Still the Place To Go

Even in the Age of Google, the Memphis Public Library retains its core mission as a cultural unifier.

Timothy Hursley/LRK

It’s been ten years now since the Memphis Public Library, Central Branch, vacated its home of several decades at Peabody and McLean and moved to a prominent expanse of several acres at the angle of Walnut Grove and Poplar. Architecturally, the building — designed by local architect Frank Ricks and renamed the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library  in 2005, in honor of the civil-rights icon who stressed the values of literacy and knowledge — is a commanding structure of several floors, its mix of metal scaffolding and glass walls, through which rows of book-laden shelves gleam under fluorescent lights day and night, conveying the very idea of openness.

The walkway leading up to the facility’s front doors is festooned with a number of concrete and marble tiles, with phrases and graphics signifying a wide variety of significant cultural moments. One such is the slogan “Workers of the World Unite,” there not as an incitement to revolution but as a footnote to a materialist phase in Western history. That nod to a spent ideology — the subject of substantial controversy when the new library first opened — co-exists with sun symbols, mathematical equations, Bible verses, a lyrical snatch from the song “Memphis, Tennessee,” and other artifacts of both the local and the larger culture.

Inside this building, and the 17 widely distributed other branches for which Hooks is the flagship, are treasures from the past, as well as the technological tools of a developing future, and an array of pragmatic services that relate directly to the needs of the present. 

An estimated 30 million people — an average of three million a year, including repeat visitors — have made use of the Memphis Public Library system in the past decade. That’s according toKeenon McCloy, a still youngish veteran of city-government service who has been in charge of library operations since 2008. On a recent weekday afternoon, director McCloy sat with this reporter and four key members of her supervisory staff (which numbers some 40-odd strong, altogether). Each of those present was prima facie evidence for the continued relevance of the library system in the Age of Google — in which the circulation of books and the nature of books themselves have changed, and increasing numbers of us can sit in our swivel chairs at home or before office computers and conduct research operations that grow more and more sophisticated as the years progress.

There was Wayne Dowdy, familiar to both Memphians and the outer world as the author of A Brief History of MemphisMayor Crump Don’t Like It, and other classics of regional history. Perhaps appropriately, Dowdy is in charge of the library’s several extensive collections, kept in the numerous rooms which I’d explored a few days earlier. Included are vintage vinyl recordings and rare films along with such treasures as the collected papers of such eminences as the Tennessee Senator Kenneth D. McKellar, a lion of the New Deal period, not to mention the legendary longtime political leader of Memphis, “Boss” Ed Crump himself. Although these records are being “digitalized” — i.e., being converted into computer-accessible facsimiles — that process is of necessity one that will stretch far into the future. The nature of books is indeed changing, but some things remain.

“The McKellar Collection itself is stored in more than a thousand boxes, with maybe a million items overall. The Crump Papers are in some 337 boxes,” says Dowdy, making the point that, even with an infinity of volunteers assisting in the process, it would be impossible to estimate when or if everything could ever be transferred to digital files. That means that certain kinds of research will always be done the old-fashioned way.

But digitalization of sources goes on apace, and in charge of it is Sarah Frierson, an ebullient 1998 Rhodes graduate who came to the library after working on a surgical team, and, before that, as an architectural surveyor. “I had 25 jobs before I was 25,” she says. “I came here and was hooked. I called my parents and told them, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

Dowdy has a similar story to tell. “I taught history at what was then Shelby State Community College,” he says. “I wanted to write, but didn’t know what to write. I was spending all my time teaching classes and didn’t have time. I became very interested in how libraries were teaching history in a different way.” 

In particular, Dowdy was aware of the Memphis and Shelby County Room at Hooks, where documents, clips, and all sorts of paraphernalia relating to local history and individuals are stored. The library became a place for uniting his business with his pleasure.

Much of what Frierson and Dowdy do overlaps. “Right now, we’re taking what we have from the Memphis Room, putting it into software, and scanning it,” says Frierson. Such efforts, “completely volunteer driven,” started two years ago “in earnest” and have resulted so far in some 9,000 computer images. “We were focused on photographs to start with but are moving on to documents, audio, video, and oral history.” 

