This week I was given an article from the November 2021, Smithsonian to read. I also had a meeting with the Hall of Fame Committee for Missouri public libraries, where we discussed our 5 nominees. We were all given a nominee to research, my person was Stewart W. Smith, a long-time director for the St. Louis County Library. So, yes, this week this librarian actually did read at her job. I read about a library in Memphis and a librarian in St. Louis.
Let’s start with the St. Louis County Librarian, why, because Smith was director in 1946. The St. Louis County Library system was voted into existence the same year that we were, 1946. Our library technically started in a better position than the STL library, really? Yep. We already had a city library and a building to boot. STL had no books, no building, a delayed budget and actually had 2 ballot initiatives aimed at destroying the recently passed levy that formed the library. Smith is a nominee for the hall of fame because he was a rockstar librarian.
Smith did not bow his head down, he plowed straight forward, through a bleak start and outright opposition. He built a fleet of bookmobiles and by 1951 converted a former Dodge dealership into the system’s first library. You know what happens when you plow forward, you prove your worth. By 1955, after 2 initiatives to end the county library system, support grew and a five year “special building tax” was approved to construct 4 additional branches. Yep, rockstar.
1955 the tax was approved and by 1958 two new branches opened. In a postwar era, Smith recognized the need for new libraries for a new America. “I’m not interested in reaching the double-domed intellectual. He knows where the library is anyway. I want to reach Joe Doakes, fresh from the hills, who doesn’t realize how much the library can change his life.”
Now, let’s go forward to Memphis. In 2008, Keenon McCloy was appointed director of the Memphis Public Library system. She was not a librarian. It was not well received, employees quit, she was denounced publicly and the Tennessee Library Board even condemned the mayor for appointing her. Guess what, she also plowed straight forward and has more than proven her worth.
She also realized the need for new libraries in a new America. If you visit one of the Memphis branches you might hear some unexpected sounds, “the deep, quaking bass beats of Memphis hip-hop, plus a faint whine of power tools cutting through metal.” Smith was cutting edge for his time, with libraries that were “light-filled and colorful, with curving bookshelves, modern furnishings, and playful section titles. Patrons could talk freely, smoke, and even bring their dogs to browse through books, records and films to the reassuring hum of soft background music.” Patrons in Memphis might not be smoking in their branches, but instead of just checking out records or films, they are actually creating them in the library’s professional-quality studio, Cloud 901.
New libraries for a new America, more like current libraries for a current America. Libraries are always changing, always trying to stay current and find ways to better serve our communities. We are no different, we have huge plans for the next five years.
18-year-old, Janay Kelley is a patron of the Memphis Library System. She is also a 2-time Grand Jury Prize winner of the Indie Memphis Youth Film Fest. Both of her films were shot and edited using equipment from Cloud901. Yep, we have huge plans, plans that might help a Morgan County kid find their voice, their passion, their direction in life.
Upcoming Events: 4/20 Story Time at 10am, Little House Reading Challenge continues.