Louisville Library Celebrates Centennial

by ekramer on July 24, 2008

Louisville’s Free Public Library opened its doors 100 years ago today.  WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer reports on how our expectations of the library have changed.

“Where are baby’s eyes? Look, they’re open wide. Can you see those peepers peek, peering side to side,” says librarian Catherine Braganza reading to a group of toddlers during “story time’ at the public library’s main branch.

Sheila Portillo has driven downtown from Middletown for this reading, as she does most weeks with her two children. She appreciates the books and the atmosphere at the library.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Portillo says. “It exposes them to other kids who are here. They get to hear stories in different voices. With the toys, they get to come and play also.”

This isn’t a scene that you would have found in this building 100 years ago when the library opened  Library director Craig Buthod explains.

“There was a big debate before opening this library whether or not to allow children in the door,” Buthod says. “That’s not the way we think of libraries today children in the library was not commonplace.”

In 1908, the local newspaper’s headline read “Books to Read for Everybody.” But that wasn’t exactly true. Back then most of the stacks were stored in an area off limits to the public. Children were relegated to a remote upstairs room. And African Americans weren’t allowed in until 1948.

That was true of many other libraries built during this time throughout the country. Carol Sheffer is president of the Public Library Association.

“A lot of buildings were built to be beautiful edifices and nobody worried too much about how the space was used,” Sheffer says. “Now, we worry a lot more about how we can make it friendly to people of all ages: kids, senior citizens, people with disabilities, new Americans.”

Today, activities for all segments of the city are woven into how the Louisville Free Public Library sees its mission.

Meanwhile, the library has seen other changes over a century, including some reconstruction after the 1937 flood and a fire in 1999. It has had to be wired for electricity, outfitted for computers and even enlarged in 1969. In recent years, it has sought more funding for the entire system, including updating the main branch. Last fall, the county rejected a referendum on a tax to fund the library.

Library Director Buthod says the 1908 building has been wired but the space has hardly been touched in the past century. That has limited it in meeting the demands of the newest technology and the community, which wants more areas for group learning activities.

“How do we convert spaces for the use of the public like allow more browsing, more access to collections and allow more study space?” he says. “We need more space where people can study together in small groups or in large groups. We need a couple more classrooms. We’re seeing more and more classroom visits to the library.”

While Buthod says some adaptations to this space are in his strategic plan for the library system, he declines to give any details. He has until the end of the year to present that plan to Metro Council.

After 100 years of service, the main library branch welcomes about 750,000 visitors each year.

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