And all of this will be available for remote access via the library’s website, “Take the student working at 3 a.m.” she says. “I was that student. I like the idea that they can get what they want in the middle of the night.” But she seconds Dowdy’s statement that the brick-and-mortar aspect of the library won’t expire. Both are fascinated with the uses of microfilm, the one device of library storage which, they say, will never become obsolete. “It lasts 500 years,” marvels Dowdy. 

Modes of communication will change, however, and that’s the province of Mary Seratt, who heads up the library’s literacy programs, working with groups of children hands-on. 

“What I do is provide the right material for the right kid at the right time,” she says. “My overriding interest is in providing a literate population to take the place of us when we’re gone. That encompasses early literacy, giving tools to learn to read, programming, teaching staff in branches how to provide services, and collaborating with anybody who has something to do with literacy and child development.” As one example, she works with established entities like the Urban Child Institute in developing programs.

“Literacy” is something Seratt interprets broadly. The current Twitter boom and the myriad of new devices that facilitate it and other forms of cyber-speak and even games are cases in point. “All that is a tool. It still needs vocabulary and comprehension of ideas. There are different literacies. There’s book literacy, and there’s technology literacy. Kids want things current and new, that speak to the world they know. We try to stay up with the things that interest them.”

If that sounds like the library is future-tense minded in its development of services, it also pays ample attention to the present. Take Robyn Stone, manager of Job-Linc services. Her very pragmatic task, pure and simple, is to help the local population in preparing for employment: training for it, finding a job, and then doing it. 

That’s a big job in itself, considering that rates of unemployment in the Memphis area are famously sky-high relative to other climes, but Stone communicates a sense of excitement in discussing the challenge: “We provide all the tools to help you get that job, and to deal with food stamps, unemployment, and veterans’ benefits. We also have materials, books, computers at all our branches, and an online database to assist people in their search for jobs. We provide sample resumes and have people that can help, show you where to go.”

Stone partners with the state Employment Security Division (“We trade visits to trade fairs”). She and her assistants conduct workshops at all the branches on dressing for success, developing interview skills, financial literacy, “everything necessary to find a job.” Inevitably, a key ingredient of Job-Linc is the provision of basic computer classes, an area of overlap with Mary Seratt’sefforts. It is not just the nature of books that is changing; it is the way in which information is acquired, processed, and passed along.

Libraray photo by Ă“Timothy Hursley  / Looney Ricks Kiss architects


Some Useful Facts
  • Within Hooks and the 18 other branches of the Memphis library system are 599 computers, freely available during hours of operation to the public, and all of them are connected to a
    wi-fi system. No charge, no password. Some
    1.2 million users logged on last year. Newly received and being worked into the rotation are
    260 brand-new laptops.

  • Within the Hooks Library are state-of-the-art broadcasting facilities. Hooks may be the only public library in the country with a radio station and a TV station, fully equipped. Both use the call letters WYPL (W-Your Public Library). The radio station operates 24/7 and the TV station, too, is steadily in use, producing a variety of public-access programs. In addition to library employees, the stations are served by some 200 volunteers. 

  • At the library system’s various branches are rooms to accommodate some 1,500 meetings a year. At Hooks, accordion-style partitions allow flexible transition from small to large meeting spaces.

  • Some 1.8 million items — books, E-books, films, CDs, DVDs, rare vinyls, what-have-you — are available for access or borrowing at the various facilities.

  • All the library branches together boast an annual visitation rate of 3 million people a year, with Hooks itself accounting for almost a million a year.


If there is one instrumentality that distinguishes the library of today from its ancestor organizations, it is, of course, the computer and the new digital universe it has brought into being. An unexpected demonstration of the aforementioned change in the nature of books came recently in connection with one of the library’s high-end services: Book Talk, a program conducted from the library’s broadcast studio by Stephen Usery whenever (which is frequently) an author of standing can be induced to come in for an interview.

The interviewee on this occasion was Hillary Jordan, a native of Texas and Oklahoma who achieved serious literary renown in 2008 with her first novel, Mudbound, a dramatic take on racial conflict in the Mississippi Delta in the post-World War II period. She had come to town to promote her latest offering, When She Woke, a dystopic variation on the theme of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, in which abortion is punished as murder and the punishment is to have one’s skin permanently dyed red.

After the interview, which was conducted skillfully by Usery, Jordan talked about the fact that, for her as for others, an increasing amount of her readership is shifting from hard cover to E-books. And she made the surprising revelation that, with no need to share proceeds with anyone between herself and her publisher, Algonquin Books, her royalties from the sale of E-book versions had come to exceed those from the sale of hard covers. 

