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The Main Library Turns 20: Staff Memories

June 26, 2021

What advice do you get from a librarian?

Believe in your shelf!

Hahaaa, you know I'm here all day.

If you've already read part 1 in this series, you're already caught up on the history of the downtown libraries. If not, I encourage you to check it out. It's a bit long, but there's so much history to our institution! If you'd rather just read about the library from our staff members' perspectives, please read on.

Since we're celebrating the Main Library's 20th anniversary, I reached out to several staff members that were working here in 2001, and I received some great memories, stories, and reflections.

Reference staff at Main when the Library opened
The Reference Staff at the Main Library, shortly after it opened.
Howard Library Book List
Over 135 Years of Library History of the Nashville Public Library through photos, clippings and other ephemera.

Read on and enjoy!

Miriam Barrett, Librarian in Adult Services (Main Library)

"I can remember the moving of the Non-Fiction book collection from Ben West to the new Main Library. The Main Library closed for a whole month. There was much work putting books in Dewey order at Ben West and moving them onto large wooden book carts, which were then shrink-wrapped. After the wooden carts moved to the new Main Library, there were multitudes of numbered, wooden book carts all down the main aisle of Non-Fiction. There was much animated discussion of Excel spreadsheets and how many shelves were needed for each Dewey Decimal section. All hands on deck helped shelve books from the wooden carts onto the new shelves; we sometimes worked in 'book brigades', akin to bucket brigades. One staffer commented, 'I just cannot put one book on the new shelves until every book is in proper Dewey order on this wooden cart!' Such opinions slowed things and made it more difficult to gauge the space necessary for each subject category. There was inevitable readjusting of books on the new shelves, once we learned how much space each Dewey area needed. Eventually, all was well!"

"It was fun to wear white gloves and unpack and shelve books in the new Wilson Room on the third floor at the Main Library. I was able to meet and talk to the late Mrs. Sadye Tune Wilson, a lovely lady who donated her Limited Editions books illustrated by famous artists to Nashville Public Library. The books are fascinating!"

"I also remember that once we had our grand opening, we all dressed up nicely and proudly helped patrons find what they needed. We were proud of our new building and of our customer service! Attire was dressier than it is now. We loved to give tours; most patrons were impressed!"

Liz Coleman, Librarian in Adult Services (Main Library)

Liz Coleman with other library staff, working at the new Main Library
Librarian Liz Coleman on the right, helping shelve books at the new Main Library.

"So my memory is of standing in the Grand Reading Room, looking out the windows at the parade of people bringing books down what was then Capitol Blvd. There was a group of musicians from the Symphony standing on the balcony, and as they stepped out to play the fanfare that had been written by Schermerhorn, we could see that the backs of their tuxedos were covered in limestone dust from where they had been leaning against the new building! What a magical day that was!"

Kyle Cook, Librarian (Main Library) 

"The non-fiction area of the third floor consists of a length of shelves the size of a football field; 10 times larger than Ben West Library. There was the original collection, brought over on saran-wrapped moving carts, as well as new books in boxes, to be interfiled."

"After putting together the shelves, getting the books to fit evenly on the new shelves took some doing. It was difficult to calculate, for example, how many shelves the 300 Dewey Decimal range would consist of. This meant days of carrying entire aisles of books back and forth to new shelves. Bonus being that when we opened, we could locate the exact shelf location of many books from memory, since we'd placed it there ourselves."

"There are four fire exit staircases. We became very familiar with all of them before opening; going up and down these endlessly during moving. After we opened, we used the grand staircase in the middle of the building, exclusively. This took time to get used to. I remember evacuating for false alarms often in 2001."

