I had been warned. In the winter of 2012 as I was preparing to become the executive director of the Fayetteville Public Library, I was cautioned my first order of business would need to be expanding the library. This warning sounded odd given the fact that I, like many others, still thought of the Blair Library as new.
Little did I know that almost immediately upon opening its doors in 2004 the library began to be “loved to death.”
The truth behind the advance warning started to become clear when I witnessed the daily line of patrons forming before our daily 9 a.m. opening and the ensuing foot race up the stairs to claim a study room or meeting space, some of which would then be occupied for the entire day. Nonprofit organizations, small businesses, entrepreneurs, students from the university, local public school and home-schooled students, civic organizations, church organizations and many more were competing for the library’s limited space to meet, perform, learn and gather.
The love for the library was further driven home when I watched attendance at our Summer Reading Programs reach 16,167 patrons in 2012. That number has grown to 24,850 in 2015. I witnessed the sad faces and tears of children as they were told the program they came to attend was full and we had no more room.
The love for the library was further made real when I witnessed the dozens of book carts loaded with materials ready to be reshelved lining the hallways. Busy library pages, the employees who reshelve books for others to check out, were forever bustling about replacing items returned by patrons.
All of that was testament to the fact that our 298,000 materials circulate more than 1.25 million times a year. In fact, our circulation is so high one of our self-check kiosks was declared the busiest self-checkout in all of North America.
These — among many other measures of usage — led me to realize that, indeed, the advice I had received was true.
Now, the urgency of this need has reached a critical point with more than 619,000 people visiting our library last year. That’s 185 people an hour!
Despite all of the misplaced doomsday declarations that libraries are going the way of the horse and buggy, the Fayetteville Public Library is being loved to death. If we are to continue to be the best library in America as we were declared to be in 2005 by Library Journal, our community needs to address the call for library expansion.
In 2013 we commissioned a master plan study to address our space constraints and service demands. We worked from the conservative understanding that in the next 15 years the population of Fayetteville is projected to reach 120,000. It is clear our current library cannot handle the demands we have today, let alone those on the horizon.
However, we have a plan, and with the community’s help:
• We’ll double the size of our children’s library and create a new space for our kids to learn, explore, experience and grow.
• We’ll renovate existing space for small businesses — both for-profit and nonprofit — and their needs.
• We’ll provide space for entrepreneurs to create and develop new ideas and products, and additional spaces to meet the growing demand for meetings and studying.
• We’ll create a large multipurpose room to be used daily for children’s programming, youth organizations, civic groups, governmental organizations, local business and nonprofit organizations, musical performances, author talks and a wide range of special events.
• And because our community loves books, DVDs, CDs and audio tapes, and we will provide more space for these materials.
I have come to understand the singular love affair Fayetteville has with this library. Aside from the New York Public Library, I know of no other city, town, hamlet, community or metropolis that has a more intrinsic, deep-tissue connection with its library than we have with the Fayetteville Public Library. And as the executive director, it’s my responsibility to keep it that way.
I’m not asking for sympathy. Don’t send flowers, cards or letters, though I wouldn’t mind if you returned your books, DVDs, and Ozarkansas Tools on time.
What we do need is two small favors: Vote “For” twice on Aug. 9.
We may love our library every bit as much as New Yorkers love theirs, but this is still Fayetteville, Arkansas. As Arkansans, we take great pride in doing more with less. Despite our overwhelming success, the library cut more than $1.5 million out of the general operating budget during the last four years. And the millage that passed in 1948 — when Harry Truman was president — to pay for our small community library has never been increased.
We are experiencing a tremendous return on the investment the community made to build the Blair Library. It is time that we reinvest in our library’s future, and I’m asking each of you for your support.
David Johnson is executive director of the Fayetteville Public Library.