Moving beyond books at the Central Arkansas Library System

October 21-27, 2019

By Amber Davis


The Central Arkansas Library System — commonly known as CALS — is working hard to shake off the stereotype of librarians shushing patrons deep within dusty stacks.


“Libraries should evolve and change. We are really being responsive to the community,” said Nathan James, Deputy Executive Director of Technology and Collection Innovation for CALS. 


According to James, use of the library system’s physical books is declining, while use of digital resources is “through the roof.” Most library patrons know that they can check out books in any format — hardcovers, audiobooks and e-books. Some may not realize that their library cards give them access to other digital services, like, magazine subscriptions and the Great Courses. 


To address the needs of central Arkansans beyond lending books in various formats, CALS offers a huge variety of special programming, from physical objects to meeting rooms to shared experiences to partnerships with other organizations. In 2018, CALS was involved in more than 10,700 special programs, with almost 245,000 people participating. The programs are spread across all 15 CALS branches. 


One type of special programming involves physical objects. CALS has a several special items that patrons can check out. Those include fishing poles, musical instruments, toys, birdwatching kits and laptops. In September 2019, the Dee Brown Library opened its tool library, where library patrons can check out up to five manual tools or three power tools at a time. It currently includes yard tools like rakes and shovels, a pole saw, drills, hammers, wrenches, car repair tools, bike repair kits and safety gear of all kinds. The tool library also features books about renovations and even workshops about bike repairs. 


Patrons can also check out telescopes, which were purchased in partnership with the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society. The telescope loan is for two weeks, which encompasses an entire moon cycle, James noted. The library system periodically hosts evening viewing events to help community members learn about how to use the telescopes, constellations and other topics. Sarah Keith-Bolden, a Little Rock resident, has checked out the telescopes to use with her children and said that they enjoyed the experience so much they are going to check one out again and take it to a better viewing area outside the city. Keith-Bolden has also checked out other physical objects, including puzzles for her father every week. She said she likes these programs because, “Borrowing these things from the library saves a small fortune and prevents waste.


James said the programs that provide physical objects fit with the CALS mission to “provide resources and services to help residents reach their full potential, and to inspire discovery, learning, and cultural expression.” He continued, “The library is the true shared economy, and the more you use it, the more value it has.”


CALS also has an extensive collection of art that the public can enjoy for free. One new aspect of public art on view in the library system is in partnership with the Arkansas Arts Center. While the MacArthur Park building for the Arkansas Arts Center is being renovated, CALS is hosting a portion of the Center’s craft collection. More than 100 pieces are on display throughout the 15 CALS branches. 


The art on loan to each branch was specifically selected for the location’s history, physical environment and community. For example, the Adolphine Fletcher Terry Library was named after a prominent women’s rights and integration advocate. The pieces from the Arkansas Arts Center on display in that branch are all ceramics made by women artists. The Esther DeWitt Nixon Library serves the Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville, and the Center has placed there artwork that is inspired by military service and aviation. James hopes that the art displays encourage civic engagement by getting new people to come to the library to see the collection.


CALS patrons can exercise a different kind of creativity in the system’s three teaching kitchens. Those facilities are located in the Roosevelt Thompson Library, the Dee Brown Library, and the Hilary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library and Learning Center. Instructors teach adults and children about food and nutrition in these spaces.


Children can even get full meals from CALS most days after school and during the summer through the Food for Good program. Although CALS cannot provide transportation to its branches for those meals, it did partner with Rock Region Metro during the summer of 2019 to provide bus passes to children through the Be Mighty program. The bus passes allowed 1,200 children to use any bus during June and July. “The program was not just about meals, but about helping the kids locate and access quality food sites,” said Tameka Lee, CALS Communications Director of Marketing and Resource Management. In total, the Be Mighty participants took more than 17,000 on buses throughout Pulaski County.


CALS frequently partners with other community organizations for programs like Be Mighty and the art installations. “We work together with partners to find out how to leverage their skills and combine that with what we do well. This helps both organizations find out what we can do better together,” said James. “Our partnerships really show our sharing community,” Lee added.


Patrons who have started a small business or who are trying to will appreciate the shared resources at some of CALS’s branches. The Sue Cowan Williams Library, for example, has an entire small-business center with a meeting room, a green screen and audio-visual equipment. That branch hosts Technology Time weekly to offer assistance with Microsoft Office programs, tablets and other electronic media. Patrons can check out a laptop at any CALS branch for use inside the library, and all branches have meeting rooms available.


Whether a community member is starting a small business, searching for a job, or pursuing self-enrichment, CALS also offers classes for a variety of interests. Some topics include Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Microsoft Excel and even Game Design using professional video-game-development software.


One of the most popular series of classes is CALS’s annual genealogy workshop. The workshop is free but always feature a nationally known speaker in an area of family history. For example, the 2019 speaker was Angela Y. Walton-Raji, who specializes in African American and Native American history. Patrons who are interested in family-history research can also use the library system’s subscription and get assistance from the CALS resident genealogy expert. 


Lee and James noted that the offerings at the Ron Robinson Theater are always very popular. Community members can see movies, concerts, plays and lectures at the Theater. Lee said one of the most memorable successes at Ron Robinson was the WellRED Comedy Tour in August 2019—all three shows sold out well in advance of the performances. Henley Bergstrom has enjoyed much of CALS special programming, including movies and author talks at Ron Robinson. Bergstrom said that her favorite thing about these events are that, “They are so easy and fun. CALS is a great resource for free entertainment in Little Rock.” Keith-Bolden agreed and added that the events are inclusive, saying, “Everyone can participate, because they don’t cost any money.”


“The library is trying to be a community hub through all of this programming,” said James. The CALS staff and partners strive to put together events that are helpful for the community and that will give patrons a place to start a new hobby or business venture or other learning experience. 




1. The Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) is partnering with organizations such as the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society and the Arkansas Arts Center to provide Arkansans with opportunities for involvement and learning experiences within the community. (Photos by Cait Smith unless otherwise noted)


2. This is a sculpture by Viola Frey, entitled Western Civilization Processional. This is one of the many works of art on display at the CALS main branch in collaboration with the Arkansas Arts Center. 


3. The tool library includes tools such as rakes, shovels, hammers and bike repair kits. Library patrons can check out up to five manual tools or three power tools at a time. (Photo courtesy of Central Arkansas Library System) 


4. The computer area on the second floor of CALS main branch; patrons can check out a laptop at any CALS branch for use inside the library, and all branches have meeting rooms available.


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