Picture, in your mind, Kansas City’s leading cultural destinations. The Kauffman Center. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, the Kansas City Symphony, and the Lyric Opera.
John Herron wants you to put the Kansas City Public Library in their company. “I want the Library to be understood as a cultural institution, first and foremost,” its new director says.
Herron, a fixture for 17 years at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, most recently as interim dean of the school’s College of Arts and Sciences, moved into the director’s office on the third floor of the Library’s downtown administrative annex on July 6. He succeeds Crosby Kemper III, who left in January to accept a presidential appointment to head the federal Institute of Museum and Library Sciences.
Kemper wasn’t a librarian by trade — he came from a family of prominent bankers and had been one himself — but nonetheless oversaw the Library’s transformation into an award-winning hub of community engagement over his 15-year tenure. KCPL has been prominent in redefining the role of public libraries nationwide.
Herron, who spent a total of 20 years in higher education, looks to build on that. Books and other traditional library services are still part of it, of course. The advancement of digital inclusion remains a priority in a city that maintains a troubling gap between those who have access to computers and the internet and those in long-underserved areas who, crucially, lack it.
But he also wants to expand the Library’s role as “a community center, a public square, a think tank . . . helping our citizens figure out the world they inhabit,” he says. Herron holds a Ph.D. in history, taught history at three universities, and talks of establishing the Library as “the main repository” of local history and culture. That, he says, includes an active role in studying and lending scholarly perspective to that history.
The Library should be “a real source of social uplift to the community,” he says.
Arts and culture already factor into that. The downtown Central Library features two art galleries, where Exhibits Director Anne Ducey has made a priority of showcasing up-and-coming artists seeking a foothold in the city’s cultural scene. Nine original and traveling exhibits attracted 95,754 visitors in 2019.
That accompanies KCPL’s nationally renowned signature programming, which ranges (when not interrupted by pandemic-induced closures) from evening speaking events and civic forums to script-in-hand readings by Kansas City’s Equity Actors Readers Theatre and musical performances by the Bach Aria Soloists. The Library also partners with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, American Jazz Museum and Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, among other cultural fixtures.
“Yes, it has an educational mission that is very practical, very utilitarian,” Herron says of the Library. “But I don’t want people to think of Kemper Museum and the Art Institute and the Nelson and the Folly and the Lyric and the Symphony and the Kauffman Center as one thing and see the Library as another thing over there. I want that envelope of arts institutions to include the Library, and I think that’s possible.
“I think we can have this conversation in other fields, as well. The Plaza Branch could partner with the Linda Hall Library, with MRIGlobal and the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, and suddenly you’ve got a scientific corridor. The Library is diverse enough, it has enough resources, to be many things to many people.”
Herron, 52, was hardly a stranger to the Library before his selection by its board of trustees. As a history professor at UMKC with a keen interest in Kansas City-area history, he provided editorial oversight in the development of one of the Library’s two digital history websites, The Pendergast Years, which has drawn more than 720,000 page views since launching in February 2018. He co-wrote a companion book, Wide-Open Town: Kansas City in the Pendergast Era, with UMKC colleague Diane Mutti Burke and Library digital history specialist Jason Roe.
Herron has taken the stage as a speaker at four Library events in the past four years, most recently discussing the social and economic structure of the Kansas City Stockyards in April 2019.
A native of western Montana, he earned his doctorate in American history from the University of New Mexico and taught at Tufts University in Boston and the University of San Diego before joining UMKC’s history department in the fall of 2003. He came as an assistant professor. His rise through the school’s ranks culminated in his oversight of the College of Arts and Sciences, which encompasses more than 20 programs and centers, some 450 faculty members and staff and a $28 million annual budget.
He was an educator then. He remains one now, in a wider sense, he says.
“We are broadly defined, in every role at the Library, as educators,” Herron says. “If I’m able to take the skills I learned in the academy as a student, as a scholar, and then as an administrator and apply them to this type of form — education broadly defined, in a community-engaged world — then I think this job makes perfect sense.”
The historian in him still stirs. Herron would dearly love to expand the Library’s menu of historical websites, he says. He carried over a couple of unfinished personal projects, an environmental history of the region and a modern cultural history.
“There’s some content creation that I’d love to be able to do. We’ll see if that’s possible,” he says. “I’m in that happy yet naïve stage where I don’t quite know what my day-to-day life is going to be.
“I do want to do as much community engagement as possible. I know Crosby was good at this. He was in and around and through the community. This is his native city, and his community connections were immense. I want to do much of that same thing, albeit on a different level. What I need to figure out is: What’s my bandwidth? How can I continue to contribute to the community?”
–Steve Weiberg, photos courtesy Kansas City Public Library