Keenon McCloy is no stranger to praise.
In her 11th year as Director of the Memphis Public Libraries, she has been celebrated across the national library scene – she calls it “Libraryland” – has doubled the Memphis library’s attendance in recent years, and last year was honored with a prestigious Bobby Dunavant Public Servant Award.
But in talking to Ms. McCloy, one gets the feeling that she is just getting started.
She has the energy of someone who is just now getting into the groove of her position, and she speaks with the passion of someone on a mission.
I sat down recently with her to talk about the latest goings-on at the library, and one of the first things we mentioned was a New York Times essay we had both read, written in September by sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who said “If we have any chance of rebuilding a better society, social infrastructure like the library is precisely what we need.”
To Keenon McCloy, the words would appear to be gospel.
Under her leadership, all 18 branches of the Memphis Public Library have become a support and resource center that is vital to our community’s continued growth and connectedness, as Ms. McCloy said, “a source of hope.”
What follows is part of our conversation.
Mark Fleischer: I am looking at these overall program attendance numbers, and they are quite remarkable.
Keenon McCloy: Since Mayor Strickland took office, our program attendance has increased 50%. In the past ten years, it has more than doubled. Our overall program attendance in 2015 was 57,000; last year it was up to 110,000. In the past year alone, the numbers have gone up another 50%. It’s pretty incredible. What we’re doing is really resonating with the community.
MF: Besides the library website, what are the ways you’re reaching the community?
KM: We try to reach the community through all media sources, from The Flyer, Memphis Parent, The Commercial Appeal, but also through social media – Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook – and all 18 of our branches has their own Facebook page. We really try to diversify the ways in which we reach the community.
MF: You mentioned that attendance has increased since Mayor Strickland took office. What kind of impact has he been able to make?
KM: Mayor Strickland has made a difference. One of the first things he did when he took office was expand the library hours. Half of our locations were closed on Fridays – since the 1980s – and that really impacted some our struggling communities. And he said that makes no sense.
Also, with some restructuring he removed the library system out from under the City Parks and Neighborhoods Division. He provided additional funding to make sure the library hours were extended so that people had that place to go later in the day, or a Friday for homework – a safe place.
In addition, the support from this City Council has been very strong. That’s one area where the Mayor’s office and City Council has worked well in tandem.
MF: I keep coming back to the program numbers and the array of programs the library offers. It’s impressive. And it appears as though you’re measuring everything.
KM: Yes. We have five strategic priorities and broad-reaching goals (Cultural, Lifelong Learning; Job, Career, Entrepreneurship; Outreach; Youth Literacy; Youth Steam). And we have a new plan that is being implemented that covers 2018 to 2023.
The numbers you’ve been looking at are from the Mayor’s Office of Performance Management. As far as overall program attendance, we have the highest numbers in our history. And that’s at a time when fewer people are actually walking into the library doors. People can renew books online, they can download materials online, and so on, and they can access us 24/7.
But that human to human connection is what libraries are all about. And getting people into the library means exposing them to all the programs we have to offer.
MF: What are some of those programs and resources?
KM: We have Linc-2-1-1 – the Library Information Network Center. It’s comparable to the city’s 3-1-1. But you can use it for all kinds of things: paying utility bills; finding emergency shelter; getting legal information; rent payments. And so on. On our website we have a database of over 1250 resources available online. Also in the works is an App that will assist the homeless community in locating resources all the way down to where to find a bed for the night.
MF: And Cloud901 for teens after school. That is really something.
KM: Libraries are being transformed each day. But yes, our Cloud901 is a standout. We’ve had people come out from California – San Diego, L.A., San Francisco – looking at what we’re doing with our Cloud901. In “Libraryland” sharing information and ideas is very communal. It’s not proprietary. We want to learn from each other, we want to share, we want to part of making the world better, and we want to collaborate with people who are already doing things really well. Together we’re stronger – you can teach us, we can teach you, we can teach each other.
MF: It’s wonderful that kids in Memphis have this resource, especially with some of the charter schools closing, with some kids having to suffer through homeless crises or violence, who really need support.
KM: There’s endless need. I look at things positively. I know there are a lot of harsh realities out there, and children and adults experience things they should never have to experience, but they happen every day. And we can be a source of hope, of optimism; we can help spark lifelong curiosity, where people can see a way out, or a different path.
I think we have a real opportunity that traditional schools don’t have: to bring out passions they wouldn’t find in school. It’s part of our core mission. We can do things that schools don’t have the luxury of doing. (Not as a replacement but as a compliment). We can more impactful. We have people who tell us about librarians who changed their life, who sparked their interest in reading, who always found just the right book.
Also, I think that what we do here compliments how resilient and talented Memphis is. You have to be really strong to survive and thrive through poverty, and especially with Cloud901 we have seen that resiliency and talent in these kids.
At the close of Eric Klinenberg’s New York Times essay, he wrote that “Libraries are the kinds of places where people with different backgrounds, passions and interests can take part in a living democratic culture. They are the kinds of places where the public, private and philanthropic sectors can work together to reach for something higher than the bottom line.”
He also said that Libraries stand for and exemplify the public institutions that serve as the bedrock of a civil society. Here in Memphis, it is also the bedrock of the support and hope that is so critical to the future of those struggling communities it serves. Keenon McCloy will make sure of it.