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.
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.
For many people, job searching today is a full-time, well, job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 15 million Americans are out of work. Kansas City’s unemployment rate, while better than the national rate, is an unsettling 8.5 percent, and area job seekers face many challenges, from negotiating public transportation to navigating the online employment maze. The Central Library’s H&R Block Business & Career Center is here to help.
Business Librarian Eric Petersen is presenting Use the Library to Get That Job, a free class for anyone who’s in the market for work, on Tuesday, November 30, at 9:30 a.m. at the Kansas City Public Library’s Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St. The class will offer practical tips on finding and landing a new job, such as using employment-listings sites effectively and crafting a strong résumé and cover letter.
“Librarians have assisted job seekers since the profession began,” Petersen says.
A few weekends ago, I had the pleasure of attending the Second Annual Book Lovers and Book Clubs Conference. For this local event’s first year, founder and organizer Kim Riley held the gathering at a small community center and was overwhelmed with the positive response. This year, Kim looked to her local library for assistance, and the Kansas City Public Library was happy to oblige.
Held on Saturday, November 6, 2010, the conference brought in five popular and critically acclaimed African-American authors to meet loyal fans and readers in a casual setting. Victoria Christopher Murray, Trisha Thomas, Victor McGlothin, and Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant gave presentations on their books, current projects, relationships with their readers, and their own favorite reading. The authors continued to connect with fans during a book signing.
When it comes to finding quality health care information in Kansas City, many minority communities are underserved. It’s a problem that needs more than a figurative band-aid.
“There is undeniable evidence that the African-American community suffers from higher rates of many chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and sickle cell disease,” says Jeannine Glore Midgett, Director of Community Outreach for Truman Medical Centers.
She says that the lack of access to quality healthcare resources, including educational information, only makes the problem worse.
The Internet is crawling with health information, but can you trust the top few results of a Google search? And if you do manage to find actual medical information, how do you make sure you’re interpreting it correctly? Your health, after all, is on the line.
It’s no wonder that people have increasingly been turning to public libraries for health information. As a result, more and more libraries are creating specialized services to help people manage their health.
It takes a community to raise a mural. This past October, working with Northeast neighborhood kids and parents, the Hip-Hop Academy covered two walls outside the North-East Branch of the Kansas City Public Library with graffiti goodness. Watch a video documentary of the project on our blog.
Whether she’s teaching ESL classes to customers from Ethiopia, organizing a Cinco de Mayo fiesta, or speaking at a local school about her own Thai culture, Sukalaya Kenworthy is spreading multicultural awareness from her station at the Westport Branch.
A library associate of five years at the Kansas City Public Library, Sukalaya – “Su” for short – spent half a year as a technical assistant at Trails West before transferring to the Westport Branch as a library associate.
A native of Bangkok, Thailand, Su came to the States in 1996 to get her Master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language at the University of Central Missouri (then called Central Missouri State). It was there that she met her husband, Curry Kenworthy.
Why did she choose KC?
“I was working in Thailand at a government office that helped people find places to study abroad. I looked through schools [for myself], and this just felt like the part of the country where I wanted to be – in the middle,” she says.
Now, she’s in the midst of a diverse of array of activities at the Westport Branch. In addition to managing regular teen gaming and crafts activities, she facilitates the KC Metro Poets monthly meetings. This past summer, she organized summer reading programs and spearheaded the Cinco de Mayo festival at the Westport Branch, which had neighborhood kids performing traditional dances and breaking a piñata.