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A New Chapter

After 150 years, the Kalamazoo Public Library isn’t going just by the book

From its beginnings as a school library that was open just one hour a week to a showplace deemed “Library of the Year” in 2002 by Library Journal, the Kalamazoo Public Library has evolved in its 150 years in ways most people might not expect .

The library system, which has four branches in addition to the Central Library, is no longer just a home for books. It has become a “marketplaces of ideas, the community’s living room,” like many libraries across the globe, as reported in a July episode of CBS Sunday Morning. That episode featured libraries across the country that have added features like cafés, sewing rooms, podcasting booths and augmented reality equipment, and KPL is in right in step with the changing face of public libraries.

At the Central Library, KPL patrons today can borrow a rug shampooer or a karaoke machine from its Library of Things, convert VHS tapes to DVDs or cassette tapes to CDs through Local History Room digitization stations, and design and print a 3-D sculpture in the Idea Lab.

As KPL Marketing and Communications Manager Farrell Howe provides a tour of the Idea Lab, she rattles off an impressive roster of capabilities there, including equipment and software for graphic design, video and audio recording and editing, podcasting, scrapbooking, music making and more.

“We’re proud of the resources we have that our community can’t find anywhere else,” Howe says, adding that most of the KPL branches will add similar maker spaces in the future. “We are committed to keeping up with the technology that patrons want.”

And even as the library embarks on its sesquicentennial celebrations this fall with an array of birthday events that will include lots of history to explore with digital kiosks, life-sized displays and excited staff, it does so with its eyes firmly focused on its future — a future it will ask the community to weigh in on.

“We believe there will always be a need for public libraries, but what they become depends on what the community needs and wants,” says KPL Director Ryan Wieber. “We will ask our patrons how they use the library now and what they’d like to see — even the kids. We want to know, ‘What does a library — your library — look like in 10, 20, 30 or 150 more years?’”

Weiber — the most recent of just 10 directors in the library’s 150-year history, two of whom served at the helm more than 30 years — has led the institution since 2017 and says the library will be holding listening sessions throughout the community to inform its planning for the future. The library will then engage architecture and planning professionals to develop a space-needs study that includes that input.

Where it all began

The origins of KPL date back to 1860, when the local school district was given 123 volumes and opened a tiny library for an hour each week for students. The library moved into a single room in Corporation Hall on South Burdick Street in 1868, sharing the building with Kalamazoo village offices, the fire department and the Ladies’ Library Association.

Growing during the Civil War years to 2,800 volumes, the school library became a public library in October 1872, and in 1885 moved its 12,000 volumes to rooms above what was then Wortley’s Jewelry Store, at 121 W. Main St. (now Michigan Avenue). The downtown library expanded and relocated several times, beginning its current residency at the southeast corner of Rose and South streets with its first new building in 1893. After a favorable millage vote in 1955, the library’s second new building was constructed at 315 S. Rose St. to replace the first. During construction, staff and books were temporarily moved to the former Grace Corset Co. building at the corner of Eleanor and Church streets until the new library was completed in 1959.

Thirty-seven years later, in 1996, the Central Library again moved to temporary quarters (at 121 W. South St.) to make way for a major renovation. Today’s dramatic building, with its four-story circular atrium, opened in 1998 after a comprehensive upgrade expanded the building to 98,000 square feet, providing 75 percent more space, including a new third floor.

Starting in 1910 with facilities on Portage Street and East Avenue, KPL has also served Kalamazoo neighborhoods with branch libraries. Today it serves a district of 124,000 residents from its Eastwood, Powell, Oshtemo and Washington Square branches and the Central Library.
KPL employs more than 180 full- and part-time staff and has an annual budget of just over $13.6 million that is supported by two millages, which cost property owners $388 for every $100,000 of their home’s assessed value.

“We so appreciate the community’s appreciation for the library, not just today but historically, always approving our millage votes,” says Wieber. “It’s clear that people are proud of their library system here.”
A space for everyone

Nationwide, library visits declined 21 percent between 2009 and 2019, but borrowing increased by more than 50 percent — much of it moving online as libraries expanded their collections of digital material. Although book lending is still KPL’s top activity, the library has become a place to access much more than books. It’s a meeting place, a making place, a place for technology and, often, a place to get assistance with life’s challenges, says Wieber. A pillar of KPL’s strategic plan is to advance equity and inclusion in its service to Kalamazoo’s diverse community, so KPL is one of the first libraries in the region to offer a peer navigator, who works 30 hours a week to help to connect those in need with social assistance.

“We are a welcoming place, and we take seriously providing services in an equitable way,” Wieber says.
Adds Howe, “We are known as a place people can find services if they are unhoused, have issues with addiction or need other kinds of help. They feel safe when they walk in these doors — and that’s something to be proud of.”

Howe recalls that in the first year of the Peer Navigator program, a patron came in with a motorized wheelchair that had quit working.

“He couldn’t do anything without that chair. Our peer navigator got on the phone and found him a new chair the same day, at no cost,” she says.

