More than Just Books: The Grand Rapids Public Library

by Kayla Tucker | photography by Two Eagles Marcus

Walking into the Grand Rapids Public Library (GRPL) feels like stepping into a significant piece of history: The heavy doors open to a marble lobby with a tall skylight that fills the room with a glow of natural light. A staff member (or two) greets you as you enter, and as you step through the hallway to the five level atrium, the building opens up to a magnificent display of architecture and space. There’s quiet chatter all around, and perhaps the babble of a baby here and there. There are many types of people here for many different reasons, all  brought together by the resources offered by this paramount institution.

A Brief History

In November of 1871, a truly essential and historic foundation was built when three community forces came together to form the GRPL. With just more than 4,000 books to start, the first free public library opened its doors by way of the Grand Rapids Board of Education, the Ladies Literary Association and the YMCA, who pooled their books to serve the city’s population of 16,000.

The GRPL would go through many changes over the next century and beyond. It was part of the first city hall that opened in 1888, with a collection of 35,000 volumes, and in 1891, Lucy Ball, daughter of famed Grand Rapidian John Ball, was appointed head librarian. In 1901, City Attorney John Patton contacted Andrew Carnegie, who promised $150,000 to the library in support. Former GR resident Martin Antoine Ryerson also offered $150,000 for a new building. The next year the building went up, with a central skylight and tall windows, granite from Indiana and marble from Italy and the United States. Fast-forward to 1962, when a $2.8 million plan was adopted to expand and update the structure. In 2000, three years after securing a capital millage, focus turned to renovating the building. Three years later, there is a grand opening marrying the two very differently constructed buildings together; walking through the front doors of the GRPL, one can see the original atrium and skylight in the Ryerson building.

Community Work

Over the years, the GRPL has proven itself to be a necessary asset to the city.

“We have always strived to be a really good resource to the community,” Marla Ehlers, GRPL Assistant Director, said.

In fact, GRPL was one of the first libraries in the nation to have a children’s department. They are also one of the few organizations that focuses specifically on reading proficiency from the ages 0-5 years old.

“We wanted to make sure that right from birth— even before, read to your child in the womb — that parents and caregivers are really focusing on that child and those early literacy skills,” Ehlers explained.

The library offers preschool, toddler and baby,  family, and bilingual storytimes. The five early literacy practices storytimes focus on are reading, writing, talking, singing and playing.

“Playing is part of literacy because when you’re engaged in dramatic play, that helps you use language and create story,” Ehlers expressed.

Moving up the age scale, the library stays with kids as they grow up, and older children can join the Summer Reading Challenge, which has been around for at least 70 years. Statistics show that kids who participate in the Summer Reading Challenge advance in scholastic levels beyond their peers.

“[For] many children, their scholastic abilities halt in the spring and don’t progress over the summer and often they actually backtrack,” Ehlers said. “If they join our Summer Reading Challenge, they can at least stay at grade level.”

Assistant Director Marla Ehlers explores the DVD library at the GRPL

The official mission statement of GRPL is “connecting people to the transforming power of knowledge.”

For adults, there’s the GR Reads program which spends the summer focusing on 10 books and provides 28 experiences related to those titles, such as author discussions and film screenings.

Ehlers said there’s a stereotype that libraries are no longer needed because of our ready access to technology and the Internet, but the library has proven to be more than a holding house for books; the official mission statement of GRPL is “connecting people to the transforming power of knowledge.”

“Libraries are important to foster community,” Communications Manager Kristen Krueger-Corrado said. “One of the reasons we do programming for both children and adults is to create community. You go to a storytime and you see the parents who bring their children every week, and you realize that they know each other.”

The library serves as a tool of empowerment for many members of the community and provides resources for stability. Many of the city’s homeless population find refuge in spending time at the library, and GRPL staff have contacts and information for the various shelters in Grand Rapids.

“There are many reasons why people find themselves in a situation like that and we are one of the links in the chain that will hopefully help them get out of that situation,” Ehlers said.

GRPL staff also assist people in using the computers, which offer free Internet access for anyone with a library card (also free), and applying for jobs online.

More Than Just Books

In all of the eight GRPL branches, there is a total of one million physical items. This includes DVDs, books, Ebooks, audiobooks and magazines.

One of the notable offerings is the expansive graphic novel collection, which is also the fastest moving (materials being checked in and out) collection in the library.

There is a special focus on bringing programming to teens, which arguably can be a time where many children grow out of their excitement of reading and going to the library.

“We felt it important to have a separate teen-nonfiction area because you’re going through all these changes in life, you may not want your mom to know what you’re looking into,” Ehlers said. “So you can browse the teen area and find things that are relevant to you.”

Additionally, GRPL also hosts a teen poetry group that was founded by a local teenager.

Slightly hidden on the fourth floor, The Local History Department may not be known to everyone but it carries a wide range of historical materials relating to Grand Rapids dating back to the 1800s. Many people use this department as a resource for personal history, article or book research, or for school assignments.

The archives located on the fourth floor of GRPL holds more than 500 archival collections relating to Grand Rapids history.

“This floor is just a treasure trove of information,” library assistant Colleen Alles said. “We have almost 500 archival collections, that number is growing allthe time. Tons of photographs, family histories and
paper records.”

The library has made an effort to have Spanish speaking staff as well as staff who are proficient in American Sign Language available at all times. GRPL also connects visually impaired patrons to the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped through the Library of Congress.

Many entrepreneurs find a home at the GRPL  not only by using the office space provided, but getting assistance in all the different aspects of starting a business. One notable local business that got on its feet through the library’s resources is Malamiah Juice Bar, located in the Downtown Market.

There are countless ways that the public library silently affects the community every single day; from starting a business, encouraging your child to read, finding that address of your great-great aunt you’ve been wondering about, checking out a movie you’ve been dying to see, or just simply looking for a new book to read, GRPL is a trove of discovery waiting for you to step inside and take a look around.


KaylaTuckerOnlineBio
Kayla Tucker is a multimedia journalism student at GVSU. She’s a local freelance writer and enjoys spending time with her husband, her kitty and her family. When she’s not writing, she likes to go on nature walks, do yoga and paint. 


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