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Birmingham Public Library

Birmingham Magazine
Main Article/BPL Insert
August 7, 2000
Draft 1

(I regret to say I do not know where draft 2 is, or even if it was published. Only quotes from the mayor are missing. I hope it becomes clear that as a writer, I am a loving witness to the history and the future of Birmingham, but I am not averse to questioning the status quo. (See "Living with History," Birmingham Weekly, 2007)

Bicycle wheels clicked faster and faster across the rough brick streets as young Jim Head rode south from his school in Norwood to the library on 19th street. It was 1914, and the Birmingham Public Library was just a small collection of books housed in a few spare rooms over the courthouse. But there were enough books to spark the imagination of a ten-year-old boy, just as there were enough opportunities in the rowdy young city to arouse his ambitions.

“I had to go to work,” Head recalls, sitting in his book-lined study on a recent bright summer day. “My mother’s husband died unexpectedly. She’d been raised on a cotton farm and she brought her four children back to Alabama. She picked Birmingham because it was being heralded back in 1914 as the industrial leader, the Pittsburgh of the South.

“My mother was anxious for me to learn about a great many things, but she was particularly insistent on my reading. She was all right if I read Tom Swift or books like that, just boy’s things, so long as I also read some things that she would choose. She would get them at the library, because of course we couldn’t afford to buy books.”

After a trip to the library, Jim Head would cross over to Fourth Avenue to pick up a load of newspapers. With the books safely tucked in the bottom of the heavy satchel, he would pedal back to his neighborhood to throw papers.

“I learned how to cut grass and carry newspapers...whatever I could do to contribute to the welfare of the family,” he continues. At eighteen, he became a salesman for the Library Bureau, traveling around the state to every town, large and small, that aspired to a library of its own.

This gave Head a unique perspective on public libraries in general. He crisscrossed the state in the twenties and thirties, called here and there by people with a love of books and dreams of sharing knowledge and entertainment. He sold shelving, tables and supplies for libraries started in abandoned church buildings, squeezed into a courthouse or a school, or others blessed with the generosity of far-seeing landlords.

But none exceeded the growth of the Birmingham Public Library. To this day, the public library here is recognized as one of the finest public libraries in the United States. Annual circulation is 1.8 million, while annual use of materials in the library is 1.5 million. The Central Library complex downtown and twenty branch libraries make up a system that is second to none.

“Quote here about how good the library is...from the mayor...”

Since Jim Head rode his bike downtown across the uneven brick streets of the new city, much has happened to occupy the minds of the city’s leaders. Yet throughout the depression, the war years, the tumult of the sixties and budget shortfalls of the eighties, the public library has prospered and spread like wisteria through the trees.

It was no mere twist of fate. “People of vision made it happen,” says Head. In the beginning, libraries were not widely used. “People didn’t associate libraries with their needs. It took a generation or so of constant work by the library directors and trustees and employees,” he continues. “They spread the gospel of libraries.”

And now, people of all ages and in every walk of life recognize what the library has to offer. Jack Bulow, the current director of BPL, says that library patrons come from around the city, the county, the state and even from around the world.

Bulow oversees a collection so diverse that it bears only a passing resemblance to that library Jim Head first encountered. Books there are, in plenty; over half a million books in the Central Library alone. But there are also books on tape, framed art, computer software and other materials patrons can take home. There are reference materials, including magazines, newspapers, volumes on CD-ROM. And there are the services and programs for businesses, adults and families for which the Birmingham Public Library has received national recognition.

“We build partnerships with the city, with our patrons, with schools and businesses,” explains Bulow. “It’s been a partnership from the beginning; the library staff has worked to maintain and strengthen those partnerships.”

“Quote from the mayor about city-library partnership?”

This partnership does not just extend from City Hall across George Ward Park to the Central Library. The Birmingham Public Library and the people of Birmingham are connected through an intricate network of branch libraries and their staff in every corner of the city.

“Branch libraries are important because...quote from the mayor...”

The branch libraries are often the meeting place for the community, Bulow notes. “Besides meetings, there are sometimes even more pressing needs. A few years ago, when that terrible tornado hit the Pratt City area, volunteers stockpiled clothes, food, diapers and other essentials at the library. We’re a part of the neighborhood, and we work to stay that way.”

The library also works to ensure that every branch reflects the depth and diversity of the Central Library. The electronic card catalog and interlibrary loan, plus computer access to the Alabama Virtual Library, makes even the smallest branch as fully connected as any other branch.

