2017 Gale/LJ Library of the Year: Nashville Public Library, TN

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(From Library Journal, By )

“In the scope of its programs, services, and collections; the incredible reach of its efforts in cooperation with other public agencies, departments, and local businesses; and its work to identify and fulfill needs of both the mainstream and marginalized people of Nashville and Davidson County, the Nashville Public Library (NPL), the Gale/LJ 2017 Library of the Year, is a model for the nation and the world.”

“NPL is a champion of diversity and inclusiveness and a literacy gladiator,” writes award judge Gina Millsap, director of the Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, KS, winner of this award in 2016. “Its culturally diverse programs and centers; its openness and hospitality that welcomes everyone, especially people who are marginalized, struggling, new to the community and this country, and its fierce determination to facilitate literacy and learning throughout the community…are inspiring.”

Education partner

NPL’s broad engagement with the local school system is unique in the United States. For example, NPL’s early reading outreach program Bringing Books to Life (BBTL) aims to elevate student third grade reading skills, one of the most important predictors of student success.

NPL educators deliver pre-K reading workshops across Nashville for teachers, parents, caregivers, and families, on weekends and evenings, in English and Spanish. Participants get supplies and tips for easy activities to incorporate reading, singing, writing, talking, and playing into their classrooms and homes.

After participating in BBTL programs, practically all—98 percent—of teachers introduce what they learned to their curricula, and almost as many—96 percent—use more literature-based lesson themes in the classroom. Over 90 percent say that children use books in classroom centers and that parents engage more often in literacy-related activities with their children. Though BBTL is only one of NPL’s educational offerings, its cumulative impact alone is impressive: since 2003, BBTL has served 139,327 children, teachers, and parents (particularly impressive as a percentage of NPL’s total service population of 678,889, comprising Nashville and the surrounding Davidson County). Last year, BBTL hosted 1,227 family workshops, teacher trainings, and story times at 152 locations.

No limits

Perhaps NPL’s most renowned educational effort is a partnership with Metro Nashville Public Schools called Limitless Libraries. Since 2009, NPL and the schools have worked to increase student access to books and technology and enable students to borrow hundreds of thousands of books, movies, and other items from NPL without leaving school. Students and teachers order NPL materials via their school libraries, and they are delivered to every Metro school every weekday.

Borrowing has increased at school libraries, and collection quality has improved since the program began. So has investment: NPL has infused nearly $7 million into school collections. NPL also brings technology to school libraries, including iPads, 3-Doodlers, 3-D printers, and hundreds of checkout laptops for homework.

Via the Limitless partnership, NPL has also injected $4 million into school library environments, transforming them into colorful, interactive learning hubs with multipurpose classrooms, reading nooks, and Maker spaces. Eight have been renovated or built new so far, and NPL will offer more collection resources and school library renovations going forward, thanks to almost $2 million donated to Limitless Libraries from private and corporate contributors through the NPL Foundation.

In 2015, the program expanded to students in grades three and up, adding another 15,000 to the Limitless Libraries roster.

“We’ll be doing more and more with collection development assistance with the school libraries and their librarians,” says Kent Oliver, who has been NPL’s director since 2012. “They have their own librarians, and we have this great collaboration with them.” This summer, NPL will bring a joint integrated library system to Metro Nashville Schools. “We’ve folded the online systems of NPL and the schools into one,” adds Oliver. “We will be managing it.”

Such deep connection is enabled by how Nashville works. “One reason it is such a good collaboration is that we are both funded through Metro. We each have our own budget, but when we overlap it is very easy to work out the funding,” says Oliver. Another reason for easy collaboration: personnel who see both sides. Stephanie Ham, a 2014 LJ Mover & Shaker who now heads the school libraries, used to be NPL’s coordinator for Limitless Libraries.

In addition, NPL will soon help increase access to its materials in the city’s growing number of charter schools, most of which do not have libraries or librarians.

Master of puppets

Many libraries have bookmobiles and techmobiles, but NPL is distinctive in having a puppetmobile. In 1938, puppeteer and later NPL staffer Tom Tichenor introduced puppetry to NPL, then went on to earn international fame on Broadway and television. He returned to his Nashville hometown to retire and gave NPL 250 of his handmade marionettes. They now travel the city in the NPL Puppet Truck. The NPL staffers include professional puppeteers who perform stories that students and children study in a BBTL workshop. Since 2003, the Puppet Truck has given performances for 300,347 children and adults.

