"I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of a library," wrote Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges.
Indeed, when the Fayetteville Public Library -- closed to the public since late September, when finishing touches on the expansion were being made -- opens its doors later this month, those viewing the $49 million expansion may see Borges' prediction realized. I did, on a recent cold, windy December day when Samantha Herrera, FPL marketing and communications manager, gave my 10-year-old twins and me a tour of the new space. While it's true I knew they would come in handy to add some human interest to the photos I would take along the way, in reality, they pleaded so earnestly to come along, I couldn't disappoint them. And Herrera was kind enough to oblige.
As it is for many in Northwest Arkansas, the FPL has always been an important place for our family -- a happy destination for all four of us -- and that's remained consistent from the time the kids were toddlers, pawing through board books, until today, as they gobble down chapter books and graphic novels. But like the demographics and interests of my own family, the Northwest Arkansas community is constantly in flux, and the FPL has made a commitment to keep up with that growth. When the Blair Library on Mountain Street first opened its doors in October 2004, it was an 88,000-square-foot, $23 million project that took visitors' breath away. A modernized version of the traditional library, it boasted a catalog of 270,000 books, 30,000 audiovisual titles and 500 periodicals, and an Arsaga's Cafe in its lobby made it even more of a community hub than it had been in its previous space on Dickson Street. The popularity and necessity of the new building became immediately apparent, and the ensuing years found the library constantly expanding its offerings, reaching maximum capacity on most of its events and running out of room for its burgeoning collections. Meeting and study rooms were in constant demand. Multi-use rooms meant chaos when one event immediately followed another. When a special election to consider a millage increase for an FPL expansion was held in August 2016, voters overwhelmingly approved the increase, and construction officially started in July 2018.
Which brings us back to last month, when Herrera gave us our jaw-dropping tour. From the moment we walked into the atrium-like new entrance and gazed at artist Aimee Papazian's "Voyage of Lost Keys," a magical sculpture that seemingly hangs in mid-air, we were awed by the scale of the 80,000-square-foot-plus expansion.
Floor-to-ceiling windows never let us forget the beautiful environment that surrounds the building. There is a new, 8,700-square-foot event center, and the size of the children's library has doubled. Other additions include a 16-station teaching kitchen, an Art and Movement room, the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Center for Innovation and the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Gathering Place.
As Herrera explained the thoughtful function of each new space, one thing was abundantly clear: The prescient forethought of every choice made has the concept of community in mind. Small nooks and meeting spaces throughout are comfortable spots to gather. The Center for Innovation and community kitchen offer services that could help start or boost careers.A dedicated story time room and craft space give relief to frazzled parents of tots. The Art and Movement room will provide access to free or low-cost dance and exercise classes. A librarian close at hand in each section means questions can be answered quickly and easily. The spacious event center gives additional opportunities for more community members to see special speakers and productions.
And, of course, there are the books, the beating heart of every library, regardless of how modern or technologically advanced it might be.
"Shelving the books in the new youth libraries was a very significant milestone for me," says Willow Fitzgibbon, director of library services. "While the expansion is so much more than books, seeing the books on shelves in the new spaces reminded me how entwined our traditional values of lifelong learning, accessibility and innovation are in this expansion and all of the new services FPL will now be able to offer."
At the end of the tour, I unwittingly paraphrased Borges when I said to Herrera, "This is what I picture the library in Heaven looks like."
My son's reaction?
"Mind blown," he said, eyes wide.
FPL Event Center
Herrera says the new event center was designed to meet a multitude of needs. The seating is flexible and can accommodate up to 500 people when set up for a banquet, 700 in stadium-style seating or 1,000 standing. It boasts a state-of-the-art control booth with a concert-quality sound system, as well as professional video production capabilities, a dressing room and a green room. Guests can walk from the parking garage directly across the outside Gathering Place to the center, bypassing the rest of the library entirely.
FPL Executive Director David Johnson has high hopes for the center.
