A new chapter: Cleveland Public Library prepares for the next 150 years

1869 feels like a really long time ago.

Ulysses S. Grant presided over our country; the Cincinnati Red Stockings took the field as the nation’s first pro baseball team; Jesse James committed his first confirmed bank robbery; and the entire nation was knee-deep in the Reconstruction era after the Civil War tore apart our national fabric.

In 1925, the Public Catalog Room was located south west of the main entrance lobby. It was lined with 3,451 drawers filled with a million and a half cards.

Here in Cleveland—tucked into an 80-foot by 20-foot room on the third floor of the Northup and Harrington Block building located at West Third Street and Superior Avenue—5,800 books were made available to the public in what was then known as the Public School Library (previously available only to those in the school system).

Fast forward 150 years, make over the moniker, build 27 more branches, and add 10.5 million additional resources to reveal the sprawling entity now known as the Cleveland Public Library (CPL)—a community gem that has survived an ever-changing world to stand strong as a vital Cleveland institution.

Throughout 2019, Cleveland will mark the library’s sesquicentennial milestone with CPL150, a yearlong celebration with an array of events. Along with CPL150, CPL is embarking on an ambitious revitalization project to ensure the library shines for another 150 years—having already made improvements to nine branches in the last year and more in the works.

“We are going to make a major financial commitment to touch every one of our libraries,” Felton Thomas, Jr., executive director and CEO of CPL, told attendees at the “State of the Library” event held at the City Club of Cleveland last Wednesday, February 27. “We aesthetically will change the experience and environment in every one of our branches.”

Felton Thomas, Jr.At the City Club event, Thomas, Jr. also made the momentous announcement that CPL will now be fine-free.

“We want to remove barriers and not block people from accessing the library,” he told the City Club audience. “We want to connect people to knowledge and ideas, not stand in their way. This important step will help us do our everyday work of fostering learning experiences, sparking curiosity, making connections, and building skills every day for our Greater Clevelanders. “

Paving the way for 150 more years

Though sweeping changes are underway for CPL, the groundwork has already been laid in recent years for change and innovation.

Mini-Maker FaireFor instance, 2011 marked the debut of the Sports Research Center, while 2013 saw the addition of the high-tech MakerSpace (empowering patrons to create, design, and fabricate items to turn their ideas into reality). Also debuting in 2013 was the Cleveland Digital Public Library (CDPL), a new space offering scanning equipment to assist users in digitally preserving everything from maps to photographs.

In deciding what’s next, CPL sought community-specific input from the neighbors adjacent to its 27 branches. To best assess public interest, CPL engaged Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative and Enlightenment Consulting Group to create a Community Vision Plan. The planning examined the physical needs of the branches and entailed a series of dialogues with various communities and library patrons.

“The goal was to get a greater understanding of the needs of the neighborhoods we serve and to maintain a just library system,” says Timothy Diamond, CPL’s Chief Information Officer. “The key was to look at these projects not in isolation, but in conjunction with other neighborhood projects so that we can achieve better alignment.”

Resulting changes to various branches will range from dramatic redesigns to changes not easily seen by casual passersby. On one end of the spectrum, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Branch on Stokes Blvd will undergo a historic $10 million transformation that will include a multiuse space called the “table of brotherhood” (inspired by Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech), a living wall, and a virtual garden.

Carnegie West branchOn the other end sits branches like Carnegie West in Ohio City, the exterior of which the community is very protective.

“The public is quick to tell you to lay off when they already love a building,” says Thomas, Jr. “For the Carnegie West branch, we heard, ‘It’s such a beautiful building. Don’t change it! It doesn’t need anything! But maybe you could do something about the basement that is in disarray?’”

Community intel was collected and funneled into a 10-year Facilities Master Plan, which currently sits before the CPL’s board of trustees. Once approved (sometime in the next few months), the library will announce specifics on how the branches are being reimagined to prepare for the next 150 years—taking care to improve aesthetics and accessibility while staying committed to history and character.

“Though we can’t announce anything quite just yet, the scope of the planned upgrades will set the stage for the future of the library,” says Diamond.

Main branch downtownVisitors to the Lorain, Glenville, Jefferson, Harvard-Lee, Carnegie West, Addison, Fulton, Langston Hughes, and Collinwood branches are already seeing the promise of what’s ahead. Throughout 2018, all nine branches experienced interruptions in service to accomodate high-priority maintenance work (including electrical, plumbing, roofing, lighting, and various other improvements to bring these buildings up to ADA accessibility requirements).

This initial phase of the capital improvement plan—funded by a publicly renewed and increased levy in 2018—ended when the Collinwood branch reopened its doors at the end of December. December also marked the reopening of the historic South Branch after years of restoration efforts, affording the "nearly 110-year-old library all the amenities of a 21st-century library,” as manager Jaime Declet put it.

Tying together the past and present 

Though CPL’s branches are shape-shifting, one thing is sure to remain the same—the imprint of those who’ve helped shape them into a renowned Cleveland resource. From the mid-1800s to today, many forward thinkers have played a vital part in CPL’s growth.

“[With CPL150], our goal is to celebrate not just the library, but also the stories of those who have made it the ‘people’s university,’” says Thomas, Jr.

Cleveland Main Library, First Floor - 1929 Artifacts of these famed stories remain on full display across the city. The Carnegie West Branch features a portrait of Helen Horvath, a renowned social activist who used the CPL as a space to support the experiences of foreign-born residents of Cleveland (especially those of Hungarian descent, around World War I, whose artifacts and culture she fought to preserve).

Multiple books in the CPL’s catalogue bear the name of Eleanor Ledbetter, a branch librarian appointed in 1910 who valiantly and tirelessly used her role to advocate for multiculturalism when society was applying pressure to only value Americanism.

Even our access to the shelves themselves is a direct result of the work of William Howard Brett and Linda Anne Eastman, former CPL directors in the early 1900s. Brett and Eastman were responsible for opening the shelves to the public—helping to change the dynamic between staff and visitors from the purely transactional nature of fetching books to more transformational connections of empowering the search for information.

A yearlong array of CPL150 events will pay homage to the collective CPL legacy, including “The World of Puppets: From Stage to Screen” exhibit opening Saturday, March 23, in the main library’s Brett Hall; and weekly "Summer Lit League" programming for children from birth to age 18 at all branches throughout the month of July.

In keeping with the “People’s University” theme, there will also be several various people-centered exhibits—including one focused on former CPL staff writings and portraits; another on the legacy of former CPL board of trustees president John G. White; and a special Women’s History Month collaboration with the International Women’s Air & Space Museum to share the untold story of the Mercury 13 female astronauts training program in the 1960s.

IAt the cornerstone-laying event, the main address was given by the former prime minister of Great Britain, David Lloyd George. Mayor Fred Kohler and Cleveland lawyer Newton D. Baker were also part of the dedication ceremonies.n July, the celebration will literally bring traffic to a halt.

“We’ll be shutting down the street downtown on July 27,” explains Tana Peckham, CPL’s chief marketing and communications officer. “The CPL150 Street Festival will feature family-friendly fun and shuttle buses to get all of our patrons to join us.”

On Monday, January 20, 2020, the yearlong slate of events will come to an inspiring conclusion with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemorative Ceremony, honoring 150 Clevelanders who make a difference in their own neighborhoods, families, or libraries.

This event will provide a fitting capstone to celebrate an institution that has enriched the lives of so many over the past 150 years. In 2019, as it was way back in 1869, the stories of Clevelanders remain just as compelling and vital as any found within the stacks of Cleveland Public Library.

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