Arts News: Kansas City Public Library Celebrates its 150th Anniversary

The Library anniversary-themed streetcar stops at Union Station on its inaugural trip through downtown Kansas City. (KCPL)

On Oct. 7, 2002, in a gathering at Kansas City Public Library’s Central Library, cultural historian Vartan Gregorian observed: “I believe libraries represent and embody the spirit of humanities, a spirit that has been extolled throughout history by countless writers, artists, scholars, philosophers, theologians, scientists, teachers and ordinary men and women in a myriad of tongues and dialects.”

That spirit had its modest beginning in Kansas City in 1873 with a collection of eight bound volumes in an $8 oak bookcase in the office of the Kansas City Public Schools superintendent’s office. Today, having graduated from the public school system, KCPL has expanded to 10 branches and has nearly 200,000 card holders. In 2022 more than 600,000 people walked through library doors and over 3 million visited via its Digital Branch.

Along the way KCPL has amassed numerous awards. In 2008, at a White House ceremony, it received the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor for museums and libraries.

Among the many achievements the library has been recognized for are its address of inequities in public access to digital technology, its groundbreaking efforts in children’s and youth services and programming, and its role in providing a conduit for vital social services for marginalized populations.

On Dec. 5, the library kicked off its sesquicentennial with a well-chosen theme, “150 Years of Discovery.” The opening event was highlighted by a keynote address from urbanist Tommi Laitio, Fellow at the Bloomberg Center for Public Innovation at Johns Hopkins University. An urbanist and innovative civic leader, Laitio is known for his work exploring the need to create public spaces that facilitate conviviality.

Future speakers in the library’s year-long celebration include award-winning author, groundbreaking Marvel Comics writer and distinguished University of Chicago sociologist Eve Ewing on March 8; celebrated radio journalist and writer Ari Shapiro, the host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” on June 13; and on Sept. 24, the week before Banned Books Week, the iconic Canadian poet, novelist and literary champion, Margaret Atwood, whose works include the often contested “The Handmaid’s Tale” and its sequel, “The Testaments.”

To this will be added a series of exhibits of Kansas City artists Harold Smith and Chico Sierra and New York-based artist Andrea Burgay. Also planned are shows featuring the works of Indigenous artists curated from the collection of Travois, the Kansas City-based company that promotes housing and economic development for American Indians, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities; and a recontextualization of historic art from the library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections.

A major highlight of the library’s anniversary year will be the new Central Library’s 20th anniversary. Completed in 2004, the adaptive reuse of the historic First National Bank building at 10th and Baltimore, with its marble columns, bronze doors and ornate moldings, has become an architectural gem and made a significant contribution to the rejuvenation of the urban core.

Catching people’s attention is a new library logo posted around the city. As explained in a press release by the library, “the owl in the circle encapsulates what’s been happening at the Library for the past 150 years. A library is a place where circles at times intersect and at other times widen concentrically. Within those circles are life experiences, interests and individual philosophies overlapping and intersecting as patrons and staff members come together to make the Library what it is: hubs of discovery and learning crisscrossed with well-worn pathways toward satisfying individual curiosity.”

Offering an historical perspective on the occasion, Jonathan Kemper, who has served on the library board since 2001 and as chair from 2005 to 2022, has commented: “The leaders of Kansas City were early on among American cities in establishing the public library, which interestingly enough was instituted from the start to include a broader mission.” Kemper then cited the “Library Report of 1881”: “Our city is rapidly assuming metropolitan proportions. We need a circulating library, with a reading room, art galleries and the like — a fountain of intelligence and refinement, whose pure waters shall flow into the palace of the rich and the cottage of the poor, bringing health, prosperity and happiness. It can be relied upon that this library is permanent, and much can be expected of it.”

KCPL Library and Chief Executive John Herron has imagined that the library’s founders “would be amazed by the . . . rapid changes in technology and delivery of information. But it would be my hope that they would see an adherence to the core mission they laid out in 1873 still present in 2023 . . . that they would agree that the institution they took such care to build is, first and foremost, dedicated to the empowerment of this community.”

For more about special events for KCPL’s sesquicentennial, visit kclibrary.org.

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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