"Keys" sculpture

Arkansas Library Expansion Includes Special Sculpture

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By Lara Jo Hightower

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (Arkansas Democrat Gazette) — “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of a library,” wrote Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges.

Indeed, when the Fayetteville Public Library (FPL) — closed to the public since late September, when finishing touches on the expansion were being made — opened its doors in January, those viewing the $49-million expansion may see Borges’ prediction realized. I did, on a recent cold, windy December day when Samantha Herrera, FPL marketing and communications manager, gave my 10-year-old twins and me a tour of the new space. While it’s true I knew they would come in handy to add some human interest to the photos I would take along the way, in reality, they pleaded so earnestly to come along, I couldn’t disappoint them. And Herrera was kind enough to oblige.

As it is for many in Northwest Arkansas, the FPL has always been an important place for our family —  a happy destination for all four of us — and that’s remained consistent from the time the kids were toddlers, pawing through board books, until today, as they gobble down chapter books and graphic novels. But like the demographics and interests of my own family, the Northwest Arkansas community is constantly in flux, and the FPL has made a commitment to keep up with that growth. When the Blair Library on Mountain Street first opened its doors in October 2004, it was an 88,000-square-foot, $23 million project that took visitors’ breath away. A modernized version of the traditional library, it boasted a catalog of 270,000 books, 30,000 audiovisual titles and 500 periodicals, and an Arsaga’s Cafe in its lobby made it even more of a community hub than it had been in its previous space on Dickson Street. The popularity and necessity of the new building became immediately apparent, and the ensuing years found the library constantly expanding its offerings, reaching maximum capacity on most of its events and running out of room for its burgeoning collections. Meeting and study rooms were in constant demand. Multi-use rooms meant chaos when one event immediately followed another. When a special election to consider a millage increase for an FPL expansion was held in August 2016, voters overwhelmingly approved the increase, and construction officially started in July 2018.

Which brings us back to last month, when Herrera gave us our jaw-dropping tour. From the moment we walked into the atrium-like new entrance and gazed at artist Aimee Papazian’s “Voyage of Lost Keys,” a magical sculpture that seemingly hangs in mid-air, we were awed by the scale of the 80,000-square-foot-plus expansion.

“The Voyage of Lost Keys” by Aimee Papazian, hangs in the Grand Staircase of the new FPL addition. “When I was growing up, there was a small plaque with a key on the wall of my grandmother’s house in Flushing, N.Y.,” reads Papazian’s artist statement. “That key was what was left of my grandfather’s house after the entire Armenian quarter of the city where he lived in Turkey was burned down. He fled for his life that day, along with most of the Armenians in the country. He was 18 years old. After the fire, a friend went back to where his house had been and found that key in the ashes, and sent it to my grandfather’s family.⁠⠀ “I built a larger version of the key on my grandparents’ plaque out of clay, and then cast it in plaster as a model. This was the first key I made for this piece. Other keys are based on pictures of historical keys. I have also included many other keys, because so many cultures have this violent displacement as part of their history — or their present. This piece is a way to imagine a mass migration — a way to think about a people who have lost their homes and their place in the world, as still being somehow connected to each other.”

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Floor-to-ceiling windows never let us forget the beautiful environment that surrounds the building. There is a new, 8,700-square-foot event center, and the size of the children’s library has doubled. Other additions include a 16-station teaching kitchen, an Art and Movement room, the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Center for Innovation and the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Gathering Place.

As Herrera explained the thoughtful function of each new space, one thing was abundantly clear: The prescient forethought of every choice made has the concept of community in mind. Small nooks and meeting spaces throughout are comfortable spots to gather. The Center for Innovation and community kitchen offer services that could help start or boost careers. A dedicated story time room and craft space give relief to frazzled parents of tots. The Art and Movement room will provide access to free or low-cost dance and exercise classes. A librarian close at hand in each section means questions can be answered quickly and easily. The spacious event center gives additional opportunities for more community members to see special speakers and productions.

And, of course, there are the books, the beating heart of every library, regardless of how modern or technologically advanced it might be.

“Shelving the books in the new youth libraries was a very significant milestone for me,” says Willow Fitzgibbon, director of library services. “While the expansion is so much more than books, seeing the books on shelves in the new spaces reminded me how entwined our traditional values of lifelong learning, accessibility and innovation are in this expansion and all of the new services FPL will now be able to offer.”

Teaching Kitchen

With 16 cooking stations and a walk-in refrigerator and freezer, the 1,500-plus-square-foot teaching kitchen has been carefully designed in partnership with Northwest Arkansas Community College’s Brightwater culinary department in order to offer concurrent college credit opportunities for Fayetteville Public High School students. The library’s new “casual deli” is located right outside the teaching kitchen, allowing visitors to grab a quick sandwich or salad and watch new chefs through the viewing window. Herrera says in addition to the Brightwater training, the kitchen can host culinary programming by professional chefs and cookbook authors, as well as opportunities for the community at large.

“We are planning to offer culinary training for all ages and are in continued conversations with a variety of partners to provide the training,” says Johnson. “Everything from teaching young children how to make healthy snacks to sommelier classes for adults is being considered.”

Johnson adds that access to the teaching kitchen will be open to the community, “including private entrepreneurs and small business owners seeking additional space and capacity for their enterprises. What is exciting is the potential for FPL to help meet the demand in this market.”

Art and Movement Room

With its floor-to-ceiling windows, gorgeous softwood dance floor, ballet barre and towering room-length mirror, I just assumed that the pretty grouping of multi-colored pegs at the far end of the Art and Movement Room was another art installation.

“No, those are just pegs for coats,” said Herrera.

It’s an easy mistake to make when you’re standing in the middle of the airy, chic room, which is the first to greet you when you walk into the new expansion. The Art and Movement Room will no doubt draw interested people further into the building, but, as Herrera points out, the billowing curtains can be drawn to offer a bit more privacy.

“You could definitely feel self-conscious doing yoga in here if people can look in and see everything,” she says with a laugh. “You might be able to still see a bit of the movement inside but not, ‘Oh, there’s my friend Sandy, doing Downward Dog.'”

Herrera says the FPL envisions classes like tai chi, yoga and dance will be held in this room, as well as adult art classes when tables are added.

“Personally, I am really excited for the Art and Movement Room,” says Fitzgibbon. “Intellectual wellness and physical wellness are closely tied, and having affordable, unintimidating access to movement-based programs provides important health literacy to our community. I am also excited for all of the opportunities the expansion offers my preschool-age daughter, who will grow up with tremendous access to the arts and technology.”

Post-pandemic, Hoover says the room will be available to local organizations as a rental for dance and exercise classes.

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