Yes, the nature of books is changing, and the rapid disappearance of storefront bookstores in Memphis and elsewhere in recent years has signaled that fact clearly. So has the ongoing transformation of what we call a library. The important thing to remember is that libraries, as their titles indicate, double as “public information centers,” and these days that means everything summed up in the term “multimedia.”

Among the striking aspects of the contemporary Memphis Public Library system is the smorgasbord of its website, a model of its kind; all online sites should be this complete and accessible. The site — again, — provides one more reminder of what the term “public,” so often debased by contemporary polemicists, can mean to a community.


Director Keenon McCloy, who must chart and guide the course of this ever-transforming library system, has the kind of eclectic background that may prove helpful. A member of a long-established local family, she graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in history and returned home to begin a career she had probably not anticipated. Sponsored by influential local attorney Jim Gilliland, she became office manager for the mayoral transition that installed former educator Willie Herenton (after his landmark election in 1991) as Memphis’ first elected black mayor.
  Like Rick Masson, who served Herenton in longish stints as CAO and finance director, McCloy belonged to a small core of trusted Herenton aides — utility players, as it were — who maintained strong ties both to the headstrong and intermittently visionary executive himself and to the city’s social and economic mainstream, and were thus able to survive the often turbulent times of the 17-year Herenton tenure. Before becoming library director in 2008, McCloy had been chief administrator of M-SARS, the city’s sexual-assault resource center; deputy director of Public Services and Neighborhoods, and then the director of that agency, which would incorporate the library system within itself during the first wave of retrenchments that began when Shelby County government in 2005 pulled out of its co-management with the City of Memphis of a countywide library system. (Germantown, Collierville, Millington, and Arlington now operate their own libraries; Bartlett continues to have a contractual arrangement with the Memphis system.)

When Herenton, who went through periods of changing city directors the way other people change their wardrobes, made one of his most controversial decisions, to replace longtime library director Judith Drescher in 2008, McCloy was a logical replacement.

But that did not make the transition especially easy. Drescher, who had headed the library for two decades, McCloy says, “was well-liked and really successful. She had a really loyal group of customers and staff and volunteers, and I was hampered in their eyes by the fact that I didn’t have an MLS [Master of Library Science] degree.” 

McCloy went through an awkward time of having to win over her new associates and team of managers, but win them over she did. Kay Veazey, who for the last several years has been president of the volunteer group Friends of the Library, volunteered this testimonial: “We were leery when Keenon came. But I’ve spent a lot of time since going around telling people I’m sorry we doubted her. She has just been wonderful for us. She wasn’t a librarian, and that was the big flack. But you don’t have to be a librarian to manage a library.” And, importantly, Veazey says, during a time of staff reductions and massive cutbacks in city funding ($600,000 worth in the last city budget), “she has never said no to us, [not] once.”

Friends of the Library is very much involved in the system’s future. “We raise money for the library,” Veazey, a retired journalist, says in explaining the mission of the Friends, which has existed as an adjunct to the system for the last half-century. “We do a lot of things for the library that the city doesn’t do. We pay for all staff training. We do things for the branches. Recently we presented $3,500 to the Cordova branch for international books. I don’t mean French and Spanish; I mean Farsi and Chinese! They serve a very diverse population over there. The city and the library can’t afford to do that kind of thing; so we can.”

 The Friends drum up some $200,000 annually for library programs. “We do it all through donated books,” says Veazey, whose hearty enthusiasm and readiness for a chuckle make the money-raising effort sound like off-duty recreation rather than the virtually full-time job it must surely be. “I just love touching a book,” she says at one point, by way of communicating her sense of dedication to the task.

For years the Friends had been conducting three book sales annually, in addition to the efforts of the Central library’s regular first-floor book store, Second Editions (see box, p. 73), which also vends the recycled volumes and is in business year-round. “We get 175,000 books donated at the back of the library every year,” she said. The times being what they are, it is likely that the number of hard-copy sales events will be scaled down to two a year. 

But the Friends’ operation has adapted itself to the growing penchant for bibliophiles to make their purchases by computer (see box, p. 72). “We’ve been selling online for the last two years. We set a goal of $50,000 for this year, and we had sold $80,000 worth at the end of November,” Veazey says proudly. And, like the rest of the library, the Friends are accommodating themselves to the new era of online literature, acquiring E-books and putting them in circulation.