"The center will allow us to hold a wide variety of events that space constraints in the original building made problematic," says Johnson. "For example, the Lois Lowry author event had over 900 people in attendance, far exceeding our 600-seat capacity. Attendees were standing in any available inch of space. When we hosted the Levon Helm documentary film and panel discussion, 'Ain't In It For My Health,' the Walker Room was at its maximum capacity of 275, and the lobby was filled with temporary overflow seating. The various banquets we've held -- Fayetteville Public Education Foundation's Hall of Honor, the 'Up Among The Hills' Gala and documentary film premiere, the Miller Williams Memorial -- have required a much more expansive shutdown of the library. Additionally, when FPL was scheduled to be Maya Angelou's final public speaking engagement, we moved all of the 2,000 tickets online in 28 minutes.
"In sum, what we have learned since the opening of the Blair Library in 2004 is that the quality of events that the library brings to this community has generated tremendous demand that far outpaces our capacity."
Kristen Hoover, FPL event coordinator, says that once the coronavirus is no longer a concern, the center will be available for rental by community organizations at a "reasonable price point." She adds that the teaching kitchen, Gathering Place and the beautiful reception room adjacent to the event center can all be rented in conjunction with the center's events.
"Until a safer time, FPL is taking every precaution to ensure the safety of our guests and patrons," Hoover explains. "Like most organizations, we are sticking to virtual or streamed events until we feel we can pivot back to in-person events. In February, we do plan to host Ozakwaaba as they 'break-in' our new event center stage with a livestreamed concert. We are looking forward to hosting our annual author talks in fall 2021, featuring R.L. Stine and Susan Orlean. Also in the fall, FPL will be hosting the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting."
The J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Gathering Place
"This outdoor community gathering space is comparable in size to the historic Fayetteville square," according to the FPL. "It features polished stone amphitheater seating that surrounds an open, grassy area lined by benches and native trees."
Herrera says this space can be used for organized events -- with space for up to 1,000 guests -- or in a more casual way, as a place to study, read or socialize.
My kids' immediate reaction to the space -- inviting even on this blustery December day -- was that it would be an ideal place to hang out wtih with a stack of books on a nice afternoon. We love the FPL veranda with its two-person swings, but it's a popular place, and seating is often at a premium. That won't be a problem in this large courtyard-like area.
With 16 cooking stations and a walk-in refrigerator and freezer, the 1,500-plus-square-foot teaching kitchen has been carefully designed in partnership with Northwest Arkansas Community College's Brightwater culinary department in order to offer concurrent college credit opportunities for Fayetteville Public High School students. The library's new "casual deli" is located right outside the teaching kitchen, allowing visitors to grab a quick sandwich or salad and watch new chefs through the viewing window. Herrera says in addition to the Brightwater training, the kitchen can host culinary programming by professional chefs and cookbook authors, as well as opportunities for the community at large.
"We are planning to offer culinary training for all ages and are in continued conversations with a variety of partners to provide the training," says Johnson. "Everything from teaching young children how to make healthy snacks to sommelier classes for adults is being considered."
Johnson adds that access to the teaching kitchen will be open to the community, "including private entrepreneurs and small business owners seeking additional space and capacity for their enterprises. What is exciting is the potential for FPL to help meet the demand in this market."
Art and Movement Room
With its floor-to-ceiling windows, gorgeous softwood dance floor, ballet barre and towering room-length mirror, I just assumed that the pretty grouping of multi-colored pegs at the far end of the Art and Movement Room was another art installation.
"No, those are just pegs for coats," said Herrera.
It's an easy mistake to make when you're standing in the middle of the airy, chic room, which is the first to greet you when you walk into the new expansion. The Art and Movement Room will no doubt draw interested people further into the building, but, as Herrera points out, the billowing curtains can be drawn to offer a bit more privacy.
"You could definitely feel self-conscious doing yoga in here if people can look in and see everything," she says with a laugh. "You might be able to still see a bit of the movement inside but not, 'Oh, there's my friend Sandy, doing Downward Dog.'"
Herrera says the FPL envisions classes like tai chi, yoga and dance will be held in this room, as well as adult art classes when tables are added.
"Personally, I am really excited for the Art and Movement Room," says Fitzgibbon. "Intellectual wellness and physical wellness are closely tied, and having affordable, unintimidating access to movement-based programs provides important health literacy to our community. I am also excited for all of the opportunities the expansion offers my preschool-age daughter, who will grow up with tremendous access to the arts and technology."
Post-pandemic, Hoover says the room will be available to local organizations as a rental for dance and exercise classes.
If you're between the ages of 6 months and 18 years old, you can't help but feel valued by the FPL's expansion.