Access to information is something Bulow is passionate about. “Whether someone walks into our Wylam branch, our smallest, or into the Central Library, we will deliver the highest quality of library services. That’s something we’ve never compromised and never will.” His eyes sparkle and it’s easy to see how this man, director of the library since 1993, can motivate his staff to work wonders on a budget that’s never quite large enough.

The Birmingham Public library has come full circle now; founded in the 1880s as part of the public schools its staff now carefully nurtures partnerships with city schools. The library launched a new program in Birmingham City Schools in 1998 called “License to Read.” That year, the Literacy Branch of the BPL visited all 49 city elementary schools and issued 4,460 new library cards.

Older readers at Birmingham City Schools were targeted with the WILD Card program. As with the License to Read Program, each school was paired with the closest branch, and library staff told middle and high school students about the resources available with a library card.

“There is a lot available for this age student at the library,” says Janine Langston, Literacy Outreach Coordinator for the Birmingham Public Library. “They can get access to the Alabama Virtual Library, music CDs and free internet access. They like to come in and visit their favorite websites, get game codes for their Playstations or Nintendos. They may set up a free email account at the library.” Langston smiles. “Sometimes they even use the internet for science fair projects or social studies.”

The Jefferson County Library Cooperative or JCLC is yet another way the Birmingham Public Library is building partnerships. Through this program, initiated in 1978, patrons of library systems in neighboring Homewood, Vestavia, Hoover, Mountain Brook and other municipalities in Jefferson County can use the Birmingham Public Library system as if it were their own, and vice-versa. Since 1997, when the JCLC went online with its current library catalog, users can search for material in all 21 member systems from the comfort of their own homes, through the internet.

“Before the Cooperative was started, people had to sign up at every single library system and pay a fee,” explains Pat Ryan, Director of Cooperative Services for the JCLC. “Now, the system is practically seamless. You can go to any library in the county and get the same quality of services, although every library system is still autonomous.” The libraries in Jefferson County also benefit from a sophisticated shared automated circulation system and shared purchasing powers.

One fixture you can’t miss at any library, large or small, is children. The library makes a special effort to reach out to its smallest patrons, with programs tied to the popular character Arthur and most recently a program connected to the public television series “Between the Lions.” Most libraries have regular storytimes, too, with a patient and smiling storyteller presiding over a mass of squirming, excited children.

Mayor Kincaid -- comment on family programming? “It warms my heart blah blah to see little children at storytime....”

“We’re doing a lot with family literacy,” says Langston. “If we can pull the child in, they’ll get the parent in. Then parents have a chance to interact with their children, while the librarians can help them find age appropriate materials, or introduce them to authors they’re not familiar with. It’s a very successful program bringing families together at the library.”

The Prime Time Family Reading Time grant recently awarded to the Birmingham Public Library is designed to reach underserved families with children aged six to ten. “These are families who don’t use the library,” Langston says. “Often they’re families with low literacy skills. We meet with neighborhood presidents to tell them about the program and they help us recruit families.”

Some families rely on the library not just for after-school entertainment or supplemental help with homework. The Barton family uses the Spring Hill Road branch, a regional library, as its unofficial headquarters for homeschooling.

“The library is our mainstay,” exclaims Gail Barton, whose son, Andrew, is eleven and whose daughter Jessica is fifteen. “We go there two or three times a week. When we first moved from Tennessee, the first thing I looked for was the library.

“I’m thrilled with the public library here,” she continues. “We came from a situation where we had to drive quite a ways to get to a library that was pretty small. Now, anytime we’re stuck looking for a book, the librarian is right there beside us, ready to help. They have a real spirit of service.”

The Bartons use the Spring Hill Road branch where they belonged to the branch’s chess club last year. They participate in the library-wide summer reading program every year. Andrew Barton was the top reader at the branch this past summer.

“I read fifteen thousand pages,” he says. “Their selections are very good. I’ve read Hank the Cowdog books, some chapter books, biographies, sports books, science and other educational books. My favorite is Hank the Cowdog.”

Programming at the library is not reserved for the children. On any given Wednesday, you can find a group of up to seventy-five businesspeople at the auditorium, munching through a sandwich and listening to a wide variety of speakers on anything from jazz to history to healthcare at the Library’s Brown Bag Lunch seminars.