A library for families

In 2008, KPL was named a Family Place Library by the Family Place Libraries Initiative. The designation acknowledged the library’s intentionally designed environments for children to play, learn and grow. Core components in winning the designation include the library’s collections that offer early literacy kits, toys, music and multimedia materials for babies and toddlers; outreach to new and underserved families; and partnerships with public service agencies to connect parents and resources. The accolade was not a surprise, given that KPL was among the first libraries in the country to both establish a children’s reading room (which it did in 1894) and formally hire a trained children’s librarian (the first one came on board in 1910). Some days the children’s spaces are the busiest in the building, says Howe.

All the things you can do in 2022 at the Kalamazoo Public Library

• Borrow lots of things from the Library of Things, which has more than 125 items, including karaoke machines, power tools, board games, a steel drum, an air fryer and an air pollution monitor.

• Sharpen your leadership skills at the ONEPlace nonprofit resource center.

• Find out something you need to know at the Law Library.

• Get funding to study library science through the library’s Amanda Green Scholarship.

• Find help for you or a friend through the library’s Peer Navigation program.

• Play the latest video games in the library (games and consoles cannot be checked out).

• Reformat your old VHS and audio cassettes onto DVD and CD in the Digitization Lab.

• Scan old photos and slides, clean them up in Photoshop and save them in a digital format in the Local History Room.

• Make things happen in the Idea Lab using:
– A 3-D printer with FormLabs software
– Cricut scrapbooking
– Snapmaker 3-1 (laser engraver, 3D printer and CNC mill)
– The Video Lab with Final Cut Pro, Camtasia screen recorder and video editor, and Animaker: DIY animation software
– Graphic design software Adobe Creative Cloud (Photoshop, Lightroom, Adobe Premiere, and more), and Wacom drawing tablets
– The Audio Lab with Arturia music keyboards, Gretsch electric guitar and bass, Yeti microphones, and GarageBand and Logic Pro software

“It’s very cool to watch families engage with different play stations and help them learn how their child’s brain develops at different stages and ages,” she says. “The benefits of reading, talking and playing with your child all positively affect their brain growth.”

Another aspect of the library’s commitment to children and families is its OneCard partnership with Kalamazoo Public Schools, which gives access to public library services to KPS faculty, staff and students, including the more than 700 KPS students experiencing housing instability. Middle- and high-schoolers use their school student IDs, while elementary students receive a KPL library card, most when they enter first grade.

Looking back and ahead

David DeVries, KPL’s reference and local history librarian, has seen decades of change inside and outside of the Kalamazoo Public Library. He is KPL’s longest-serving employee, at 53 years. He began at the library with an after-school job at 16. During his career at the library, he also studied at Western Michigan University, acquiring two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree.

“It was so interesting at that time to engage with staff who had been here since the 1920s or ’30s,” says DeVries, who began working at KPL in 1969. “I didn’t expect to stay, but I loved it so much. I’ve loved working with the public.”

Step Back in History Open House

Where: Central Library, 315 S. Rose St.

When: 5­–7 p.m. Oct. 7, during Art Hop

What: Enjoy refreshments, including sparkling punch, Pop City popcorn and birthday cake pops from Layla’s Cool Pops, while viewing life-size photo enlargements of past KPL buildings and interiors, interactive history kiosks, a video compilation of KPL history and a digitized copy of the original handwritten library catalog and listening to music by the Sweetbriar Sisters ukulele trio and the Mall City Harmonizers barbershop chorus. A birthday toast with the director and staff is set for 6 p.m.

Note: The library will close at 4 p.m. to prepare for the event, reopening at 5 p.m.

October Library Celebrations

Oct. 20: Building a Public Library in Kalamazoo 1893, talk by Digital Preservation Specialist Keith Howard, 6–7:30 p.m., Kalamazoo Public Library, 315 S. Rose St.

Oct. 25: Our Shared History, an ArtBreak presentation by KPL audiovisual librarian and historian Ryan Gage and Kalamazoo Institute of Arts staff, noon, KIA, 314 S. Park St.

When asked how he’s felt about the ever-changing technology landscape, DeVries is honest.

“The advent of technology was threatening at first,” he says. “We wondered if we’d still have jobs, but it has been our friend in the circulation department and in reference — the web has changed everything,”

He notes that he still owns an electric typewriter on which he types envelopes and such. “A young coworker was surprised I had one. I said, ‘At least it isn’t a manual,’ and he said, ‘What’s that?’”

DeVries himself is one of the library’s best resources, says Wieber. “Whether it came naturally or through years of work and learning, David has a near-photographic memory of subjects, events, people, addresses, homes. He is an excellent resource for us and the community. Just engaging in a conversation with David will lead to some story or fact from years ago that you didn’t know.”

Like DeVries, Wieber says the library is just brimming with history and stories and he is full of anticipation for the 150th anniversary celebration and the years to come.

“We are so excited to share our story,” he says. “For 150 years we have stood out in terms of providing innovative ideas, great collections, and we are glad to have the chance to brag a little about what we’ve done and what we’re doing to deliver awesome library service in the future.”

DeVries concludes, “What makes a great library system is not the collections or the buildings; it’s the people who work here, who love what they do.”

Katie Houston

Katie Houston is a Kalamazoo-based writer, communications coach, and marketing consultant.

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