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.”