Susan Drye, Assistant Director for Administrative Services

"As we approach celebrating 20 years of the Main Library being open, I was asked to give some memories of that time. What I remember most is the excitement in the air. In May of 2001, the old Ben West Library closed to 'pack up' staff items, computers, books, equipment, etc. and get everything moved into the new facility. I was also a part of the building process and knew we were still trying to get the courtyard finished up to and past the grand opening date. The day before the grand opening, painters were still painting, doing touch-up, finishing trim, etc. It came down to the wire. The anticipation of moving into the new building and opening was palpable. The process was well organized. We had our oops of course but were able to work out everything that was needed to reopen in the new building. 

On grand opening day, my mother had come to Nashville to be a part of the celebration. I grew up in Clarksville and we did not have anything so grand as this new library was going to be. Mother wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I was so proud to be able to show her the new digs. On that morning, Mother was outside to hear the guest speakers and be a part of the crowd. I was on the inside of the building along with security staff and public service staff that were getting ready to open the doors. We were prepared; we were ready! 

We could hear the loudspeakers from inside, but we couldn’t really hear the speeches. At one point I had gone to the Special Collections area to look out the window to see how many people showed up. I was shocked to see a sea of people up Capital Boulevard. I thought to myself, 'All these people are going to come in the library?' I heard the loudspeakers stop which was the signal we were about to open the front door. I ran around to the mezzanine to watch the people come through the doors. Security opened the front doors and the crowd came pulsing through, looking in amazement and wonder. The crowd flowed naturally up the stairs and to the elevators. They went everywhere. I distinctly remember having the biggest smile on my face and being so delighted in that moment. I was honored to know what we had accomplished in building this new library and envisioning what was to come. 

I’ve now worked for the Public Library 22 years and don’t regret one day of that service. I still look forward to coming to work every day. As an entity, we’re not perfect. Some of the paint in the building has changed. Some of the areas have been renovated and altered. Staff have come and gone and we don’t always get everything right, but when I walk into the building in the morning, I know how special an institution it is, what we represent, who we serve and how lucky I am to be a part of it."

Crowd coming into the library on the day of the grand opening on June 9th, 2001
Crowd coming into the new lobby after the grand opening, on June 9th, 2001

Ken Fieth, Metro Archivist

"The funding for the new Library was part of the general tax rate increase. I was sitting behind Donna when the bill came to a vote. It passed. There was sporadic applause, but I remember someone coming by to see Donna. She was seated near the front of the audience benches. He handed her a copy of the passed bill with the inscription in ink at the top - 'Congratulations'. She was so moved by that."

Sign advertising Metro Council meeting

Betsy Fisher, Retired Former Library Manager and Head of Reference

"We had already moved into the building phase of the new library when Director Donna Nicely asked me to find out what our address would be. I called Public Works and when I explained what I needed I was asked 'What number do you want?' It turned out there were several street numbers associated with the block because of the number of businesses that had resided on the street and we could have our pick. As he rattled off the possibilities one of them was 615 and I said 'That’s it! But I’ll have to run it by the Director.' Both she and the Assistant Director loved the idea of our address reflecting our area code and so 615 Church became our location."

"The third floor of the library as it appeared on opening day was actually the flip side of what was proposed in the final blueprints; the circulating collection was to be on the westside instead of where it ended up. At the last moment the Circulation Manager pointed out that the Circulation Workroom was on the east side and it meant all the carts of books to be shelved would have to go through the lobby or down a floor and over to get to the west side elevator. We all agreed that didn’t make sense. The architect said 'not a problem,' took his pencil and flipped the sides!"

"The proposed teen area was just supposed to be the long hallway at the back of the third floor that connected the two sides of the building. During our meeting with Stern [the architect], Ron Perry (Ref Manager) and I asked how wide this hallway was, was it wide enough for tables and chairs? We were thinking about how we could make it more inviting and an actual area. Stern said something to the effect of taking it a step further and then with his pencil and he drew lines that bumped out the section so it over- looked the courtyard. And that is how the Teen Area ended up with such a primo view of the garden."

