THE COMMERCIAL APPEAL | Chris Herrington
Ben Smith, executive chef and owner of Cooper-Young’s Tsunami, wrote his restaurant’s business plan at the library.
Grammy winning-producer and Royal Studios owner Boo Mitchell augmented his study of Memphis music at the Central Library’s Memphis Room.
According to Mauricio Calvo, executive director of Latino Memphis, the nonprofit organization was founded at one of the library’s free meeting spaces.
Hoops star, art collector and all-around extraordinary Memphian Elliott Perry spent childhood afternoons at the Hollywood branch library, applying his mind to more than just the execution of the pick-and-roll.
Memphis Public Libraries’ new “engagement campaign” is called “Start Here.”
“It’s a jumping off point,” says library director Keenon McCloy. “Anything in lifelong learning. Anything you want to do. You want to get a job? Start here. You want professional growth? You want to get your GED? You want to learn to speak English? If you want to be able to fix you car. If you want to talk to people different than yourself. Start here. We want to be the jumping off point.”
It worked for those Memphians. And it worked for me.
When I was in junior high school, in eastern Arkansas, my dad lived in Memphis, so I was a frequent visitor, and the old main library on Peabody was my favorite place. I could spend hours at a time there, and often did.
Rolling Stone magazine had just published a list of the “100 Best Albums of the Past Twenty Years.” Already a budding music fan, I copied down the full list and brought it with me. On the second floor of the Memphis library, you could check out records, and they had many of the titles on the list. I’d get a few every other weekend and take them back with me: The Kinks’ “Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround,” Randy Newman’s “12 Songs,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica.” Often odd stuff that in the pre-internet age I would have otherwise never been able to hear.
Some things you look for, some you discover. During one afternoon spent up in that second floor, digging around in the sports section, I came across a book called "Bill James’ Baseball Abstract." I liked baseball, collected cards, and bought the newsstand preview magazines. This seemed kind of like that. I checked it out and took it home, only to read conventional-wisdom-exploding essays on subjects such as how baseball managers needed to rethink batting orders. I didn’t know it then, but this library discovery was teaching me critical thinking, in the context of a subject I cared about.
Another afternoon loitering around on Peabody, in the periodicals section, I spotted Prince -- my favorite musician -- on the cover of a newspaper I’d never heard of, the Village Voice. I picked up the New York alt-weekly and started reading it. I probably ended up being a writer because of that day.
Libraries are different now, of course. Physical media is transitioning to digital, at least in part. “Checking out” often means downloading. And what you do on-site is as important as what you take home. Maybe more important. But libraries remain a place of origin and discovery. In a time where inequality is expanding, they are perhaps our most democratic spaces, offering equal access to information and resources. In a time where it can sometimes be hard to know what information to trust, the library is an honest broker.
“We want to make more people aware of what the library is in the 21st century, because we’re more relevant than ever,” says McCloy. (She writes on the library here in this guest op-ed.)
The “Start Here” campaign is based on research from Little Bird Innovation, converted into a communications plan by Doug Carpenter Associates. It’s been launched this month in conjunction with “National Library Card Sign-Up” month. (If you don’t have a library card you can, um, start here.)
It’s less about changing the services that the library provides, which are head-spinning in their vastness, than changing who interacts with the library and how. It’s about bringing people back who have slipped away and aren’t aware of what is happening in the libraries today. And it’s about improving communication and “customer service” for everyone.
“It wasn’t about rebranding or the creation of a logo, it was about discovering what our customers really wanted, improving the customer experience, or better relaying how exceptional the experience already is,” says McCloy.
DCA has helped the library retool its communications: A better e-newsletter, a more engaging work-in-progress website update, individual Facebook pages for every branch to promote their own events and give them more individuality.
Many people associate library cards with inevitable late fees, but now Memphis Public Libraries are talking about library “membership” and the “benefits” that you get. Help desks are being rebranded as “search bars” and soon you may see little lending libraries with a familiar look, Read Boxes, cheekily referencing the DVD rental Red Boxes.
One of the big differences is the use of social media, with the library’s Twitter feednosing its way into the news and into local watercooler talk as a source of crucial or novel information:
Little Bird’s research found that communicating library services was a greater issue than the service itself. A lot of what the public asked for was already being provided. They just didn’t know.
“Every time we’d talk to someone in the community, they’d say, ‘Well, we wish you would do this or if only you did this we would come,’ and we’d say we’re doing that. We were already doing most of the things people were dreaming we would do,” says McCloy. “How do you distill 6,000 programs that 95,000 people attended last year into three or four or five messages? That’s a challenge, and we hadn’t been able to do that effectively.”
Established in 2015, the Cloud901 lab for teens was a kind of canary in the coalmine of Memphis library reinvention.
“Libraries are really getting into learning labs. We want people to be exposed to things they don’t necessarily have ready access to. Cloud901 was a big response to that,” says McCloy. “Memphis deserves more of that exposure. So few people have access. We need to have something as great as you find at private schools or corporations, and [public] schools don’t have the ability to provide that. We doubled-down on 21st century skill building. Robotics, engineering, art, 3-D design. Softer skills like collaboration, communication, public speaking, those kinds of things.”
Spend a couple of hours walking around the Benjamin Hooks Central Library, if you can keep from getting lost in the stacks (I can't), and you’ll see all kinds of things: Grow Memphis sponsors a Seed Library in an old Dewey decimal card file. In the Memphis Room on the fourth floor is a “Memphis Music Listening Station,” with a catalog of nearly 600 Memphis music CDs anyone can sample via self-guided listening. The “Second Editions” bookstore might be the best used bookstore in the city, and raises some $200,000 a year for the library. (An online Friends of the Library Amazon store for pricier books matches it.) You can renew or replace your driver’s license or pay your taxes. You can join a ukulele club. Learn robotics. There’s a “citizenship corner,” a “college resource center,” a “Job Linc” career center, a “community resource room.” Legal clinics, entrepreneurship workshops, targeted technology workshops (“iPads for Seniors”), photo exhibits.
“There are all of these ideas that seem outside of the realm of what libraries traditionally have done and we’re doing them,” McCloys says.
Library use is up, and so are hours. For the first time in a generation, all branches are open at least six days a week.
One of the changes you might have noticed is that “Memphis Public Library and Information Center” has been changed to “Memphis Public Libraries.” This is tidier, cutting the word count in half. But it also underscores the library’s status as a network, while the prior name suggested one place.
Memphis Public Libraries is made up of 18 branches covering the breadth of the city.
“The need for free public space is expanding. In North and South Memphis, there aren’t as many of those kinds of public spaces. There aren’t coffee shops,” says McCloy. “So many neighborhoods surrounding some of our branches don’t have a lot of spaces you can go for free that are safe and accessible, within walking distance. We really fill those gaps.”
New library branches are on tap for Raleigh and likely Frayser. A significant renovation is on-tap for the Downtown Cossitt branch. Facade work in partnership with the UrbanArt Commission is coming to other branches. The branches are “neighborhood community centers, each with its own area of expertise and influence,” says McCloy. And if digitalization is revolutionizing libraries, that hands-on experience remains paramount.
“We don’t know what libraries are going to look like 10 years from now,” says McCloy. "There will always be paper books, but moving forward, you’ll see more electronic resources, more robotics, more STEM programming. But a lot of what people want is human interaction. For all of the technology, co-working is one of the things on the rise. Meeting spaces are always full. We have 300 community organizations at Central alone that meet 1,200 times a year.”