There was even a ferris wheel! A portion of Superior Avenue was closed July 27 for the CPL 150 Street Festival, a daylong event that included music, dancing, chalk art, a puppet show and variety of other fun and educational activities for kids and adults. The free festival, attended by more than 10,000 people, was the Cleveland Public Library’s way of celebrating its sesquicentennial and saying thanks to the city for 150 years of patronage.
Of course, not all of CPL’s programming is quite as flamboyant as its anniversary programming, which began in February and ends January 20, 2020. Every year, the library system presents 20,000 educational and entertaining programs, and a number were highlighted for this special year. But it’s no surprise the street festival was a success.
Felton Thomas Jr., CPL executive director, served as director of Regional Branch Services for the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District in Nevada before coming to Cleveland in 2009.
“You can’t live in Las Vegas and not have a little showman in you,” says Thomas, who plays the drums, performed in a heavy metal-punk band as a youth and juggles.
Thomas came to Cleveland during the country’s most recent recession and says, “The library had taken a hard hit.”
“I told my staff that we had a choice. We could hunker down and survive or we could rethink what we need to do, knowing that our community needed us more than ever,” says Thomas, a Shaker Heights resident. “We started changing our mindset from being a traditional library to one that can battle community deficits, including illiteracy and unemployment. I am very proud of the staff that took that challenge. We became busier than we had been in the past 50 years.”
Many people overlook libraries as institutions of learning, says Thomas, despite the fact that book discussions, free tutoring, creative writing workshops, author appearances, art and music appreciation, computer skills and language classes are offered, just to name a few opportunities. CPL also has found several clever ways to encourage reading in a variety of environments, as well as responding to staff and patrons’ ideas.
For example, the Edgewater BookBox is a mini library housed in a renovated shipping container in Edgewater Park that offers books, DVDs and crafts to those enjoying the beach and Lake Erie in summers. Also, Warm Up Cleveland is an initiative that began when a staff member who liked to knit donated all her yarn to the library after her death. People she taught to knit started a knitting club at one branch, and now the group’s mittens, gloves and scarves (plus public knitting donations) are donated to children in homeless centers.
“It’s a great example of how little things can be knitted into much larger things,” says Thomas, noting that CPL has been designated a five-star library (the top tier) by Library Journal for the past five years.“People say, ‘We have Google and the internet. Why do we need libraries?’ The library has evolved as people have evolved. When people visit libraries, they have ways to get involved and be around other people,” says Thomas. “Come in and experience a local branch. My wish is that everyone would take the time to visit at least one library this year.”