Walking around the immense Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library with Keenon McCloy ’86, who has been the Director of the Memphis Public Libraries since 2008, you begin to notice something: she is excited to say hello to everyone who works there. What you discover is that everyone is happy to see her, say hello, and begin a conversation. You might chalk that up to employees being nice to their boss, but it’s not that. They are clearly enthusiastic about their jobs and McCloy.
For instance, Dennis, who’s worked at the library for 42 years, is friendly, chatty, and seems to be the poster child for a determined worker bee. He works mostly out of sight, in the lower level of the library, as a senior cataloguer. He reminds McCloy and her visitors that he’s had his retirement planned for a long time but can’t seem to leave. “That’s the problem with the library, it’s a great place to work,” he said.
Then there’s Dara, who runs the children’s department at the Benjamin Hooks branch, and who is busily shelving some books, but is as friendly as the children’s space is visually. To get to the children’s section, you walk through a playful forest of colorful, sculpted trees—one of the first things you see when entering the lobby. Passing through the trees seems to transport both child and adult alike to a magical place.
McCloy speaks with Ralph Calhoun, audio engineer in Cloud901 at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library.
In Cloud901, a highly popular hub for teens that McCloy helped spearhead the creation of, and where young adults are encouraged to explore their creativity in a myriad of ways, such as music, graphic design, art, video, and photography, we meet Ralph, who is the audio engineer. McCloy asks Ralph what he’s been up to, and he eagerly explains a project he’s been working on for a city park downtown. You can tell he brings that same excitement to his work at the library.
Even during our interview, when she decides there’s someone else who can answer a question better, McCloy pulls out her cell phone and dials Shamichael, the director of the Cossitt Library downtown on Front Street, the first public library location in Memphis. He spends the next 20 minutes exuberantly describing innovative community programming planned for the Cossitt when it reopens after its renovation. The conversation ends with McCloy saying, “Thanks, Shamichael. You can tell he’s awesome, right?” To which Shamichael replies, “It’s all because of Keenon. She’s a great leader, with a great vision; so it’s not too hard to follow that.”
One imagines that these conversations could go on all day. This little microcosm of encounters is a testament to McCloy’s leadership and talent for hiring the right people and her willingness to listen to them and trust them. McCloy is the first to admit she isn’t a librarian by education or training, which made her transition to becoming the library director quite difficult. Instead, she inspires the people who run the day-to-day of the library to think creatively about their work.
The upshot is that the Memphis Public Library is not a place where dusty books sit to collect more dust. There is innovative programming that reaches a large and broad population of the city. Libraries from around the country have visited Memphis to model their own library programs after what’s being done here.
Despite the library being mostly empty of patrons when we visited in September 2020, during the pandemic, McCloy and the library’s employees have continued their work with the same passion. In fact, they’ve been busier than ever, reimagining many programs for online audiences. Their goals are to keep the library relevant and ensure that everyone has access to the information and books that they need.
A Return to Memphis
McCloy never envisioned running a major metropolitan library system in her future. She did know that she wanted to leave Memphis for college after graduating from Hutchison. McCloy’s family, especially her father, were well established in Memphis. “I wanted to see who I could be by myself, on my own, without anyone knowing who I was, and having zero connections,” McCloy said.
She loved the vibe at the University of California, Santa Cruz, but once she visited the University of California, Berkeley, about an hour and a half to the north, she knew that was where she would go. “Not one person I knew lived anywhere close to there.”
She majored in history, with a minor in conservation resource studies, which was a precursor to today’s environmental science degrees. “I wanted to be an environmental lawyer or a civil rights lawyer,” McCloy reflected.
In 1991, after graduating from Berkeley, McCloy returned to Memphis to check in on family but didn’t plan on staying. Then fate seemed to intervene. A family connection, local attorney Jim Gilliland, was working with then-mayor-elect Willie Herenton on his transition team. He introduced McCloy to Herenton, who interviewed her and hired her. She joined the transition team and became a trusted aide to the mayor. She thought Herenton’s request to give him a year was inconceivable, but the next thing she knew, she was celebrating her five-year anniversary.
Eventually, Herenton asked McCloy to manage the City of Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center (MSARC), which she did for a year, and then she moved to the city’s Division of Public Services and Neighborhoods. This division oversees MSARC and more than 20 other city agencies or service centers. After six years, McCloy became the division’s director.
One of the services under this division’s supervision was the library system. When Herenton decided to replace the longtime library director, McCloy was tapped, but she got caught in a bit of a firestorm. The previous director was well-liked, had served for two decades, and had won a coveted National Medal for Museum and Library Service in her last year.
People questioned why McCloy, who did not have a master of library and information science degree, was tapped for the post. This was a big strike against her. Herenton insisted that McCloy was a good manager and that she could run the library even without the degree.
McCloy remembered the time as one of the most challenging of her life. So she did what she knew best: she talked to people who worked at the library. “I took about the first six months to listen and ask questions. I had to build trust.”
In retrospect, she knows that she brought some valuable skills with her to the library directorship. “I had an understanding of how you get what you need from the city, how to position things with the city, how the city works,” McCloy recalled. “I understood how the city budgeted. I understood the calendars and when everything needed to be done. I understood expectations.
“There was a lot of resistance because I came from the administration,” McCloy remembered, “but then eventually they accepted me.”
Keeping the Library Relevant
One of the most common questions McCloy hears is, “With Google, why do we need a library?” The questioner then offers a standard litany of modern-day replacements: digital books, audio books, online news, music and film streaming sites, Google searches, and so on.
McCloy’s answer: “Google can’t hold your hand. Google can’t sympathize with you or empathize with you. Google is not going to be there when you need them.”