Brian Hull, Wishing Chair Productions Puppet Troupe

"I remember how joyous it was - everyone was thrilled, staff and patrons alike. People couldn't wait to get in to explore the building and no one was disappointed. I often describe it as being similar to the scene in the WIZARD OF OZ, where everything goes from black and white to color. A beautiful day."

Phil Krakowiak, Librarian at the Madison Branch

"Since I started with NPL in ’92, I had the opportunity to be 'involved' with the planning for the new space that the Reference dept. would occupy (at least for a while), in the new building. We did many reviews of blueprints and some staff did a lot of shelf-counting and revising. I remember the hard hat tours we did to the site after the old Church St. Centre was demolished and the structure of the new Main Library was getting underway. Since I always had an interest in architecture and design, I always appreciated these opportunities and walk-throughs as it progressed. I also remember we initially had 3 models of the proposed new building design on display: one by Michel Graves and the other, a glass-oriented college-campus-style option, and the third winning entry of course, by Robert AM Stern’s firm. I wasn’t sure that was the right choice but in hindsight – it definitely was!"

"Overall my lasting impressions were of how great everything looked on opening day after lots of work and planning. We all worked as teams and some of the admin like Vivian Wynn, Bruce Farrar and Collections mgr. Rob Pasco spring to mind. Ron Perry was head of Reference, and he and Betsy Fisher led our staff.
I was a bit surprised at all the last-minute work still being done in the Grand Reading Room to get everything ready – the fade paint up near the top was just being finished, and the place was a maze of scaffolding. Masonry work, sanding, carpet installation – everything seemed to be going on simultaneously to meet the June 9th deadline. It was still going on, up to the final hours it seemed."

"[on the day of the grand opening] It was a great memorable day – very hot outside and the staff gathered near the Grand Reading Room side entrance to watch a small brass/horn section being led in by conductor Ken Schermerhorn. They went out onto the balcony to herald the opening - Very uplifting! A large crowd outside gathered and Phil Bredesen was rightfully acknowledged, as much of this was due to his Administration’s push for library expansion. I also remember Robert Stern sitting in the periodicals area reviewing his slides shortly after we opened, and artist Greg Ridley doing personal tours of his copper inlay panels for small groups. I was lucky enough to get in on one. We were all thrilled at how beautiful the new Main Library looked and enjoyed getting the inside feel for all the different areas before changes inevitably started happening…so in short a hectic mess with lots of teamwork, coordination and anticipation and a great grand opening day!"

Debbie May, Library Associate for Special Collections

"I have a couple of memories that deal with the opening of our present location. Just before our present building opened, I was rolling an old metal cart from the old building to the new one. Every few steps one of the wheels would fall off and I had to stop and put the wheel back on. My other memory is of opening day, seeing the crowd of patrons and some employees walking down the street, each carrying a book from the old library to the new one."

Donna Nicely, Former Library Director (1995-2012)

Portrait of former Library Director, Donna Nicely
Portrait of former Library Director, Donna Nicely.

"Opening Day at the Main Library, June 2010:

The opening ceremonies for the Main Library were fun. There were activities for children. There was an event where library users from all the branches stood together holding tall placards. On one side was printed the name of their branch, then as the placards were turned, one by one, a giant jigsaw image of the new library building was revealed! The new library building was officially opened when a parade of families and dignitaries carried the last books from the old library to the new library; they reached the front doors with their arms full of books - and the happy crowd surged in!"

Andrew Thompson, Library Associate of Children's Services (Inglewood)

Library staff member Andrew Thompson, with a patron

Reflecting back on his time with the Library, Andrew shared this cute photo for the memory books, from the Nashville Reads' program in 2018...

"I had just read 'The Story of Ferdinand' by Munro Leaf, came out from backstage and saw a mom with her little bee. I asked her mom if we could take a picture and the little girl said, 'Please don’t sit on me Ferdinand.' I promised I wouldn’t and then she sniffed my flower."

Which downtown library building is your favorite?

lucille ball


Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.