More than book learning: The Kalamazoo Public Library has had answers for 150 years

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Take a good look at the fanciful reading room on the ground floor of the Kalamazoo Public Library’s main branch at Rose and South streets in downtown Kalamazoo.
The place for countless readings of fables about dragons, brave adventurers, and stories that are larger than life, it is a quiet, ongoing hallmark of the library’s 150-year history.
Farrell Howe, marketing manager for Kalamazoo Public LibrariesIn 1884, the Kalamazoo Public Library was one of the first libraries in the nation to have a room designated for children. That went hand-in-hand with one of the information center’s original priorities – promoting early childhood literacy.
“We were one of only a handful of libraries across the nation to specifically provide a place for children to read, have access to books, and play,” says Farrell Howe, marketing and communications manager for the library.
The library is still dedicated to providing early childhood literacy opportunities through things such as its Ready to Read initiative, she says. And that is part of its larger mission today -- which is to lead a stronger community through literacy, learning, and innovation.
As the library system approaches its 150th anniversary in October, it continues to be the repository of historic and periodic information on our community and the world, through its downtown location and four branches. We thought we’d take this occasion to ask for more information … about the library itself. Howe, who has been with the library since January of 2013, generously obliged:
With a focus on early childhood literacy, the Kalamazoo Public Library grew quickly from a place with a few shelves of books to an institution with five buildings.Question: Technology has changed the way we do so many things. And fewer people seem to sit down to read anything that is hardbound. The library continues to have thousands of books, recordings, and other materials to lend. Do people continue to adequately take advantage of those things? 
Answer: “Absolutely, according to our circulation statistics, that are similar to other libraries across the country, physical books remain more popular. On average, our circulation is roughly 75 percent physical materials vs. 25 percent digital. We did see a large spike in digital consumption during the pandemic when we were closed for in-person usage, which we expected to see, but once the library reopened, we saw the swing back to physical materials grow rapidly. One area we do see a decline in usage is physical videos and CDs. Usage of our digital platforms such as Hoopla continue to grow as people are streaming more content on their handheld devices. Anecdotally, when asked about what they prefer, we have heard patrons say, “I just love the feel of a book in my hands! You don’t get that with your phone.”
Q: How has the library remained relevant in an age where information is at everyone’s fingertips -- readily accessed by cell phone or computer?
A: “This is a very common question we receive. Yes, information is readily available on the internet. But is it accurate? Is it biased? Is it current? Has it been vetted? Most often, the answer is ‘No.’ But with libraries, the answer to this question is ‘Yes,’ because the work is being done by trained librarians, people – not algorithms. There is a reason why studies show that librarians and libraries remain one of the most trusted institutions. Also, not everyone has easy access to the tools needed to use digital content, and those that don’t have those tools rely on public libraries to provide them that access, and they rely on the library staff to assist them in using it, as well as helping them find the correct information they are looking for.”
When a librarian doesn’t know an answer, they tell you, “Let me do some research and I will get back to you.” And they do.
Books remain popular. About 75 percent of the circulation at the Kalamazoo Public Library is physical materials vs. 25 percent digital. A youngster is shown poring over comic books at the Central library.Q: The library seems to try to be a leader in its programming for racial justice and equity. Can you articulate its stance? And is that an ongoing effort? 
Kalamazoo Public Library Director Ryan Wieber is set to take listeners back to what it was like to live in Kalamazoo in the 1870s and explore the role the library played in the lives of residents then in a Dec. 1 program at the Central Library.A: “Our director, Ryan Wieber, phrased this best: ‘Kalamazoo Public Library’s commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) started years ago through employee-led change and has grown to be an integral part of the KPL culture. It’s key to our core values, and strategic priorities, and is reflected in how we aspire to treat one another, and how we strive to serve our community. Our DEI journey is far from finished, but we are on a pathway driven by the need to do right, and to lead with a desire to be more equitable, inclusive, and diverse in all we do —inwardly and outward-facing. Leadership at KPL recognizes that social inequities exist within the library and the community and that it creates an unlevel playing field within the organization and for the residents we serve. KPL commits to increasing diversity, elevating equity, and intentionally making efforts through inclusive policies and practices to create a genuine and stronger sense of belonging for everyone.”
Howe says, “We are truly committed to DEI. We established a DEI Strategic Plan recently and we are working hard to meet the commitments we made through that plan. We are also holding ourselves accountable to ensure that we do meet those commitments. You can learn more about our efforts on our website.”
Q: Is there a mission statement or vision that guides your programming?
