Library Life

Fans of reggae music in Kansas City know the name "Sista G" like their favorite Royals player or barbecue joint. She's the host of KKFI 90.1 FM's Sunset Reggae - at 16 years and change, the city's longest-running reggae radio show. But what many fans of her Sunday-night show don't realize is that when she's not spinning cool island sounds, this Sista is working with teens at the Southeast Branch of the Kansas City Public Library.

She may have dreadlocks, but Gabi Otto (as she's known around these parts), hails from a part of the world known more for producing Riesling wine than Rastafarianism. Raised on her family's farm near Frankfurt in Michelsbach, Germany, Otto grew up milking cows, growing vegetables, and reading books from the only library in town, which was inside a Catholic church.

"Library books lead many lives," says Kevin Craig. As a Library volunteer in the Collection Maintenance department, he would know. He sorts countless books, shelving and reshelving, shuffling in new purchases, finding misplaced volumes, and plucking out worn-out ones for the Friends of the Library book sales. Without workers like Craig, the Library couldn't function.

For the past two years, Craig has moved hundreds of thousands of books from the sorting department of Collection Management Services on B2 at the Central Library to the stacks on the upper floors and back again. He works four hours a day, five days a week, shelving as many as 500 books a day.

"I don't think there's enough you can say about his value," says Dee Sharp, a Library aide who is Craig's colleague in sorting. "I don't know how we would've made it the past two years without him."

But before the Library depended on him, Craig depended on the Library.

Until a car accident a few years ago turned his life upside down, Craig had worked for 12 years as an executive searcher or "headhunter," recruiting IT consultants who raked in salaries in the middle six figures.

LeVar Burton – yes, the LeVar Burton – paid a special visit to our Central Children’s Library this past Friday to read to a group of kids from the Derrick Thomas Academy. It was like an episode of Reading Rainbow come to life. But you don’t have to take our word for it! Follow the “Read More” link to see a video of LeVar in the Library with friends, including local author and musician Shane Evans.

Known to generations of book lovers as the host of Reading Rainbow, LeVar Burton is coming to the Kansas City Public Library. And we’re offering our followers on Twitter and fans on Facebook the opportunity to meet him in person! Find out how you can enter our contest for a chance to visit with the Emmy-winning actor and director simply by sharing your love of reading.

Sometimes at the Library, our best ideas come from patrons. When I.H. Ruiz Branch regular Keishla Collins saw a need for more programs for teenage girls, she spoke up. Now every month, a group of around 20 girls and women meet to talk about books and take part in fun, beneficial activities. But stay back, fellas - this here's the Girls' Night Out Book Group.

Though she's currently studying to become a licensed practical nurse (LPN), Collins is no stranger to book groups - or to libraries. A resident of Kansas City's Westside neighborhood and mother of two, Collins began frequenting the Library when she decided to go back to school.

"I was getting videos on algebra and GED books to brush up on reading, writing, and math," Collins says. "And Julie [Robinson, Ruiz Branch manager] was a big, big help to me. Whatever I needed, I went to her, and we looked it up. And when I went to take the test, I passed it. I owe her so much."

At 4:30 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, February 2, 2011, most people in Kansas City were snuggled up warm in their homes. Jerry Houchins was in his office on B1 of the Central Library, watching the weather on Fox 4 news. By 5 a.m., he was on the sidewalks of 10th & Baltimore, cleaning up after a blizzard that dumped 8-12 inches of snow across the city, with drifts up to two feet tall.

Houchins, the Library's operations manager, had slept in his office overnight. The Library had closed early the day before, at 1 p.m. By the time he had completed the myriad tasks that come with closing early (changing the maglocks, turning out the lights, updating the phone hotline, and so forth), the blizzard was raging.

He figured it was safer to spread out some couch cushions from the staff break room than attempt to drive to his home in Smithville, Missouri. (Noticing his situation, Deputy Director of Branches Dorothy Elliott and her husband, Mitch, delivered Houchins a "care package" that included home-cooked chili.)

