Imagine growing up in a city where you discover the joys of reading and music via storytime and puppet shows at your daycare provider and have access to almost any book you want to read via your school library, from first grade through high school—a city that offers support and resources for a variety of after-school and summer activities, including opportunities to write and tell your own stories via poetry, fiction, and music. Now imagine these opportunities are all powered by your local library.

If you’re one of the nearly 700,000 people who live in Nashville, this scenario isn’t some hypothetical utopia—it’s reality. From Wishing Chair Productions’ world-class puppet shows and the famous Civil Rights Room, from the Salon@615 reading series to the annual Southern Festival of Books, the Nashville Public Library is an invaluable, year-round gateway to the city’s history, especially for its literary and musical communities.

Like the city it serves, the NPL is ambitious and growing. With Nashville’s metro-area population projected to reach nearly 2.5 million in 20 years, the library’s Facilities Master Plan prioritizes “library coverage gaps” for future building projects so “at least 90% of Davidson County residents will be able to reach a library location within three miles,” or within a roughly 15-minute commute. NPL’s top priority is replacing the Donelson Branch—located in the eastern part of Davidson County, where nearly half of the county’s residents live—with a modern, 25,000-square-foot building. As many as four new branches are also planned to better serve that area, which is the center of an expanding immigrant population, including large Somali, Kurdish, Iraqi, and Central American communities.

Though new buildings will certainly help accomplish the library’s mission to “Inspire Reading, Advance Learning, and Connect Our Community,” the collections and innovative programming flowing through those buildings—and into the local schools, community organizations, and beyond—make Nashville’s public library system a leader in achieving these goals.

Connecting Communities Through History

NPL’s main building, centrally located in downtown, offers a wide variety of programming and services for all residents. But it’s also a noteworthy destination for visitors who want to learn more about the city’s rich history.

Of the various programs and services NPL is best known for, one of the most noteworthy is the Civil Rights Room, housing an interactive collection of materials—books, photos, oral histories (including audio, video, and transcripts)—that puts a spotlight on Nashville’s unheralded role in the national civil rights movement. The visual centerpiece of the room is a frosted wall featuring a 1960 quote from Martin Luther King Jr.: “I came to Nashville not to bring inspiration but to gain inspiration from the great movement that has taken place in this community.” The quote is drawn from a speech King gave at Fisk University, Nashville’s oldest institution of higher learning and a historically black university. In front of the wall is a lunch counter where visitors can sit, with the “Ten Rules of Conduct” etched into it—guidelines carried by protesters during the local sit-ins protesting Nashville’s segregation, which became a model for nonviolent protests in other cities.

“The room tells two stories on the surface,” says Tasneem Grace Tewogbola, program designer for special collections and the Civil Rights Room. “It starts with two images of desegregation, and we have an oral history collection that has the voices of the people who desegregated the schools in Nashville. That centers the space in intensely local history, and then the rest of the room goes into understanding what civil disobedience meant in Nashville.”

The room is open to the public for self-guided experiences and research, but the library also hosts a variety of groups for guided tours, interactive activities, and discussions, customized according to each group’s interests and goals. The library’s Civil Rights Training program has received national attention for its work with the Metro Nashville Police Department—a groundbreaking engagement with new recruits, exposing them to the history and significance of Nashville’s role in the civil rights movement—and has since extended its work to include everything from kindergarten students and family reunions to corporate and nonprofit boards that are serious about their commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“When we started working with the police a few years ago and doing the trainings for the recruits, that caught the attention of folks because it became a national and international story,” Tewogbloa says. “[In the beginning], we would proudly say we work with 500 to 1,000 recruits a year. Now, people are coming from corporations, from trustee boards, from schools. We have graduate classes that come here doing different coursework surrounding how this room inspires other conversations. There’s nothing like getting a group in where you have someone who’s in their 80s in the same space with someone who’s eight.”

According to the NPL, the Civil Rights Room and special collections average more than 12,500 visitors per year, with 350 programs in 2019. The collections and programming help spark important conversations in the community and beyond, and they also lead to the creation of new art, music, and literature.

Betsy Phillips, a local poet and journalist, as well as marketing and sales manager for Vanderbilt University Press, is using NPL’s historical archives to research her forthcoming book, Dynamite Nashville: The KKK, the FBI, and the Bombers Beyond Their Control (Third Man), and is effusive in her praise for both the invaluable collection and expertise of the staff. “A thing that I really, really appreciate about them, especially with their civil rights content, is they almost function like a university library,” she says. “They have these experts who know the collection and are deeply and constantly engaged with it. When I, as a researcher, go in there, they can point you to stuff that you didn’t even know existed. I love it! I just think it’s tremendous. And I think they’re such good caretakers of the city’s history.”

The Civil Rights Room started “primarily as a space for scholarship,” says Tewogbola, but soon became a place for “outreach.” “We had this awesome engagement last summer for young people with writing workshops, music workshops, anchored in the conversation about what is social justice and awareness, identity, and race. So this room sort of inspired that conversation, and they actually wrote and published a book.”