A: “The goal of our events is to ensure that everyone in our community has an opportunity to engage with the library through fun, educational and interactive programming. We offer something for everyone and we ensure that our events are as equitable as possible by running them through a process we call a Racial Equity Assessment (REA). This is designed to make sure that the events we host address any barriers to access to the best of our ability. We also use the REA to assess our services and policies.”
The Kalamazoo Public Library became the first of 10 public libraries in the United States to establish a children’s services department. It was second in the state of Michigan after Detroit, in 1849.Q: The library is an educational safety net for those who don’t have technology at home. Is there a plan to upgrade your facilities?
A: “KPL upgrades our public computers every four years and we also offer the latest digital, audio, and visual software available. While the Idea Lab currently lives at our Central location, many of the digital services it provides have been extended to our branches and we are continuing our focus to ensure that all of our locations provide opportunities for our patrons to access the latest technology available, especially software that is typically too expensive for many to afford, such as Adobe Creative Suites. We also offer hotspots and other technology through our Library of Things.  As far as our facilities, we will be conducting a space needs study in late winter/early spring to determine what improvements can be made to meet the needs and wants of our community.”
 Q: The library has also been a place where anyone can come to spend time, including those who are unhoused or homeless. Is there anything new on how the library is trying to help or serve that population? 
A: “This is an excellent question and one I am VERY proud to respond to. We are well aware that the library is one of the few public buildings in our community that the unhoused feel safe entering. We are proud of that and we are committed to meeting the needs of our unhoused patrons to the best of our ability.
“In 2018, KPL made the decision to meet our patrons where they are at currently in their lives by offering a peer navigator service that connects patrons to resources they need to succeed. We partnered with The Recovery Institute of Southwest Michigan, a nonprofit that offers peer support to people who have mental health and/or substance abuse issues and can relate to our patrons with similar needs. At the time of its inception, KPL was one of only four other cities nationwide with programs like this one, but it is a growing trend. Most recently, KPL partnered with WMU social work program to utilize the skills of Master’s level social work interns to help develop social service resources to both patrons and our staff. You can learn more about these efforts on our website.”
In 1884, the Kalamazoo Public Library was one of the first libraries in the nation to have a room designated for children. It went hand-in-hand with one of the library’s original priorities – promoting early childhood literacy.Q: What is the library doing (in terms of ongoing services) that people don’t know about? 
A: “Ooooh, the list is long and wonderful. Yes, the general public knows that we offer books, movies and music, and fun programs. But they may not know that we also:
• Have specialized databases that can teach you everything from how to cross stitch (CreativeBug) or to fix your car (AutoMate), learn a new language (Rocket Languages), research your family tree (Ancestry Library), get professional development (LinkedIn Learning), and many more. We also recently purchased the Kalamazoo Gazette Archives database which will be available to our patrons very soon. Our staff is currently training on how to use it.
• House the Kalamazoo County Law Library at our Central location that has a robust collection of law books, as well as provides free legal advice for those who qualify with the Ask a Lawyer Family Clinic program, a partnership with Kalamazoo County Bar Association.
• Have one of the most robust Local History and Genealogy collections where anyone in the community can access historical documents, photos, obituaries, and so much more. If you have seen beautiful historic photos of Kalamazoo hanging in a local restaurant or bar, chances are, they came from the Kalamazoo Public Library.
• Have an outstanding makers space area called Idea Lab where patrons have access to some of the latest technology and software such as 3D printers, Adobe Creative Cloud, XP-Pen drawing tablets, Gretsch guitars, Logic Pro, and so much more! We also offer programming opportunities for the public to learn how to use this technology. We are always researching and staying on top of the latest technology so that we can make it available to our patrons.
• Offer support for nonprofits in Kalamazoo and those who wish to start a nonprofit via our ONEplace @KPL service. Not only do they offer expert advice but they also provide free and open-to-the-public workshops on professional and personal development covering a variety of topics such as grant writing, board, and staff development, DEI, marketing, fundraising, and much more! They also host several online courses per month that are VERY well attended!
• Offer programs for all ages, and they are free and open to the public, regardless if you have a library card or not.
• Have a Library of Things. Have you heard about our Library of Things? Did you know you could check out a power washer, a tent, cake pans, a radon detector, or a car diagnostics scanner from your local library? If you haven’t checked out our Library of Things (available at all of the library locations) then you are missing out.
• Have a beautiful new Mobile Library. It’s not your mother’s bookmobile. Nope, this baby is a mobile hotspot, has pop-up programming, and of course, materials you can check out. You can also get your library card while you visit. Check out our slick video on our Mobile Library.
Howe says, “I could go on. But you’re writing an article, not a book.”

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Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.