The library’s newest programming is also the most popular, according to Sharon Hill, head of public relations. “Alabama Bound has been extremely successful for the past two years,” she notes. “The public comes in and gets to meet Alabama authors in an informal way, and can talk one-on-one.” This year’s Alabama Bound brought more than 2,000 people into the library on a single day.

Patrons aren’t the only people who single out the library’s programming for praise. The American Library Association presents its John Cotton Dana awards every year, and the Birmingham Public Library has captured two for excellence in programming.

“It’s a very prestigious award,” Hill says. “It’s kind of like the library’s equivalent to the Academy Awards.”

The library works in conjunction with the Birmingham Museum of Art, the McWane Center and Birmingham Children’s Theatre to create adult and children’s programs which complement changing exhibits and shows.

The library is creating partnerships with businesses, too. Edith Ingram is Technical Assistance Coordinator at the Birmingham Business Resource Center. “A lot of corporations have to have access to information about their markets and their competitors,” she says. “It costs a lot of money. But at the library, they can get good information without spending thousands of dollars. The librarians are always very helpful.”

Ingram helps her clients with business plan development or start up plans, and routinely sends them to the library for basic research. “We use the business and economics department and the government documents department a lot,” she continues. “This is where they can research how well the industry’s doing, what the trends are, and customer demographics.”

Other professionals use the library regularly. The archives department at BPL is a treasure trove of historical information about the city; Spike Lee used it extensively to research his award-winning movie “Four Little Girls” and he said it was the best archival collection he has ever found in a public library. Writers use the archives and the Southern History collection to research books, scripts and articles. The library has even served as a research base for several Pulitzer prize-winning projects and some Pulitzer nominees.

“The people who use the collection recognize what a remarkable body of material is there to be used,” says Dr. Marvin Whiting, former director of archives at Birmingham Public Library. When he started in 1975, the collection was a mere 20,000 pieces. Now, it encompasses up to 1.5 million pieces, plus photos, negatives and slides too numerous to count.

“It covers material from the founding of Alabama with an emphasis on the Birmingham area,” Whiting says. “We have the papers of the company that founded Birmingham, for example. It’s the archives of the city of Birmingham, with the papers of mayors from George Ward all the way through Richard Arrington. We have papers from members of the city commission, civic organizations, and scrapbooks by the hundreds.”

Whiting tells an amusing story about the remarkable discovery of police commissioner Bull Conner’s papers. He and his assistant were sifting through mountains of discarded city papers stored in an abandoned fire house above Oak Hill Cemetery.

“On the second floor, my assistant was climbing on top of a pile of old court papers when his foot slipped through. When we pushed the papers aside, we saw some storage boxes underneath.” They were thrilled to discover that these were the official papers of Birmingham’s most notorious law enforcement officer.

“There was instant interest,” Whiting says. “The L.A. Times, New York Times and all the national publications wanted to get into these records.” Whiting retired from fulltime work as an archivist in 1993. “It’s been exciting,” he says with a smile. “I still work part-time. And my successor has done a remarkable job in acquisitions and in making the collection accessible to the public.”

Dale Short is author of The Shining, Shining Path, A Migration of Clowns and a forthcoming narrative nonfiction book titled The People’s Lawyer about Civil Rights Attorney Julian McPhillips.

“The folks at the Southern History Collection are so helpful, I even mentioned them in the introduction to my new book,” he says. “They have gone above and beyond the call of duty.”

The collection of historical data from the south draws researchers for a variety of work. Short used its resources for an article about A.G. Gaston published in the Oxford-American a few years ago. “It was kind of creepy -- in a good sort of way -- to open up a file folder and see the actual old clippings about A.G. Gaston. It’s like a window back into the earlier years of the city.”

The Tutwiler Collection of Southern History and Literature is housed in the gracious old Linn-Henley Building, formerly the Main Library. The massive old limestone building anchors the eastern end of George Ward Park. Just below the eaves, the names of the world’s most influential artists, philosophers and scientists march proudly, the inscribed stone band wrapping the building in wisdom and history.

James Head believes this library building was the turning-point for the history of the BPL. “Community leaders made it clear to the city fathers that this was something we had to do. They hired an outstanding architecture firm, Miller, Martin & Lewis.” It was the beginning of a real commitment from the city for a public library. Head sold the library its gleaming oak tables, Windsor chairs and brass lamps in 1927, and those same fixtures, beautifully restored, still grace the reading room on the main floor today, below the vivid and powerful murals of Ezra Winter depicting world literature.

