October 2010 | Nicholas Basbanes

Little Rock Centennial

The Little Rock Public Library—known since 1975 as the Central Library of Arkansas System, or CALS—is observing it's hundredth birthday this year, an ongoing celebration that I was pleased to participate in last week with a talk at the main library, a bustling operation that last year accommodated close to 2 million customers, some 37,400 visitors a week, and on track now to exceed that number for 2010. The figures for book circulation, 2.3 million volumes, 44,300 a week, are also up 11 percent from 2008, yet another indicator of just how essential the public library remains as a cultural institution in our daily lives.

What really knocked me off my feet on this trip, though, was the fantastic second-hand bookstore owned by CALS in downtown Little Rock, the first such public library initiative of its kind to my experience, and operated since 2001 in support of the library. Called River Market Books & Gifts, the store occupies three floors in the Cox Building, a beautifully restored machinery warehouse that dates to 1906, and includes a chic cafe, art gallery and creative center for various library programs. The variety of used books is spectacular, I must say, and because all are donated, they are offered for sale at exceedingly fair prices (and in remarkably decent condition as well.)

The operation, called River Market Books, has books on three floors, all of them donated as part of an ongoing program coordinated by an active Friends of the Library group that also mounts three major book sales a year. In 2009, 140,462 books, hardcover and paperback combined, were sold, raising $76,092; for the two sales already held this year, the numbers are $56,701 and 101,589 books sold. All of the books, once again, are donated, and all of the work for the sales is done by volunteers. Pretty amazing stuff.

My thanks to Bobby Roberts, the library director, and Susan Hill Gele, director of public relations, for making my visit to Little Rock so thoroughly enjoyable, and indeed, so productive. (I found four books in the Cox Building, including a John H. Jenkins catalog from 1979, "Five Centuries of Printing, 1450-1978," featuring at least one title from each of the first 500 years of print, a particularly welcome item to my shelves, and mine for the grand price of $6.)

Also on the docket was a visit to the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, and a good tour of the collections there provided by Rob Seibert, the archivist. One of Seibert's collateral duties is supervision of the referennce library, which now includes 660 books written about former president Bill Clilnton and his administration, quite a bookshelf of historical inquiry and commentary, and growing all the time.