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In Fayetteville, a $50 million library expansion nears completion. Construction of a building that doubles the size of the city's main library is more than 90 percent complete. New facilities will include a 700-seat auditorium, a children's library expansion, space for genealogy research, a robotics lab, video editing suites, a dance studio known as the "movement room," and a recording studio.

There also will be a teaching kitchen where cooking lessons will be offered to Fayetteville High School students. There's even a flight simulator. The auditorium will host everything from lectures to live music events to robotics tournaments. TheatreSquared will perform its adaptation of A Christmas Carol there each December.

Fayetteville voters approved a millage increase in 2016 to cover part of the cost. The Fayetteville Public Library Foundation then began a $23 million fundraising campaign to cover the rest. The 75,000-square-foot addition should be completed by this fall with a grand opening celebration scheduled for Oct. 9. The adjoining Blair building is just 16 years old, but an expansion became necessary due to the growth of northwest Arkansas. According to the Northwest Arkansas Council, an average of 39 people per day moved to the region in 2019.

As you can see from some of the things planned for the addition, libraries these days are about much more than books.

"We're no longer just a warehouse of books," says David Johnson, the executive director of the Fayetteville Public Library. "We're a place for people to come and connect, come and collaborate, have access to knowledge in a wide variety of formats."

The Central Arkansas Library System has followed the same path with services and programs that go far beyond loaning out books.

"Public libraries from Seattle to St. Louis to Durham are offering programs and services that give people a chance to keep up with rapid technological change and acquire the skills they need in a knowledge-based economy," says Nate Coulter, the CALS executive director. "CALS shares this new mission, and with the help of local partners will continue to create programs that address today's most significant work-force needs and keep opportunity open to all."

Digital collections include audio books, e-books, e-magazines, movies and music. Digital circulation is now 26 percent of the CALS total circulation.

"No matter where you live or what schedule you work, the vast free resources of the library can appear in your hand, at your convenience," Coulter says. "But even after opening more access with our digital library, we know we can do more to serve the community. In a society often divided into polarized groups, public libraries are constantly working to strengthen community partnerships and bring people with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints into the same conversations."

Last year, for example, Coulter hosted luncheons in which people from various parts of Little Rock discussed the city's future. I also can attest to the fact that the online resource I use more than any other is the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas (EOA). The site has 1.5 million visits per year. Readers have logged on from at least 200 countries to learn about Arkansas. An average of 4,100 visitors per day come to the EOA website. They have access to 6,000 entries.

"We have entries on the smallest of small towns," says Guy Lancaster, the encyclopedia's editor. "We don't overlook any communities. We want everyone in Arkansas to feel seen and heard. Growing up here in an earlier generation, I thought history was what happened elsewhere. But the EOA shows that the state has an intense and deep connection not just with the rest of the country but with the rest of the world. A place becomes special when it has a story. Places need to have their stories told."

U.S. Rep. French Hill of Little Rock, an Arkansas history aficionado, says: "When I have a historic inquiry, I start my journey at the Encyclopedia of Arkansas."

Tab Townsell, the former Conway mayor who now heads the metropolitan planning agency Metroplan, calls the EOA "an invaluable research tool that compiles so much of our state's history in one accessible place. Additionally, this great history extends into a wealth of wide-ranging information on contemporary Arkansas. Either way, historical or contemporary, Arkansas' story can be found in the encyclopedia."

Thanks to CALS, Arkansas may have the best online state encyclopedia. It was launched in 2006. As noted, there are about 6,000 entries, and that number grows each day. Georgia's online encyclopedia began in 2004 and has just 2,300 entries. Colorado's was launched in 2016 and has 700 entries. Oklahoma's started in 2007 and has 2,400 entries. Tennessee's was launched in 2002 and has fewer than 2,000 entries.

CALS, one of the best library systems of its size in the country, holds free genealogy workshops and answers about 28,000 genealogy questions each year. CALS sponsors a variety of classes. These include classes to help caregivers identify the signs of dementia, work-force development classes that teach skills such as resume building, programs in yoga and meditation, fitness classes, cooking classes and sewing classes.

There are walking clubs in addition to book clubs. The Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock's River Market District hosts films, musical concerts and speakers. There five art galleries in the system.

"We embrace our growing, evolving commitment as a 21st century library," Coulter says.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 03/14/2020

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