Leading to the upper floors, the worn marble stairs still carry a high gloss, their gleam competing with the glitz of some of the best technology Microsoft has to offer in this new century.

Birmingham Public Library was one of the first to be awarded a Gates Foundation grant to establish a Regional Library Computer Center.

But the grant, generous as it was, covered only the cost of the hardware. That left Jack Bulow with a dilemma that needed a quick fix: a healthy infusion of cash.

“We couldn’t just set the computers on the floor,” Bulow recalls. “We had to have tables and chairs, a good number of them, and they don’t come cheap. But I went to Mayor Arrington, explained the situation, and he understood. He came up with the money and now we have our computer center. It stays so full that we can’t find the time to sweep the floors in there. That’s what I call a success story!”

The tale of the computer center illustrates better than any other how the Birmingham Public Library has managed so well through decades of tight city budgets.

“We have to compete for every dollar we get,” says Bulow. “The fire department needs money, the park and recreation board needs a piece of the pie, the schools have to have their share. If I’m not out there scrapping for every dollar, then we won’t get our budget.”

Bulow prides himself on his thirty-second infomercials about the library. “You know, I see a council member coming, and I’m ready for him. I can give him a rundown on the latest grant our Literacy Branch has received -- and what we’ve got planned for next week, and I get it across in thirty seconds or less. I never let them forget just how much we do.”

Most of the city’s politicians in recent decades have had a relationship with the library before they even entered politics, and that helps, too, Bulow notes. “Our branches are used for neighborhood association meetings, and that’s how a lot of people start out in city politics. So they know first-hand how the library works for our communities.”

Ask Kincaid how he started in politics -- earliest relationship with library--why he supports libraries personally and politically. Is he a member of friends of the library?

The public library hasn’t always been able to rely on public money to build its branches and programs. Jim Head recalls that it was a coalition of Birmingham’s leading families that supported the library in the first half of the century.

“I was fortunate to have a nice relationship with Emil Hess, Will Ingall and a host of people through all my associations,” says Head. “Some were appreciative of the work being done at the library but they didn’t always know the details.” Head would drop a word to some of these leading families and they would contribute.

The Birmingham Public Library Foundation is an official extension of this informal network of concerned citizens. “We’re a good library because of the public money we receive,” Bulow says. “We’ll become a great library because of the support of the Foundation. Public money just can’t keep up with the technical needs of our library today. Computers and equipment become obsolete in just two years. To constantly replace the technology and train our people how to use them takes a combination of public and private money, no doubt about it.”

No matter where the library gets its money, the public is definitely getting its money’s worth. The Institute for Museum and Library Sciences, a national foundation, recently funded a cost-benefit analysis study for Birmingham Public Library and several other large public library systems.

“For every dollar of taxes contributed annually, Birmingham Public Library returns substantially more than one dollar of benefits to its patrons. Conservative estimates of benefits per dollar of taxes range from $1.31 to $2.72,” the study reports.

“I can believe that, says Mayor Kincaid get a quote from him about this.

“These results reinforce the standard wisdom that both good collections and helpful professional staff are important in serving library patrons well,” the report concludes. “Patrons of Birmingham Public Library clearly value both.”

“As a free resource, it’s invaluable,” says author Dale Short. “The one thing I appreciate most about them is that, not matter how high-tech the library gets, the most valuable search engine I could have is inside their heads. The librarians have such a broad knowledge that they are able to make connections I couldn’t. You can never replace that.”

Making connections is the real work of the library and its supporters. Connections between information and businesses, the arts and its patrons, the city and its taxpayers. But for Jim Head, the most important connection to make is between children and the library’s resources.

“We dare not be so blind as to not recognize that reading books about how people live, work and govern can develop an inspiration that is boundless,” he says. “We have to expose children to the things in the library so they can understand this state and the opportunities that exist.

Back in the sixties, Head heard the president of the University of Alabama cite a statistic that has stayed with him for forty years. “He said that Alabama has ten percent, imagine that, ten percent of the nation’s natural resources right here within our boundaries.” Head leans forward to make his point, looking stern. “But Alabama only has 2% of the nation’s wealth. We can change that, we must change that, but it will only happen when our children are educated.

“That’s why I must still do everything I can to encourage adults about the greatest need we have in this state: the education of our children.”

From a man with a perspective as long and clear as Jim Head’s, that statement is nothing less than a mandate. A mandate proudly and successfully accepted by the Birmingham Public Library and its supporters.