Puppetry is a core part of storytelling at NPL, at home and on the road. Wishing Chair Productions, the library’s resident puppet troupe, performs 20 shows a week at NPL’s Children’s Theater in the Main Library—more than 400 since 2015. The ambitious “String City” puppet show relates the story of Music City’s roots. In a production that’s been described as “a love letter to Nashville,” some 80 puppets make appearances, including depictions of Minnie Pearl, Johnny Cash, Reba McEntire, Dolly Parton, and Garth Brooks.

In 2016, NPL invited an international network of puppetry artists for a free three-day festival at the Main Library. This was the fourth time NPL had brought tens of thousands of curious patrons to discover storytelling through puppetry funded entirely by the library’s foundation.

Civics and civil rights

The stories of local and national civil rights pioneers are accessible to all in Nashville, preserved and studied in the NPL Civil Rights Room and Collection, located close to where student protestors once peacefully demonstrated at segregated lunch counters. Nearly 10,000 scholars, researchers, and tourists visit the Civil Rights Room annually to study key moments of the civil rights movement through NPL’s collection of 150 oral histories, photographs, periodicals, manuscripts, news accounts, and more, gathered from people who created and witnessed the events. Etched on the wall of the room are the words of Congressman John Lewis, who was a protesting college student in Nashville: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” (Lewis returned to Nashville to receive NPL’s 2016 Literary Award for his latest graphic novel, March, which is also NPL’s selection for its 2017 citywide read.)

Yet the Civil Rights Room is much more than a monument to a past moment in history: it’s deeply embedded in the ongoing struggle. In 2015, the Metro Nashville Police Department asked Andrea Blackman, manager of the ­Library’s Special Collections, which includes the Civil Rights Room and Collection, to help educate police academy recruits about the civil rights movement.

Blackman and her team created “Civil Rights & a Civil Society,” a program in which future officers spend a day in the Civil Rights Room, learning about milestones in Nashville’s civil rights history and reflecting on how it has impacted current local law, order, and policing. They examine pertinent photographs and documents, describe their own perceptions about what they see, and compare their initial assumptions against historic facts.

In 2016, the Nissan Foundation invested in expanding “Civil Rights & a Civil Society” through the NPL Foundation. What began as training for 60 local police recruits has now reached 1,279 city, state, and federal law enforcement officers, students, and civilians. (For more on this program, see “Learning from History.”)

Creativity zone

NPL’s take on the Maker space movement is Studio NPL. There, local professionals from industry, science, technology, engineering, art, and math serve as mentors to middle and high school students in eight studios, including a flagship at the Main Library and a mobile unit.

With a grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, plus private and corporate support through the NPL Foundation, the library has engaged local teens to help design their own projects. Teen patrons learn how to record voice-overs for their films, create podcasts and public service announcements, and design and fabricate on 3-D printers. They study coding and creative writing. More than 36,000 teens have used Studio NPL and participated in 3,550 workshops. In addition to teaching teens, Studio NPL has become a learning ground for teachers, librarians, and youth workers who want to get ideas and technical literacy.

The Nashville After Zone Alliance (NAZA) is a co­ordinated network of after-school programs at schools and community sites, and students from Metro Nashville schools in grades five through eight spend their weekdays from 4–6 p.m. at these locales. They receive homework help and develop enrichment skills, everything from dance and fashion design to bicycle repair and science lab activities. They are encouraged to experience positive peer interaction, build confidence, discover new interests, and read.

Since 2010, NAZA has served more than 7,800 students. In 2014, it moved from the mayor’s office to NPL, which has integrated NAZA into its structure, expanding reading and literacy opportunities throughout NAZA. NPL makes NAZA’s public and private dollars do more by coordinating marketing, scheduling, transportation, and resource sharing for the entire network.

Adult ed

NPL’s education focus doesn’t stop at high school graduation. Its adult education efforts cover a wide spectrum of literacy topics, designed to meet real, local needs. Partnerships with like-minded organizations are a key component. Nashville’s lifelong learners visit NPL to learn how to read, read more, or read better. They come to use public computers and technology, become stronger English speakers, study U.S. civics, increase their health literacy, and gain financial skills. More than 800 adult literacy classes and workshops were offered at NPL in 2016, and nearly 7,000 adults benefitted; in three years NPL has helped to reduce a citywide waiting list for classroom space.

As with its teen Maker efforts, NPL is now a central hub for adult education practitioners as well as students. In 2016, 746 volunteer and paid adult educators attended NPL-sponsored professional development events. NPL hosts a yearly Adult Education Symposium and pre­sents an annual Adult Educator of the Year Award.