Or so my 10-year-olds tell me, loudly and multiple times, on the way home from our tour.
The new building doubles the space dedicated to these age groups, with 32,000 square feet split into three separate areas for pre-schoolers, grade schoolers and teenagers. Each new area has its own distinct personality: Bright colors and accessible book bins will attract preschoolers to their downstairs space, and they won't be able to tear their eyes away from the retired antique airplanes that swoop above their heads as they hang from the soaring ceiling. The Walmart Story Time Room has a puppet theater, and the dedicated craft room means no more juggling chairs and art supplies to try and make one room fit all needs. Two parents' rooms also allow for quiet feedings.
Upstairs, the space for early adolescents features comfortable chair groupings and tables. My kids couldn't take their eyes from the row after row of chapter books, many of which are new. Study rooms and alcoves line one side of the room, offering ample space for quiet retreats.
Across the way, you'll find the teenage space, decorated in a soothing blue with hip, space-age swivel chairs. Cunning little nooks are cut into the walls, complete with electrical outlets with which to charge devices, and study rooms come complete with large monitors.
Oh, and there's a dedicated game room, something my children were beside themselves to discover -- though they'll have to wait a year to enjoy it. The teen section is limited to kids from the ages of 11 to 18; while others can access the books in that section, hanging out is strictly limited to that age range.
Kena Bailey, assistant manager of youth and teen services, says having a dedicated teen project room "means teen activities will not have to be planned around children's and adult programming. This largely increases the number of programs offered to teens, including multi-day programs and camps. Teen programming ranges from fun crafts to educational adulting classes. Most of all, we want the tweens and teens to feel like the teen area is their own safe and comfortable space."
The J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Center for Innovation
Herrera says part of the planning for the expansion was to take a look at libraries all over the world and pull a little bit from the best of them.
"Our whole goal is to expand your knowledge," she says. "Literacy goes beyond books. You can be literate in so many things -- you just need the opportunity."
If there's one thing the Center for Innovation offers, it's opportunity. This suite of studios will feature audio and video production facilities, podcasting booths, a fabrication and robotics lab, a virtual reality studio, a computer bank and co-working space, a photo studio and a simulation lab for forklifts, backhoe, aviation, standard vehicle and CDL training. Herrera says everything here is designed for a range of abilities, from the casual hobbyist to the person looking to boost their career with new skills.
One thing the Center for Innovation does not want to be, however, is a rival for other area businesses.
"Because this space is free, we didn't want to set up any kind of unfair competition," she says. "Our hope is that this is where you come to dip a toe into different hobbies that maybe you don't have access to, and, if you decide you want to do it professionally, you'll delve in elsewhere at a more expert level. This is more of an opportunity to figure out if this is something you'll be really interested in before you commit however much money you need to further explore that."
Herrera says orientation to the Center will include training from the knowledgeable staff, including Chris Moody, director of IT/AV and innovation.
"We will continue technical organization memberships such as AES, AVID and AVIXA, and forge new partnerships with Make and other national organizations, as well as work with local and regional groups that focus on making and technology," says Moody. "Staff will stay up to date on technical certifications and, as the situation with covid improves, attend tech conferences. However, the most important part comes down to engaging a group of staff, trainers and volunteers that are passionate about technology and making and bringing their excitement to new programs and classes that can be enjoyed by our patrons."
“The Voyage of Lost Keys” by Aimee Papazian, hangs in the Grand Staircase of the new FPL addition.
“When I was growing up, there was a small plaque with a key on the wall of my grandmother’s house in Flushing, N.Y.,” reads Papazian’s artist statement. “That key was what was left of my grandfather’s house after the entire Armenian quarter of the city where he lived in Turkey was burned down. He fled for his life that day, along with most of the Armenians in the country. He was 18 years old. After the fire, a friend went back to where his house had been and found that key in the ashes, and sent it to my grandfather’s family.⠀
“I built a larger version of the key on my grandparents’ plaque out of clay, and then cast it in plaster as a model. This was the first key I made for this piece. Other keys are based on pictures of historical keys. I have also included many other keys, because so many cultures have this violent displacement as part of their history — or their present. This piece is a way to imagine a mass migration — a way to think about a people who have lost their homes and their place in the world, as still being somehow connected to each other.”