“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”
― Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Inside the Okolona Branch Library, there is a room—a meeting room—decorated with artifacts, flags, and relics that pay tribute to the cultural legacy of Okolona, Kentucky. Quilts hang proudly along the walls, stitched together by historic snapshots that celebrate the founding of the Okolona Bank, the Okolona Woman’s Club, and the fact that salt licks and buffalo trails once laced the area.
There’s an obvious history here—a sense of identity created by those who remember when the Okolona Community Center first opened in 1958, and how it functioned as the town library at the time.
Soon, this tiny branch on Preston Highway will close down as part of the Louisville Free Public Library’s master plan, which outlines the development of three new regional libraries throughout the city.
According to the master plan, the South Central Regional Library will replace the Okolona Branch Library, absorb the remaining branch employees, and hire new staff members. The proposed 40,000 square foot facility will soon be built on the corner of Jefferson Boulevard and McCawley Road, near Jefferson Mall.
LFPL held its first community meeting in November to gather community input on what kind of services and programs the new library should offer. The most recent public forum was held on December 3rd, in the quilt-laden meeting room inside the Okolona Branch Library.
Moderated by Lisa Sizemore, interim director for LFPL, the community meeting highlighted the interior features of the new library:
- For kindergarteners, there will be little alcoves between bookshelves, which will house “concept areas” and “activity walls” that teach basic education.
- For students, the library will feature classrooms with retractable glass walls, allowing the rooms to be either small and intimate, or open and relaxed.
- Dedicated quiet spaces will be scattered throughout the library, offering patrons a place to read or study peacefully.
- A reading room will be constructed to accommodate 150 people and will be available for use as a community meeting space or lecture room.
- A “living edge” of trees and gardens will surround the library exterior, which will provide a visual buffer between the library’s west-facing panoramic windows and Jefferson Boulevard.
One issue in particular became a hot topic throughout the meeting: the dissolution of the Okolona Branch, and the creation of neutrally-named “South Central Regional Library.”
Several patrons raised their hands and asked questions like, “Why are they changing the name of the Okolona library?” and “Why are you taking our name away?”
Sizemore clarified, explaining that branch libraries were functionally different from regional libraries. Branches are built smaller and provide fewer services because they’re designed to serve a niche community. Regional libraries, however, are larger in both size and scope because they serve a larger network of neighborhoods.
“The Kentucky Derby became an international event, but we didn’t change it to American Derby,” one attendee quipped. “The capitol of Kentucky is Frankfort. We’re not about to go and change it to ‘Central City, Kentucky’ are we?”
“According to master plan, there will be one branch closure per regional opening,” Sizemore explained, pointing out that, similarly, the Westport Branch will close after the Northwest Regional Library opens.
One patron offered a possible name compromise: dedicate an “Okolona Room” in the new library, or a space for neighborhood archives. “What’s gonna happen to these quilts that belonged to the Okolona Woman’s Club?” the patron asked.
When the Louisville/Jefferson County merger finalized in 2003, local library branches across the county fell under the purview of city/county agencies like LFPL. As cities grow and public services expand, historic townships that were once miles away from the urban center tend to become part of a “greater metropolitan area” and slowly lose their neighborhood-specific history.
Though Sizemore appreciated the suggestion for an “Okolona Room,” it’s still unclear if the South Central Regional Library will maintain any cultural ties to the Okolona neighborhood.
In terms of services and programs, patrons and guests at the meeting recommended the following:
- Outdoor educational/play area for kids
- ESL and citizenship classes
- Bilingual storytelling programs for children
- Bilingual employees
- GED and ACT prep classes
- Kindergarten readiness programs, with an emphasis on the kindergarten to high school graduation path
- Bilingual materials for children AND adults, particularly for refugees and immigrants trying to learn English
- Adult literacy classes
- Youth/peer mentoring programs
Among all the suggestions, the proposal that struck the biggest chord with the room was the idea of a “community archives”—where photos, records, and other materials could be submitted by neighborhood residents.
“Programs like that exist in other states,” said one attendee. “They call it a community archive collective and it’s hugely popular. People enjoy sharing their own stories and weaving it together to make a social narrative. It’s really great.”
Others chimed in, saying they would like to see an effort to include some local history preserved in some fashion.
“Maybe we could do audio interviews with older people,” another patron suggested. “We ought to find a way to listen to their stories while they can still tell it.”
The next public meeting will be on Tuesday, January 27 at 6:30p.m. and will be hosted by Councilwoman Madonna Flood at Okolona Fire Station #1, 8501 Preston Highway. If you cannot attend these public meetings, LFPL has set up an online survey to get your opinion of the new facility.
The quote about Frankfort is kind of funny, because the town was named Frank’s Ford until it became the state capital.