That book, Freedom of Voice: Youth Writers Workshop, was written by the youth participants of the First Freedom of Voice Youth Writer’s Workshop—a joint project of the mayor’s office, the public library, Metro Parks and Recreation Department, and local volunteers, developed “to inspire youth to express themselves through writing, and to advocate for literacy and creativity,” according to a program description. Published in November 2019 with support from Ingram, the book is impressive combining the workshop participants’ writing and personal stories with photos from the workshop and relevant selections from the library’s civil rights collection.

And the collection will continue to be used in new and innovative ways, Tewogbola says. “We’ll take this collection, and ask, how does it translate to the creation of more music? How does it relate to the creation of poetry? Of art?”

Inspiring Imaginations with Books and Puppets

Bringing Books to Life is an innovative NPL program focused on early literacy, and an underlying theme running through almost everything the library does. And puppets have played a significant role in NPL’s efforts for decades.

Nashville residents have been enjoying live puppet shows at the public library ever since a 15-year-old Tom Tichenor staged his first production of Puss in Boots in 1938. Described as “a local Mister Rogers” whose professional career included several years with the Broadway musical Carnival!, Tichenor worked with the library for 50 years—both as volunteer and staff member—producing thousands of puppet shows and eventually leaving the library his collection of nearly 250 marionettes after his death in 1992.

Today, Wishing Chair Productions, the library’s resident puppet troupe, continues Tichenor’s work by creating world-class shows for Nashville’s children and adults. Program director Brian Hull’s team creates and maintains the puppets, designs and builds sets and scenery, and composes and performs music for revived Tichenor shows and new productions, all presented in the main library as well as at various branches and in schools and community organizations. Many of the shows, like Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, reflect the diverse storytelling traditions and cultures of Nashville, which includes, for example, the largest Kurdish population in the United States.

“We received five grants to create five multicultural shows, including Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves,” Hull says. “We worked with Nashville’s Kurdish population—they asked the kids what show they wanted to see, and the kids chose Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.“

The Bringing Books to Life program, and NPL’s puppet shows, help promote an innovative whole-child approach to learning. Program coordinator Liz Atack leads a team of educators who conduct professional development workshops with childcare providers on best practices for developing literacy skills, including storytime presentations and art activities that reinforce language and reading skills. And the programs usually end with a visit from one of the library’s puppet trucks, which presents a marionette performance, giveaways of the book the puppet performance is based on, and a book list featuring a variety of titles that are available at the library.

When it comes to traditional tales from other cultures, finding the right book that’s still in print and available to libraries can be a challenge. But it’s one Atack’s team finds ways to overcome. “There are lots of different versions of Ali Baba, but 95% of them you probably wouldn’t want to read to a four-year-old.” Atack says. “When it’s a traditional tale, if we can find one that is developmentally appropriate, we can usually talk to the publisher about buying 500 copies at a discount.”

Wishing Chair and BBTL’s newest production, meanwhile, features a local twist—it’s an adaptation of the 2018 children’s book Lorraine by Ketch Secor, founder of Nashville’s Old Crow Medicine Show, a string band recently inducted into the Grand Ole Opry. Hull’s team meticulously recreated the look and feel of illustrator Higgins Bond’s vibrant artwork for the book, which is described as an “epic Americana story about the power of music and family,” and Secor composed original music for the production.

“We wanted to make sure everything looked like the book,” says Hull of the show’s production design. “Ketch was directly engaged, too. He wrote this wonderful song for it. Sometimes he appears live, and sings and narrates.”

In addition to being a local musician, Secor is also cofounder of the pre-K through elementary Episcopal School of Nashville and is a lifelong user of, and advocate for, libraries. “The thing about the library, every library is if you plug into your library, you will serve your community,” Secor says. “It’s that kind of a place. You’ll serve all kinds of people with all kinds of beliefs, you’ll serve all ages, and all styles and faiths and creeds and cultures. When I go play the Opry, I’m selling tickets; when I go play the library, I’m opening hearts. I’m helping make a new generation of young learners whose passion for learning is strong.”

Secor says it’s been “wonderful” working with NPL’s puppets. “That’s something I grew up understanding through Jim Henson and Sesame Street, so I’m glad to increase the influence of puppetry on a new generation in Nashville.”

In 2019, the BBTL program reached 14,654 children, parents, and caregivers, with 579 parent workshops, teacher trainings, and storytimes. NPL’s puppet truck delivered 678 performances to some 48,810 audience members. And the puppets and books aren’t only for kids. One of Wishing Chair’s biggest shows is String City: Nashville’s Tradition of Music and Puppetry, a coproduction with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. NPL’s two puppet trucks travel throughout Davidson County bringing their puppet shows to preschools and daycare centers, as well as to assisted living facilities and rehab centers.

“If you have a connection, if you enjoy the music, if you love a really good story, you kind of love watching the shows,” says puppet truck supervisor Bret Wilson. “One of the things which was a surprise, but it continues to grow, are assisted living facilities. That generation sat around the radio, listening to stories—they watched puppetry when it was easily available on TV. There was a woman who was 105 years old and usually sat most of the day staring out the window. We were told that during a presentation of Ellingtown, they noticed lots of movement, tapping of the foot, bobbing of the head, connecting with the music that she was experiencing. It’s a lot of fun to get stories like that where people are really making a connection with the puppets and the music.”

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez is chief strategist at Free Verse Media and project lead for the Panorama Project.

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