A Place for Everyone


Hoover reinvents the public library.

Written by Katherine Webb 

Photography by Beau Gustafson

 

In the interest of full disclosure and journalistic integrity, I’ll fess up immediately: for a little less than six months, I was an employee of the Hoover Public Library.

Though my tenure among the stacks was brief, the time I spent working side by side with the HPL librarians led me to an understanding I’d not reached as a graduate student or a working writer—librarians are true public servants, through and through. And in cities like Hoover, where population booms are partnered with suburban sprawl and no true city center, a library serves as the ultimate gathering ground, a crossroads, for intellectual discourse and artistic appreciation.

This celebration of the library’s anniversary is really a celebration of the services the library has provided for these past three decades; it’s a celebration of those serving and the served, of the cultural awakenings and technological breakthroughs, of literature, of theatre, of film, of community.

In 30 years, HPL has grown from 4,000 square feet of rental space with 10 employees to an 85,000 square-foot complex—with a theatre, café, technology hub—and 170 employees.

One woman has served as director since the beginning.

 

Behind the Curtain

Linda Andrews was raised in West End. Her father, Robert N. Reeves, was the fire chief, the first responder on scene at the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Her mother quit school early and raised her family with her hands—a seamstress.

“Even in college, she made my clothes,” Andrews, who’s now known as much for her chic style as she is for her lively tales, remembers. “I didn’t have any self-pity; I wasn’t ashamed.”

Andrews remembers a regular childhood, though she calls herself a bit of an outsider, a troublemaker—never afraid to question authority. That unwavering determination and stubbornness, she says, plays into her role as director of HPL.

Andrews and her brother, Robert Reeves III, who is a novelist and director of the South Hampton Writers Conference, both took a vested interest in storytelling.

“I spent Saturdays walking to the library,” says Andrews. “I loved reading, but I was scared of librarians. They seemed so strict. One weekend, I couldn’t find the final book in a series I was reading. I mustered the courage to ask the librarian, and a few weeks later, when I walked in the doors, she smiled and said, ‘Here you are. I ordered this book for you.’ How special I felt that this woman ordered a book just for me.”

Andrews went on to study literature and earn her Masters in Library Science. While working at the Birmingham Public Library in the early ’80s, she learned of the opportunity to direct a small branch in East Wood Mall using the “bookstore approach.”

“There was a movement to organize libraries like bookstores, with attractive displays and customer appeal,” Andrews says. “No one else was really interested in running that type of library. I volunteered.” Most of the librarians then didn’t interact much with the public, Andrews recalls. The job was more about ordering and keeping order.

IMG_8235-EditThat branch was a “big success. We were circulating most of our inventory,” Andrews says. So when in the next year, talk of Hoover’s first library entered the air, Andrews was a shoe-in for the task.

Because of community support and the work of fundraisers like Mary Lou Allen, HPL opened its doors in a strip mall to Hoover’s population of 8,000.

“There were challenges. I knew I wanted the library to be supportive of the arts, but we didn’t have the space,” Andrews says, remembering the first HPL symphony performance—“We had to use the parking lot to accommodate everyone, but the musicians were worried about the heat rising off the asphalt. Cancelling wasn’t an option so I had a sunscreen built on the roof of the building so that the space would be shaded all day.”

To overcome the restrictions of the facility and what Andrews calls, “Hoover’s isolation,” the director coordinated “Hoover day downtown”—where the library shuttled patrons into downtown Birmingham to the art museum or the civic center. “Downtown Birmingham seemed far away then, and people were intimated to make those trips alone.”

All of these efforts played into Andrews’ belief that “libraries are about more than lending books. They’re cultural centers.”

Through e-reader, ESL and DIY classes, film offerings, book groups, regular music and theatre performances, and large yearly festivals like Southern Voices—which has hosted big names in literature like Ann Patchett and Ron Rash—HPL follows through on its cultural promise.

 

The Crew

Creating that cultural center, says Andrews, it’s totally dependent upon the team of librarians. “I hire people who want to serve others, who smile, who love what they do,” says Andrews. “This group of people is truly a remarkable group.”

A handful of HPL employees have been with the library since the early days, and many more have served with Andrews for 10, 15, 20 years. “People come to work here, and they stay,” says Andrews, who can rattle off tales of folks who picked up part-time library work as students and stayed. Some tales are wilder than others, like a revered business librarian who once left, briefly, to be the man who guesses weight and age in a traveling carnival.

“I came to the Hoover Library first on a technology internship in the fall of 1995…and haven’t left,” says Patricia Guarino, assistant director.

“Because so many people start with part-time positions,” says Andrews, “we end up with employees from really diverse backgrounds, which helps us to connect with the public.”

 

The Times, They are a Changin’

Connecting with the public is the key to offering relevant services.

“Over the past 30 years, the Hoover Library’s collections have changed as reading and listening and watching habits in the world change,” says Guarino who launches into the litany of transformation: “Videos evolved to DVDs to blu-rays and they will eventually evolve to streaming format.  Books are evolving to e-books. Books-on-tape evolved to books-on-CD to downloadable audiobooks. Magazines are evolving to digital magazines.”

Guarino has been the key player of technological growth at HPL. “Although we loved to be on the cutting edge of library technology, we also wanted to make sure that the reason we were implementing a new service or new
product was because our patrons asked for it, or it would improve our library services to the public,” she says.

“Some see the future of public libraries as challenging, implying that libraries are in some way being threatened,” says Andrews of the technological transformations. “I see the future of public libraries as being dynamic. It’s like going on an exciting adventure and continually changing with the times in order to stay relevant, alive, and well.”

“I believe for future generations, the public library is going to be a destination place—for meeting, for gathering, for discussion. Public libraries will still provide the  books, databases, magazines, movies, and music to the community, but the public won’t be having to physically make a trip to the building because it will be delivered wirelessly,” says Guarino.

“Hopefully,” Guarino continues, “in another 30 years we will still need a community gathering place, still need good stories and music to share, still need a reputable source for information, still need a source for encouraging the
written word, and hopefully, it will still be called the public library.”

“’The times, they are a changin’,’’ Andrews says, “and I believe that libraries are needed now more than ever before in the history of our country.”

 

The Great Equalizer

What exactly is that need? According to Andrews, it’s to provide a place for everyone.

“The concept of libraries as a ‘third place’ after home and work or school is true for so many people. Libraries can provide that place. We can provide a community spot to gather freely…” says Andrews.

Walk through HPL on any given day, and the space is buzzing with activity: patrons browse the stacks of paperback romances or business manuals; children manipulate puppets, practicing voices; retirees read magazines in the afternoon sunlight on the plaza, dozing sometimes between articles. A chess master holds court with a group of young players. Someone is editing his resume. Someone else is learning English.

Like most public libraries, there is a cast of interesting regulars, of folks whose personas beg writers to take note, to create characters.

“If nothing else,” Andrews says with a laugh, “the library is a great place to people watch. I’ve always been interested in the outsider, maybe because I’ve felt like an outsider myself, and we certainly have our share of folks who come here out of necessity, because they don’t have anywhere else to go. We’re happy to have them.”

The library is the great equalizer, a place with free access to information. No matter your education, societal, or financial status, the library is the place where each individual may build her own intellectual identity.

“Libraries serve our users with care, compassion, and competence,” says Andrews. “Everyone who walks through the doors of a library is welcome and respected. We are all equal in the public library.”

For more information on the Hoover Public Library and its 30-year celebration, visit hooverlibrary.org.

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