Also involved in this process is another helping-hand agency, the Memphis Library Foundation, which for years was also headed up by volunteers but which, as of this year, now boasts its first full-time paid director, Diane Jalfon, who came to the library after seven years’ doing fundraising for Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. “We’re a more traditional fundraising entity. We write grants, solicit sponsorships and private donations,” says Jalfon, whose experience at the Brooks is doubtless a useful component for one whose function involves access to philanthropic foundations and big givers.

The Library Foundation, which has existed since 1994, was born of the desire to finance construction of the present Hooks Library to replace the longtime facility at McLean and Peabody (an increasingly obsolescent structure, since razed to make way for some upscale townhouses). “The library community really wanted a world-class facility,” explains McCloy. “The building turned out to cost around $60 million, which was about a third more than the original estimates. But that’s how this building was able to incorporate art in its original design and to maintain a Children’s Department and a theater and so forth. The Foundation raised some $20 million — about a third of the total cost.” 

Jalfon’s mission of the moment is to support “10 for Ten,” the current building-anniversary campaign. The goal, she says, is “to raise $500,000 to purchase 10 things. Things like technology upgrades, signage, E-books, and computers.” And she is optimistic. “Memphis is a very generous town,” she says. “It has some citizens who really care about this community.” 

All the personnel at Hooks (or “Central,” as the staff mainly call it) are agreed on one thing. For all the glitter, gloss, and outright glamor, for all the cavernous spaces, attractive décor, and multitudinous offerings, for all the helpful assistance to be had, for all the stunning and imminently accessible technology you will encounter at this facility, for all the sheer information and reading pleasure, be assured: More of the same is available at the various satellite locations. All the branches are catalogued to the same central computer, and the differences between Central and the satellite locations are primarily those of scale.

Two locations in particular crop up in conversations with the folks at Central: the Cornelia Crenshaw Library on Vance, in the heart of what is so often called “the inner city,” just south of downtown; and the Cordova Public Library. Inger Upchurch, who also manages the vintage Cossitt Branch on the Memphis riverfront, is celebrated in the system for the range of innovations she has brought to Crenshaw, ranging from theatricals to public meetings at a frequency to rival those at Hooks to the inclusion of garden tools among the items that may be borrowed. “Really, she’s made that library a true community center,” says McCloy with admiration.

Upchurch and other directors at other inner-city branches may have done more — elevating the library to the status of church and school as an acculturating institution. Enter Crenshaw on Vance, a tidy, inviting place with cheerful student-created wall montages, and you will see the same rows of serious, dedicated — and racially diverse — people sitting before computers as you will see at the Hooks Central Library, where, as Diane Jalfon points out, Chickasaw Gardens meets the grass roots.

And there’s the Cordova branch. Recall Kay Veazey’s comments regarding the need to make over books in Farsi and Chinese? In complying with the needs of the branch at Cordova, a sprawling, quasi-suburban area most people consider the epitome of ethnic and social homogeneity, library administrators made the discovery that 27 percent of the patrons were speaking English as a second language, if at all, and that as many as 16 different primary-language groups were represented among the facility’s clientele.

Who’d a-thunk it? Whatever the zig-zag of communication modes the future brings to the concept of the library, its function as a cultural unifier would seem to be its unchanging core mission. 

Jackson Baker is a contributing editor to Memphis magazine and a senior editor of the Memphis Flyer.

Meeting Friends Online

Herman Markell - photo by Amie VanderfordAt 78 years old, Herman Markell has just about done it all. Kayaking and canoeing on the Mississippi River. The New York City Marathon in his mid-fifties — twice. An 18-day bike tour in New Zealand for his 60th birthday. Starring roles in plays at Theatre Memphis, Playhouse on the Square, Circuit Playhouse, and the Germantown Performing Arts Centre. Trips to every continent on Earth except Australia and Antarctica. The list goes on and on.

Two years ago he added supporting the Friends of the Library to his list of passions and pastimes. “I volunteered for one of the Friends’ book sales and found a whole new world I knew nothing about,” he says. Using experience gained from running Carquest, his family’s auto-parts distribution business, Markell helped the Friends set
up their Internet sales stock room at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. “I was an inventory
control guy for 50 years,” he says. “It was a natural fit for me.”

