloy said. “But you have to be invited in. We always say people are welcome. People know we are open. They know we are free. But really, we need to actually offer them the invitation, not just have them be welcome if they want to come.”

Cornelia Crenshaw was an activist of the 1960s-1980s who lived in the area. The library branch bearing her name was built in the late 1970s after the original Vance Library, also known as the Cossitt Library for Negroes in the days of segregation, burned in the 1978 firefighters’ strike.

On the edge of the Foote Homes public housing development across Lauderdale Street from Cleaborn Homes, the library’s back end now faces an open lot where part of Foote Homes has been demolished as part of the South City mixed-use development. The Cleaborn Homes housing project has already been transformed.

Future of libraries in the cloud

The visible change in Memphis libraries has been the Cloud901 area opened at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library where recent and popular books, CDs and DVDs arrived.

Specifically for teenagers, Cloud901 is a two-story area of creative space for traditional art projects, video and music production, and activities that at times are about anything but books. It is packed with technology from 3-D printers to Xboxes to musical instruments. It’s been a success since it opened in October 2015.

Tim Felix (left) and Ralph Calhoun (right) collaborate and edit music recordings in Cloud901's sound recording studio. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

Jalfon calls Cloud901 “the future of libraries,” offering teenagers cutting-edge technology they can’t get anywhere else even if they already have the technology at home – “an experience.”

“You can experience music, art, culture and more at our libraries. You can interact with librarians whose sole purpose is to help you learn and grow,” Jalfon said. “You can attend meetings and workshops on a variety of subjects with like-minded people. And perhaps most importantly, you can interact in person with people who are different from you. In this increasingly segmented world, libraries are the common ground where citizens of all backgrounds can share ideas, exchange thoughts, and build human connections.”

Every branch won’t have a Cloud901 area, McCloy said. But the library system has gone from no programs aimed specifically at teenagers to more than 1,000 programs. And the library system is distinguishing between programs and activities.

“We decided not to have garden-variety programs, but to have intensive camps that are free and that are in partnership with

FedEx and AutoZone and other corporations,” she said. “Some things are designed to have an actual impact. You learn something, a specific skill. We’ve just changed the way we do business altogether.”

Smith said the transition isn’t just for younger patrons of libraries either.

“These are skill sets that everybody needs to have these days. You can’t get by without being an excellent communicator in the digital realm,” she said. “I know there is always a tension because people still use the library for a space that is quiet – thinking space and a space that is a place to go for solace, I think, but definitely quiet. And then when you think how people learn today, people learn in a collaborative way. That typically means it’s a little noisier and a little messier.”

Keeping libraries relevant

The library system has long excelled at introducing children to books and literature. And an area for younger children at the Central Library, across from Cloud901, remains an enchanted place with multi-colored trees starting at its entrance, a few whimsical creatures in the branches, colorful carpets, shelves that aren’t too tall and a stained-glass reading area.

Just before the forest entrance, a sign points in a decidedly opposite direction to tax forms. And just around the corner, the Central Library’s art exhibit area has a restored modern sculpture from the Cossitt’s former fountain.

Shelves and books remain the dominant feature of Memphis libraries. It is along the edges that the new role and function of libraries is emerging.

And in the open areas where solitude was once the priority, live music, collaboration and digital access are making inroads.

The Central Library just kicked off its third year of the 5 Fridays of Free Jazz series, which features various types of jazz as well as food from different cultures.

The library’s music section has always been an experience the library has excelled at, even in the days of the old Main Library at Peabody and McLean, when recorded music was on an upper floor in a room dominated by vinyl and listening booths.

It was a place where musicians and those who just liked music went in search of new sounds.

It was where Nathaniel Kent, leading a 1970s local band called Exodus, went in search of new sounds and came face to face with the musical legacy of his grandfather, the legendary bluesman Frank Stokes.

“I saw him on the cover,” Kent told The Daily News in 2016 on his trip to the library. “He was bigger than we ever knew.”

Just before the move into the Central Library in 2001, former library director Lamar Wallis won a door prize only a library system could offer – the right to put the first book on the shelf.

Wallis garnered national attention when he refused then-Mayor Henry Loeb’s call to ban the Phillip Roth novel “Portnoy’s Complaint” in the 1960s. He had always envisioned libraries as being a place for practical information as well as literature – the classics and that which pushed the boundaries.

These days, the Central Library remains a place where you can still find an owner’s manual for the restoration of a 1964-1970 Pontiac GTO.

Much of that is downloadable – music and how-to – but not everyone is able to download it or has access to Amazon Prime.

The library has its own Amazon book account to order books online. It offers Mango Languages software to learn different languages.

During Library Card Sign-Up Month in September, the library system issued 2,664 new cards, with the most new patrons going to the Cornelia Crenshaw, Gaston Park and South branches. The system offered 117 fall break programs at various branches that drew 1,433 children. A total of 650 adults and children turned out for Halloween-related programs at libraries.

The summer months of July and August showed total program attendance at all libraries was 21,699, with 262,260 items checked out. During the August solar eclipse, 327 people watched the eclipse at a Memphis public library and 113 attended an eclipse information program at the Central Library.

Behind the scenes, the library system is no longer part of the division of parks and neighborhoods. It is its own division under the administration of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.

It’s a reversal of fortunes for McCloy, who was appointed in 2008 as libraries director by Mayor Willie Herenton, who also proposed closing five libraries, including the Cossitt.

Herenton’s closing proposal was rejected by the City Council. But McCloy said libraries were always among the first items city leaders looked at when money got tight.

“Every time you would go for a budget hearing, someone would say, ‘We’ll do an efficiency study. We are going to close five branches,’” she remembers. “And all of the library supporters would say, ‘You can’t close the libraries.’ And the question would become, ‘What do you want? … What do you stand for?’”

That led to surveys of over 4,000 people and going to each branch to meet with staff and customers.

“We were always highly rated by the public in terms of being trusted and being essential,” McCloy said of the process that led to the system’s 2013 strategic plan. “But for many people who haven’t been to a library in some time, it was something we needed to really start at step one.

“We knew people thought we ought to be open longer hours. We need to have more downloadable materials. We need to have more programming,” she said. “We need to promote awareness of our services. … We don’t want to be the best-kept secret.”

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