Early mornings and physical labor are par for the course in Facilities department at the Kansas City Public Library. For a crew that's appointed with keeping patrons and employees safe in all kinds of weather, last week's blizzard was, in many ways, just another day at work.

Jordan Fields likes to teach, but she didn't want to be a full-time teacher. So she became a librarian. Now as the Library's digital projects manager, she is the main architect of two different online repositories of information that, when complete, will educate people about the Kansas City region's past and present.

It all started five years ago, in Miami. After graduating from Indiana University with a degree in comparative literature, Fields took an appointment with Teach for America, teaching English to teenagers from low-income communities in Miami.

While there, she began to see the deleterious effects of information illiteracy, not just in her students, but in their parents, too.

"Their parents didn't understand how to work the systems - mortgages, health care, taxes, applying for colleges," she says. "It was a chronic lack of education."

Public libraries, she realized, were the best hope for people with limited financial means to learn essential life skills.

"I feel passionately that we should have an educated public, and a lot of that is giving people access to information," she says.

It wasn't a straight shot from there to librarianhood, though. After her tenure at Teach for America ended, Fields took six months off, moved to Kansas City, and considered her options.

It’s a Friday night at the Plaza Branch, and magic is in the air in the library’s teen section – in more ways than one. A dozen or so young patrons gather around tables, swapping cards and invoking the names of otherworldly beings: Alien Telepath, Phyrexian Marauder, Fist of Ironwood.

The strange terminology of the card games Magic: The Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh might be perplexing to outsiders, but Teen Associate Kathy Meier is right at home.

“Kathy, what do you think’ll happen if I go against Chris’s Sliver Deck?” asks 11-year-old patron Fielding.

“You will die,” Meier says, then laughs. (Fielding – who knew the answer without asking – smiles, and his opponent, Chris, 18, responds with an impish chuckle.)

Meier’s Card Classics gaming time begins each Friday at 5 p.m., and teens and tweens come out in force to play and trade cards.

“I come here every Friday night,” says 18-year-old Dennis. This Yu-Gi-Oh enthusiast has played in tournaments as far away as Springfield, Missouri, but the Plaza Branch is his favorite haunt.  “This is my lifestyle – it’s what I do,” he says.

Kids Cafe photo

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving last year, the L.H. Bluford Branch had an impromptu Turkey Day feast. “It was crazy. Kids just kept coming in droves,” remembers Mary Olive Thompson, assistant branch manager and children’s librarian at Bluford. “It really felt like Thanksgiving.”

Thompson isn’t sure why a whopping 55 kids turned up to eat the rather un-Thanksgiving-y meal of chef salads that day at Bluford. She’s just glad they came – and that they keep coming.

Every Monday through Thursday at the Bluford and Southeast Branches and every Monday through Wednesday at Central, Kids Café is open for business.

A national program offered locally by Harvesters Community Food Network in partnership with agencies (including the Kansas City Public Library) that provide services to disadvantaged kids and teens after school and during the summer, Kids Café serves wholesome and free food to all kids under the age of 19.

During an average Kids Café at Bluford, 30 to 35 kids turn up to eat a healthy, Harvesters-provided meal and engage in activities such as socializing, listening to a story, watching a movie, and playing games. The program stresses the importance of nutrition and basic food preparation skills, the eradication of hunger, and, at the Library, at least, the value of literacy.

Kansas City is a big reading town. The Library’s circulation stats from last year prove it. Our most checked-out book: Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1980 novel Housekeeping, the book featured in our NEA-sponsored, community-wide Big Read program. Find out what other books and movies were most checked-out by KC’s reading class in 2010.

Library patrons like thrilling reads and newer non-fiction, but it was a 30-year-old novel that crossed our circulation desks the most in 2010.

Thanks to our Big Read program, in which more than 1,300 people signed up to read Housekeeping (and attend book discussions, special events, and a film screening), Marilynne Robinson’s rich, carefully rendered masterpiece shot to the top, with just over 700 check-outs for the year.