What does she mean by this?
One example is helping people search for and apply for jobs. “Everything is online these days. Many people don’t have a computer, don’t know how to get online, don’t know how to search for a job, and they require a lot of handholding,” McCloy explained.
In addition to job searches and training resources, people reach out to find out about community services, for college preparation, for classes on health and wellness, to learn languages, and for questions about immigration and citizenship, just to name a few things.
“The library is all about
eliminating barriers to access.”
In 2019, for instance, the library had over 2.5 million visitors in person and online, with over 1.3 million items borrowed. Of the nearly 170,000 people who attended programming at the library, about eight percent attended sessions on job or career help, almost 19 percent came for youth STEAM programs, around 28 percent showed up for youth literature programs, and almost half, or nearly 45 percent, enjoyed some kind of lifelong learning program.
As the pandemic took hold in March of 2020, the library was not immune to the shutdowns that were happening across the country. Memphians temporarily lost their connection to the in-person programs offered by the library, and their daily or weekly access to books, media, and resources. Like so many others, McCloy and her team had to pivot quickly.
The numbers show how they responded. In March and April, the Library Information Center (LINC) saw an increase in usage of 27 percent over previous months. LINC, which is easily reached by dialing 2-1-1, maintains a large, comprehensive database of human services organizations, government agencies, and volunteer groups, and can help direct people who have issues with utilities, food, child care, or other situations. Also, during this time, the library increased its ebook/eaudio collection by almost 35 percent, adding nearly 12,000 titles. Lynda.com, an online tutorial site that library cardholders can access for free, saw a 350 percent increase in usage. The library’s TV station, WYPL, began broadcasting the City of Memphis/Shelby County Joint COVID Task Force updates. Library staff served as part of a team doing contact tracing for the Shelby County Health Department. Partnering with the Shelby County Schools and YMCA, library drivers distributed meals to five library locations.
Virtual programming also skyrocketed, with as many as 4,000 customers tuning in for 60 unique programs. Not everything went smoothly, McCloy said. She explained that they had to try out several live meeting platforms before they settled on Instagram Live, but like many other people, they adjusted and learned from their mistakes.
“The staff are excited about their work; they want to do more,” McCloy said. “It’s very inspirational to look at what’s happening here. Previous to the pandemic, we normally would have 500 volunteers: 250 who run WYPL TV in conjunction with the staff, and 250 who are sorting and selling books.”
Inspiring Teen Customers and Creating More Access
One of McCloy’s biggest successes was opening Cloud901, the teen technology lab, in 2015. Teens were welcome at the library, but there were often complaints about them from other library patrons because the teenagers didn’t know how to occupy their time. While attending a conference in a Chicago library, McCloy saw a space that had been set aside for teens to basically hang out and do STEAM projects and other activities. It opened her eyes that Memphis needed this kind of space.
She recalled someone saying, “All you have to do is spark curiosity, and the kids will take it from there.”
McCloy decided to dream much bigger. After consulting with many experts, the funding was secured, and the space was built. The state-of-the-art lab is 8,300-square feet and features video and audio production labs, editing and mixing stations, a performance area, a maker space, and room for creative exploration and even homework. The goal of Cloud901 is for teens, ages 13–18, to develop skills such as innovation, collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving.
“Cloud901 was sort of a turning point for me, because it showed that we were reinventing ourselves,” McCloy said. “It has been a game-changer. It is literally talked about across the country. The library directors in San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles will often say, ‘Believe it or not, you need to go to Memphis. Just go to Cloud901.’ That’s pretty exciting, but it’s reflective of our staff again. I’ve encouraged our staff to share their skills, not only with teenagers, but with coworkers as well.”
The concept has been so successful, she added, that they are starting to replicate the idea in other branches, such as the new branch being built in Raleigh. Additionally, they’re now creating tween spaces for ages 9–12.
The other important detail about Cloud901 is that it’s all free. “Most libraries charge for something like that,” McCloy said. “That’s a barrier to access, and we’re all about eliminating barriers to access.” Last year, McCloy and her staff continued to put their money where their mouths are when they decided to do away with overdue fines. The result was they were able to reactivate more than 82,000 accounts that had previously been blocked.
“Cloud901 was sort of a turning point for me,
because it showed that we were reinventing ourselves.”
Another concept McCloy and her staff are testing out is creating more flexible spaces. In the new Raleigh branch and the renovated Frayser and Cossitt branches, she said shelves and walls will mostly be on casters, so that instead of having walls and rooms, the spaces can be defined by the needs of the event or situation. “We don’t know what libraries are going to look like,” she explained.
Keenon McCloy in front of the unique tree-filled entrance to the children's department at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library
The Ideal Hutchison Girl
Reflecting on her years at Hutchison, McCloy remembered: “We had extremely passionate teachers who were inspired and could teach. I think about Margaret Tabor ’55, Pat Newberry (honorary alumna), and David Doss. They were incredible teachers. They were positive and challenging. They wanted to bring out the best that we had to offer, and they didn’t want us coasting. They wanted us to do more. I was ready for college when I got to Berkeley, and not everybody was, but the foundation provided by Hutchison was extremely solid.”
She said she still thinks and dreams about the Ideal Hutchison Girl. “I wasn’t the ideal Hutchison girl, but those characteristics are important: honest, understanding, trustworthy, courteous, humble, industrious, sincere, obedient, and noble. All of those are characteristics that I think about. Do I reflect those characteristics? Not that I have to be the ideal, but that is the Hutchison ideal. That has been a framing for me. I’ve always wanted to be each of those things and have endeavored to be. I’m not there yet, but I’ll keep trying.”