Photography and renderings provided.
When David Johnson became the director of the Fayetteville Public Library in 2012, he did not expect to be overseeing a major expansion.
“The previous director told me, ‘The next library director is going to have to expand the library,’ and I didn’t really believe it at first. The library had just opened in 2004, and it was practically brand new. But I quickly realized our library was being loved to death,” Johnson said.
Few libraries around the country have continued to remain as popular as the FPL. Active library cardholders represent 80 percent of Fayetteville’s population; the national average for public libraries is 54 percent. The FPL welcomes nearly 600,000 visitors every year. While most public libraries have had to decrease their physical holdings in the face of e-books and digital media, Johnson likes to joke that the Fayetteville population would riot if he tried to take away their books.
“Our challenges are different than other public libraries. People love to come to the library,” Johnson said. “You don’t have to work to get people in the door, but you have to continue to stay ahead of them.”
The award-winning library has to keep up with the needs of its enthusiastic community, particularly as Fayetteville’s population rapidly grows. The expansion will cost $50 million overall; about half was raised through a bond initiative in Fayetteville, and the other half is still being raised through private donations. The current library is 88,000-square feet, and the expansion will add 82,500 square feet, nearly doubling the facility. Although the physical holdings will increase from 300,000 to 400,000 items, the library’s new and expanded programs will focus on providing for needs beyond basic literacy.
The youth services department will be completely revamped. The space will double, increasing from 16,000-square feet to 32,000-square feet. The department will essentially be divided into sub-libraries, according to Johnson, designed for three different age groups: preschool, grade school and teenage children.
Gathering spaces also will increase. The library hosts major speakers four to five times a year, such as author Lois Lowry and television host and actor LeVar Burton, and the events are enormously popular. The crowd would overfill the previous auditorium to the point that workers had to move entire bookshelves to increase audience space. The new auditorium seats 700 people while also being entirely multipurpose. Auditorium furniture retracts into the wall, and the room can transform into a 500-seat banquet hall, a concert space or a convention center. The room also has a professional stage with two catwalks.
The number of meeting and study rooms in the library will increase from six to 22, allowing for more “collaboration space,” according to Johnson.
The library’s new Center of Innovation, originally designed as a makerspace, will be one of the most cutting-edge facilities in the state. It will include an entire audio recording studio, a visual studio for film and animation, a virtual reality lab for coding education and a full photography studio. The space will give library-goers an artistic outlet with state-of-the-art technology to hone their crafts while also providing opportunities for workforce development. The center includes a simulation lab where students can take courses in driving, trucking or flying, potentially preparing them for future careers.
“Not every kid goes to college, and these courses can prepare them and teach skills that will help them after high school,” Johnson said. “My hope is that these courses will help move their resumes right to the top of the stack.”
The new teaching kitchen will also give students opportunities to gain experience prior to joining the workforce. Students from Northwest Arkansas Community College’s Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food in Bentonville will come to the library to teach high school students, who will receive concurrent credit through the classes. Johnson plans for the younger students to graduate with associate’s degrees through this program. Adults will also have opportunities to take classes through the culinary program and gain certifications in food service, like Servsafe, that will make them more qualified to work in restaurants.
The original opening dates for the library’s expansion were Oct. 9-10, but complications due to the coronavirus pandemic caused several delays. Construction now is in its final stages, and hard-hat tours began in October. Johnson estimates that the library will open Dec. 1-3. The opening tours most likely will resemble the reopenings at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and The Momentary, which requires timed tickets to guarantee limited capacity and proper social distancing. Johnson is working with the Fayetteville City Board of Health to ensure that both guests and employees remain safe.
“We obviously can’t do a typical opening the way we would want, so we will have a new way of introducing the expansion to the community,” he said.