Librarians have always connected people to stories that inform and shape their lives. But for one Central Reference Associate, books aren’t the only tools of the trade. Jean DuFresne’s mastery of beadmaking has grown alongside her career at the Kansas City Public Library. And now she’s also using her craft to benefit the lives of children with serious illnesses.

At the Kansas City Public Library's North-East Branch, Christmas is in the air - sort of. As the gateway to knowledge for Kansas City's most culturally diverse neighborhood, the North-East Branch during the holidays takes on the spirit of its patrons. And with people from different lands come different ways of celebrating (or not celebrating) the season.

Visit the North-East Branch on any day of the week, and you'll likely see people from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East checking out books for themselves or their kids, making use of the free computer access, and interacting with librarians, who, because of their skills at finding information, become guides to a new world. In turn, these people bring to Kansas City their native customs and cultures, imbuing internationalism into the landscape.

To get the widest possible view of how people in Northeast KC spend their holidays, we hunkered down for just a few hours over a couple of days at the North-East Branch, right next to an internationally themed holiday display case designed by globetrotting patron Nancy Kramer. We asked Branch Manager Claudia Visnich to introduce us to a few of her customers.

In shifting economic times, many men are finding themselves working a job they thought they’d never do: staying home with young children. For these fathers, planning activities for kids and socializing with other men in their situation can be hard. For the Kansas City At-Home Dads group, the Kansas City Public Library is a home away from home. 

For the better part of the past two years, a diverse, rotating group of fathers and kids from all over the metro have been spending one morning each month in the Children’s Library at the Kansas City Public Library’s Central Library.

On a recent Friday morning, 10 or so of these KC Dads (as the group’s online shorthand goes) and their pre-school-aged kids stormed the Library for a session that included a visit from Santa, story time, crafts, music, and a movie – all of it tailored by Central Children’s Librarian Clare Hollander.

“As a children’s librarian, I’m these kids’ first teacher after their parents,” Hollander says.

For the KC Dads’ pre-kindergarten-aged kids, Hollander designs programs geared toward goals such as building vocabulary, improving narrative skills, and instilling a love for books and reading.

She also understands the unique character of this special group.

The Trailblazers book group has called the Trails West Branch of the Kansas City Public Library home for almost ten years. They started gathering to discuss reading in April of 2001 at the behest of then-branch-staffer Jackie Brown. Brown has since joined the Facilities team at the Central Library, but she left behind a loyal group of readers who have welcomed their new facilitator, Nancy Oelke.

The eclectic band of readers are open to almost any kind of books (except for horror, they freely admit) and have definite favorites from the past years. Stand-out titles include The Cater Street Hangman by Anne Perry (“Jackie brought cucumber sandwiches and fresh-squeezed lemonade!” one clubber remembers), Portrait in Sepia by Isabelle Allende (flan!), and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen.

Riddle us this: How many librarians does it take to change a light bulb? At the Kansas City Public Library, it takes exactly zero. That’s because we’ve got folks like Operations Manager Jerry Houchins to keep the lights on, the buildings warm, and all the facilities clean and running smoothly.

Whether it’s trimming the trees at North-East, replacing the book drop at Sugar Creek, checking the sprinklers at the Plaza Branch, or making sure the Missouri Valley Special Collections are protected in case of a disaster, no job is too big – or too small – for Houchins and his team.

In fact, it’s hard to think of areas that aren't affected by Operations in some way. Conducting renovations, ensuring fire and building safety, promoting energy efficiency, helping with events and exhibits, managing the janitorial staff – these are just a few of this department's charges.

“Anything that’s behind the scenes at the Library, that’s us. We touch more of everything than any other department,” Houchins says.

Houchins has worked backstage at the Kansas City Public Library for the better part of 10 years, a time that’s seen ups – and downs.

In July 2009, Houchins left his post as Plant Operations Manager for what he thought would prove greener pastures, working maintenance for a property management company. Houchins eventually found he’d made a bad move.

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