How Memphis Created the Nation’s Most Innovative Public Library

Case Studies

Smithsonian Magazine | Richard Grant | November 2021

Article Link: How Memphis Created the Nation’s Most Innovative Public Library

A must read! Dig into this deep feature story to learn more about the innovative work of the Memphis Public Libraries.

Innovate Memphis is proud to support the Memphis Public Libraries, and the downtown Cossitt Library branch as part of a cornerstone of the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative.

In a city with a very high poverty rate, their libraries are oases of care, civility, activity and opportunity.

A brief excerpt from the feature story:

With partial funding from a national nonprofit initiative, Reimagining the Civic Commons, the city was linking the Mississippi River promenade with a garden, park and relocated museum to form a new public space, with the Cossitt Library as its cornerstone. The goal was to bring together Memphians from different backgrounds. Hallman was hired to lead a $6 million renovation of the Cossitt branch.

Standing outside the steel-and-glass facade of the Cossitt—almost nothing remains of the original 1893 building—Hallman explains the challenge he faces. “We have a large, affluent community downtown, so we’re fighting for relevance,” he says. “We’ll have an outdoor yoga space with trees, and a café with artisanal food and drinks inside the library. We’ll have work stations, meeting rooms, sewing and knitting and embroidery equipment. We also have a lot of homeless people downtown, and we’ll be inviting them to dinners and other events with the more affluent folks.”

In recent years, there has been a migration of creative talent into the revitalizing downtown. “Filmmakers, artists, musicians, textile designers, podcasters,” says Hallman. “So we have an audio-video studio with $30,000 of equipment and laptops loaded with e-commerce software. We want to be an incubator for entrepreneurs, so we’ve got a workshop and co-working spaces with printers and whiteboards. Upstairs there’s a 2,500-square-foot performance space, which can be used for acting classes, conferences, dance classes and performances.” The Cossitt branch will function as a place to eat, learn, exercise, run a business, make art and meet people, driven entirely by altruism. 

A full list of the programs and initiatives underway in the Memphis Public Libraries system would fill this magazine. Most significant, perhaps, MPL is building teen centers modeled on Cloud901 at other branches, and there’s a major push for libraries to go mobile. Vans emblazoned with the “Start Here” logo, and loaded with books and technology, are showing up at festivals, food truck sites, rodeos and other gathering places. 

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