One of the gems of the NPL, Studio NPL, gives local teenagers a place to explore technology and express their creativity, whether that means learning how to code, build robots, or produce records. Designed for students ages 12–18, Studio NPL hosts workshops in creative writing, film and media production, photography, audio production, and many other subjects. A combination of library staff, professional mentors, and community organizations that partner with the library lead and produce workshops across several disciplines.

Fifteen-year-old Ephie H. has been using Studio NPL since the beginning of her freshman year and has been taking advantage of writing workshops conducted by Southern Word, a local organization, and performance opportunities that allow her to explore formats beyond what’s focused on in school, while also finding an engaged community of fellow writers to share her work with. “In school, we were learning a lot of literature and how to write formal essays,” Ephie says. “And I enjoyed that. But I felt like I wasn’t getting an opportunity to expand creatively, or work on fiction or poetry. I started going to a program called the Power of the Pen, which was poetry-focused, and that’s when I found out about spoken word, and learned a lot about performance, as well as writing. I think performing has really increased my confidence in other settings, too. I’ve always been a really shy person, so getting up in front of a lot of people and sharing really emotional, personal things and having them receive that and then respond to it... It makes me feel a lot more comfortable in other situations, like raising my hand in school or communicating with peers I wouldn’t normally talk to.”

Many of Studio NPL’s mentors are local professionals—writers, editors, musicians—and Chet Weise, who has taught writing workshops at the library through the Porch, a local writers collective, can lay claim to all of the above. In addition to publishing other people’s books as Third Man Books’ editor-in-chief, Weise is a poet and fiction writer, as well as guitarist for Kings of the Fucking Sea, a local band named after a book of poems by Dan Boehl.

“Recently I taught a class to young poets focused on the music of poems,” Weise says. “In the class, we compared and contrasted between poems and songs the musicality of cadence, rhythm, melody, countermelody, tone, and dynamics. Those concepts and the course objective might not be unique, but what made our experience unique was the ability to engage with the library’s multimedia resources to teach the point and keep their attention. When I compared the voice and tone of a line of poetry to the voice and tone of a measure of piano music, I had access to a keyboard; I also had access to video. We could’ve assembled a big band or performed a full rock concert of poetry during our class thanks to the NPL’s facilities. And the librarians, so helpful, would’ve been eager to be stagehands and audience.”

Weise connects the dots between literature and music, suggesting Nashville might more appropriately be nicknamed Language City, U.S.A. He ticks off the remarkable breadth of artists who made Nashville their creative home: from the Fugitives, the group of poets and literary scholars who came together at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s, to Robert Penn Warren, Elvis Presley, and metal band Asschapel.

“Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan, Jack White, David Berman, R. Stevie Moore, Dave Cloud. Ann Patchett, William Gay, Betsy Phillips, Caroline Randall Williams, Mike Floss, Kent Osborne, Willie Nelson, Steve Earl, Alice Randall, the Nashville Ballet, Johnny Cash, the Free Nashville Poetry Library, the Poetry Sucks reading series, the Be Witched reading series, the Porch Writer’s Collective, Southern Festival of Books, Bully, and the singer/songwriter Soccer Mommy,” Weise says. “The answer is clear: the language of music and the music of language have always been clearly present in Nashville. Sometimes conflicted. Sometimes community. Sometimes well-known. Sometimes marginalized. Sometimes on the good side of history. Sometimes not. But always lyrics, lyricism, and words have been in the air.”

Weise reaches for a more “concrete” example. “Whenever there’s a creative writing seminar or class in town, there’s almost always a songwriting section included,” he says. “All of the above is why this is Language City, U.S.A.”

Connecting Literature and Music in Language City, U.S.A.

In 2019, NPL saw its book circulation across all formats—print, e-books, audio—increase an impressive 21% over the previous year. Between a growing population and increasingly diverse communities, maintaining a large collection that satisfies existing patrons while attracting new ones can be difficult. But NPL’s material services manager, Noel Rutherford, a self-described “data queen,” is up for it.

“Our job is to be aware of demographics and changes in those demographics,” Rutherford says. “I spend a lot of my time doing community profiles for the library service areas, and we’re having huge changes in Nashville that we have to respond to. We did a survey seven or eight years ago on what languages were spoken [in the home], and we created a multilanguage children’s collection in every branch.”

The estimated foreign-born population settling in the Nashville metro area is a mix (Asia 41.7%, Latin America 24.1%, Africa 18.1%, Europe 14.1%), with more than 25 languages spoken by the city’s residents. NPL’s children’s world language collection currently covers some 28 languages, including roughly 7,000 items.

The world language collection serves three different audiences explains Rutherford. “You’re going to have Americans who want their child to learn a different language; you’re going to have immigrants who want their child to retain their native language; and you’re going to have parents who don’t speak English very well, and their children will take those books home—they’re bilingual and will help them learn English. We look at circulation a lot, and it has done extremely well in almost every branch we put it in.”

Adult foreign-language readers are a priority, too, although the threshold for building a collection is higher. “We look for about 4% of the library service area speaking a language at home for us to add an adult collection,” says Rutherford.

And beyond its book collection, NPL’s various literary programs help Nashvillians discover and connect with books and writers through readings and festivals, while also nurturing aspiring young writers to improve their craft, explore different forms and genres, and connect with each other through workshops and open mics. “A library is a place to participate,” Secor says. “I knew that when I was a kid. I knew that from my own public library. That’s where I went. I was a kid who had lived in five towns by the fifth grade. And the public library in every one of those towns was more familiar to me than many of the schools I attended. I’ve been to libraries in every state all across the United States. Everywhere I’ve played, I’ve been into their library. What makes a town tick is often the question in my mind when I enter a library that I haven’t been in before. The libraries of the United States don’t lie, they’ll tell you what makes a town tick.”

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

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