Beyond traditional, tech, and financial literacy, NPL offers free health activities and resources for better health literacy. The program operates in six branches in neighborhoods where access to health and wellness materials and services is more limited, in addition to yoga, cooking, nutrition, and fitness classes at all locations. In 2016, NPL delivered 400 health and wellness programs to more than 8,000 people with support from a three-year grant from the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health ­Foundation.

Digital literacy

More than one in ten Tennesseans have no access to the Internet and 44 percent of Metro school students have no access to a computer or online connection at home. Roughly 55,000 Nashville households need ­assistance to enter the digital age. NPL’s public computers are used nearly 800,000 times a year, in ­addition to its free Wi-Fi.

Besides providing such basic digital infra­structure, NPL launched a customized version of the national ­digitallearn.org platform, making NPL only the second library to pursue this partnership with the Public Library Association. NPL’s digital literacy team takes a mobile computer classroom across Davidson County, focusing on outreach to senior citizens, families in at-risk communities, and young adults ages 16–24. The NPL team works with partner organizations to help users navigate online tools, obtain employment, and access NPL’s e-collection. NPL is also the primary training partner in a citywide initiative called Anytime Access for All, as well as participating in the national ConnectHome enterprise. Supported in turn by corporate donors through the foundation, NPL sustains one of 16 Google Fiber/NTEN (Nonprofit Technology Network) ­Fellows.

Community voices

With NPL’s own streaming local music library, patrons can listen to talented friends and neighbors performing music that’s created locally. NPL BoomBox, filled with artists and albums from many genres, is another NPL strategy for inspiring community conversations. As bands and fans share music on social media, this initiative has also helped NPL reach younger folks.

So far Ben Swank, former drummer for Soledad Brothers and cofounder of Third Man Records, and Ann Powers, music critic and correspondent for National Public Radio, have signed on as guest curators, who review submissions from local artists and select the next additions to BoomBox. This connects patrons not only to up-and-coming musicians but also to big industry players based in town. The developer with whom NPL partnered used open source code to build BoomBox, so the project is replicable.

Music is far from the only way that NPL elevates Nashville residents’ thoughts. After the Orlando Pulse shooting, NPL turned its booth at the local Pride Fest into a conduit for the voices of local LGBTQIA people, inviting festival-goers to write messages for victims and their loved ones and to all LGBTQIA people of the past, present, and future throughout the world. People posed for photos holding their messages. For eight hours NPL ran a “Twitter takeover” of its account, tweeting the images. More than 100 attendees participated, catching the attention of Mayor Megan Barry, Congressman Jim Cooper, and others, to reach a total audience of more than 100,000 people.

Ryan Darrow, a 2017 LJ Mover & Shaker, designed the project. NPL also hosted a community survey, asking people about their concepts of identity and safe spaces.

Collecting stories on a broader theme is Truth Booth, a giant, portable, inflatable testimonial space shaped like a speech bubble operated by the Cause Collective. Guests step inside and record their responses to this statement: “The truth is….”

In 2015, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Library Association chose NPL as one of 200 sites to host the national program “­Latino Americans: 500 Years of History.” The library’s Special Collections team worked with people in Middle Tennessee to chronicle the impact Latino Americans have made in Nashville and around the country. From fall 2015 through summer 2016, NPL facilitated 36 programs for 2,079 participants of all ages and cultural backgrounds, including recording oral histories by Latinx Americans in Nashville.

Community voices also drive NPL strategic planning. The NPL 18-member Immigrant Advisory Committee (IAC) represents 12 countries and speaks more than 15 languages. It helps NPL refine its services and products better to reach Nashville’s new American community. Based on IAC recommendations, NPL created online user videos in English, Spanish, and Arabic. These videos help patrons who are not fluent in English or face other barriers to literacy become more comfortable using the library.

Invested in service

A return on investment study by the Nashville Chamber of Commerce found that for every dollar invested in NPL, $3 were returned to the city. But the metrics don’t tell the whole story. “Numbers and marketing campaigns aside, I believe the most powerful message we can send our community is by showing up and doing our work every day. This is how we tell Nashville we are invested in this city and its people,” says Oliver.

“We will continue to bring a very urgent, very tangible definition to the old adage [that] public libraries offer something for everyone. These custom-designed programs are not simply ‘nice extras’ but instead critical services to meet community needs,” Oliver adds. “Finally, NPL will carefully plan and grow its footprint, using local data about future trends in middle Tennessee and engaging our patrons and neighbors to have a voice in our future.” Given NPL’s huge progress to date, there seems little question that that bright future will come to pass.

(Read the a, and check out all the great photos of this library!)