Sherman Dixon, the Friends’ book sales committee chair for the past 33 years, explains how his group sorts thousands of donated books each year to sell at its annual book sales, in the Second Editions Bookstore, or through Memfol Books, their online store at “I’d been planning to organize our inventory since the Central Library opened 10 years ago, but never got around to it,” Dixon chuckles as he marvels at Markell’s can-do attitude. “Once he gets an idea, get out of his way. I have to be careful what I say around him because it will get done.”

Since launching Memfol Books in 2009, Friends has raised more than $100,000 and has amassed a working stock of 6,000 titles for worldwide distribution. As a cadre of book-savvy volunteers diligently works to double the inventory, Herman says the Friends’ successful online venture is proof that conventional books still have their place in society: “It’s proof that the written word still has value and that it continues to accentuate our lives.”

Donors can drop off books at any Memphis Public Library location. According to Dixon, 90 percent of the books they sell in their online store would have been relegated to the recycle bin otherwise. “Our bestsellers are late-edition textbooks and scientific or technical manuals,” he says. “That’s stuff we couldn’t give away at our book sales.”

Despite his intrepid lifestyle, Herman Markell manages to spend 50 or 60 hours a month in the Central Library’s basement sorting and stocking books. He says it’s all worth it when he sees a child holding a parent’s hand as they approach the wonderland that is the Children’s Department at Central. “Their eyes light up with excitement, a sense of adventure,” he says. “It’s magical.” — Daphne Thomas


New Life for Old Books

Antonio Quinn - photo by Amie VanderfordArt, music, and literature shaped the 1920s cultural phenomenon that was the Harlem Renaissance. Duke Ellington tunes permeated the air as writers and musicians camped out in dimly lit coffee houses listening to readings of such emerging poets as Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks. 

While coffee shops experience their own renaissance today, bookstores are fading fast. Borders Books, a casualty of the online bookstore boom, filed for bankruptcy this past summer and closed its remaining stores nationwide. Bookstar closed the store it had operated since 1992 in Poplar Plaza.

“Technology can be a friend and a trend, but sometimes it can be a Frankenstein,” says Second Editions Bookstore manager Antonio Quinn. He’s undaunted by the trend, however, and says books are still in vogue. “You don’t need a battery to read a book,” he says. “Besides, they feel good in your hands.” 

He’s not alone. Second Editions, located off the lobby of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library at 3030 Poplar Ave., is well on its way to generating over $100,000 in sales this year. Trained volunteers price the items based on condition, popularity, and genre. Customers enjoy a wide array of donated books, from mysteries to cookbooks to bibles. Most items cost around $3.

Quinn says Second Editions customers are as diverse as the books they sell: “We have everyone from professors to the homeless.” When a teenager bought a set of encyclopedias with her lunch money recently, Quinn says his hope was renewed that passionate readers like him still come in all ages. “I was so moved by her that I considered giving her the set,” he says.

Net proceeds go to the Friends of the Library, a fundraising group that supports the Memphis Public Library & Information Center. “We sell books and write checks,” says Friends president Kay Veazey.

She is thrilled at Second Editions’ success, and attributes much of it to Quinn, who earned his master’s degree while studying performance art at the University of Memphis. “Antonio has brought an artistic flair to the store and the customers seem to really appreciate it. He just seems to know what they want.”

Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, Quinn schedules public readings and tickles the ivories on the store’s piano on occasion. “I want this place to be more than a nook for bargain books,” he says. “I want Second Editions to be an oasis for book enthusiasts.”

Despite the store’s success, Quinn says it remains one of Memphis’ best-kept secrets. He cautions those who are unfamiliar with Second Editions to beware of the misconception that the store only sells bestsellers gone by. “We’ve sold copies of The Help [by Kathryn Stockard], The Shack [by William Paul Young], and the Twilight series.” He adds that they can never seem to get enough dictionaries, and encourages customers and library supporters to dust off their unwanted copies and donate them. 

“You would be surprised at how in demand they are,” he says. “We have a local etymology group that buys them as fast as we get them.” Other items on the store’s most-wanted list include classical literature (especially anthologies), titles by African-American authors, and new releases. — by Daphne Thomas

Second Editions is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more information or to volunteer, call (901) 415-2836.

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