With enough time, effort, and research you really can change history. Just ask Alvin Sykes. Over the past several years, Sykes has built a reputation as a champion of the forgotten victims of racial violence, helping to bring about the re-opening of two Civil Rights cold cases. As Brad Stephens of KCTV5 reports, Sykes did most of that work within the walls of the Kansas City Public Library.
In 1955, a young African-American boy named Emmitt Till was murdered in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman. His killing fanned the flames of the Civil Rights movement. But Till's murderers were never brought to justice -- that is, until Sykes began digging.
Using the Library's research resources, Sykes discovered an obscure legal opinion that allowed the FBI to reopen the case. Sykes' efforts led to the signing by George W. Bush of the 2007 Till Bill, which allows for the re-opening investigation of unsolved Civil Rights murder cases.
More recently, Sykes has turned his citizen-sleuthing skills to the 1965 murder of Jimmy Lee Jackson, which Sykes says was the inspiration of the Selma-to-Montgomery March. That case, too, has been re-opened.
"The Library is a great equalizer," Sykes tells Stephens.
As the 2011 Adult Winter Reading program came to a close, the Kansas City Public Library found its collective cup neither full, nor empty. It was gone altogether. By the time best-selling author Jasper Fforde brought the yearly program to a smashing finish before a crowd of 190 in Truman Forum at the Plaza Branch on Thursday, March 17, the 750 custom bistro mugs that the Library had been giving away as awards were all but vanished.
In the preceding weeks, the mugs had flown off circ desks faster than anyone had anticipated. Even before Winter Reading officially ended on March 13 (it had begun on January 10), the Public Affairs team had begun working up IOU's to hand out until more mugs could be ordered.
What else were we to do? For one thing - celebrate!
After 2010's mystery-centric "Readers in the Rue Morgue" theme, Readers' Services Manager Kaite Mediatore Stover and Public Affairs Communications Specialist Paul Smith decided to mix things up for 2011.
Derrick Barnes knows how to get guys to read. On a recent mid-February night, the lights of the midtown cityscape glimmered through the windows in the northwest corner of the Kansas City Public Library's Plaza Branch as Barnes, a local author, read for a small gathering of parents, teachers, librarians, and teens.
The story for the evening was a selection from Barnes' new novel, We Could Be Brothers, featuring two teenage boys, a father, and an errant pair of pants.
The protagonist, Robeson Battlefield, has brought his friend and classmate in the eighth grade, Pacino Clapton, home to meet his parents. Pacino has made the mistake of letting his jeans sag.
...Dad tapped Pacino on the chest twice. "No real man walks out of the house looking like a clown. You gotta know that. If for nobody else, wear the belt for you, Clapton."
Bam! Dad was laying it down hard.
The newest issue of Library Journal has a familiar face on its cover. Familiar, at least, to anyone who’s been to a film screening, book discussion group, or special event at the Kansas City Public Library anytime in the past four and a half years.
Paul Smith, communications specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs department, has just been named one of LJ’s 2011 Movers & Shakers. He is the first Kansas City Public Library employee to receive this award.
Each year, only 50 librarians from both public and academic library settings are named Movers & Shakers, defined as library professionals “who are doing extraordinary work to serve their users and to move libraries of all types and library services forward.”
Paul is definitely doing his part to shape the Library’s future.
Since joining the Public Affairs team in December of 2006, Smith has been a driving force in the Library’s citywide Big Read programs, the annual Adult Winter Reading program, and the Off-the-Wall Film Series (which returns to the Central Library’s Rooftop Terrace this summer with films chosen by Roger Ebert).
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.
“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.
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.