Books And Beyond: FPL expands spaces for art, music, food, family, fitness

Books And Beyond: FPL expands spaces for art, music, food, family, fitness
LARA JO HIGHTOWER/Special to the Free Weekly

Editor’s Note: We like to look back this time every year at the stories that we think best captured the state of the arts in Northwest Arkansas and the River Valley. This story originally appeared Jan. 10, 2021, in What’s Up!

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of a library,” wrote Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges.

Indeed, when the Fayetteville Public Library — closed to the public since late September, when finishing touches on the expansion were being made — opens its doors later this month, those viewing the $49 million expansion may see Borges’ prediction realized. I did, on a recent cold, windy December day when Samantha Herrera, FPL marketing and communications manager, gave my 10-year-old twins and me a tour of the new space.

As it is for many in Northwest Arkansas, the FPL has always been an important place for our family — a happy destination for all four of us — and that’s remained consistent from the time the kids were toddlers, pawing through board books, until today, as they gobble down chapter books and graphic novels. But like the demographics and interests of my own family, the Northwest Arkansas community is constantly in flux, and the FPL has made a commitment to keep up with that growth. When the Blair Library on Mountain Street first opened its doors in October 2004, it was an 88,000-square-foot, $23 million project that took visitors’ breath away. A modernized version of the traditional library, it boasted a catalog of 270,000 books, 30,000 audiovisual titles and 500 periodicals, and an Arsaga’s Cafe in its lobby made it even more of a community hub than it had been in its previous space on Dickson Street. The popularity and necessity of the new building became immediately apparent, and the ensuing years found the library constantly expanding its offerings, reaching maximum capacity on most of its events and running out of room for its burgeoning collections. Meeting and study rooms were in constant demand. Multi-use rooms meant chaos when one event immediately followed another. When a special election to consider a millage increase for an FPL expansion was held in August 2016, voters overwhelmingly approved the increase, and construction officially started in July 2018.

Which brings us back to last month, when Herrera gave us our jaw-dropping tour. From the moment we walked into the atrium-like new entrance and gazed at artist Aimee Papazian’s “Voyage of Lost Keys,” a magical sculpture that seemingly hangs in mid-air, we were awed by the scale of the 80,000-square-foot-plus expansion.

Floor-to-ceiling windows never let us forget the beautiful environment that surrounds the building. There is a new, 8,700-square-foot event center, and the size of the children’s library has doubled. Other additions include a 16-station teaching kitchen, an Art and Movement room, the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Center for Innovation and the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Gathering Place.

As Herrera explained the thoughtful function of each new space, one thing was abundantly clear: The prescient forethought of every choice made has the concept of community in mind. Small nooks and meeting spaces throughout are comfortable spots to gather. The Center for Innovation and community kitchen offer services that could help start or boost careers. A dedicated story time room and craft space give relief to frazzled moms of tots. The Art and Movement room will provide access to free or low-cost dance and exercise classes. A librarian close at hand in each section means questions can be answered quickly and easily. The spacious event center gives additional opportunities for more community members to see special speakers and productions.

And, of course, there are the books, the beating heart of every library, regardless of how modern or technologically advanced it might be.

FPL Event Center

Herrera says the new event center was designed to meet a multitude of needs. The seating is flexible and can accommodate up to 500 people when set up for a banquet, 700 in stadium-style seating or 1,000 standing. It boasts a state-of-the-art control booth with a concert-quality sound system, as well as professional video production capabilities, a dressing room and a green room. Guests can walk from the parking garage directly across the outside Gathering Place to the center, bypassing the rest of the library entirely.

FPL Executive Director David Johnson has high hopes for the center.

“The center will allow us to hold a wide variety of events that space constraints in the original building made problematic,” says Johnson. “For example, the Lois Lowry author event had over 900 people in attendance, far exceeding our 600-seat capacity. Attendees were standing in any available inch of space. When we hosted the Levon Helm documentary film and panel discussion, ‘Ain’t In It For My Health,’ the Walker Room was at its maximum capacity of 275, and the lobby was filled with temporary overflow seating. The various banquets we’ve held — Fayetteville Public Education Foundation’s Hall of Honor, the ‘Up Among The Hills’ Gala and documentary film premiere, the Miller Williams Memorial — have required a much more expansive shutdown of the library. Additionally, when FPL was scheduled to be Maya Angelou’s final public speaking engagement, we moved all of the 2,000 tickets online in 28 minutes.

“In sum, what we have learned since the opening of the Blair Library in 2004 is that the quality of events that the library brings to this community has generated tremendous demand that far outpaces our capacity.”

The J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Gathering Place

“This outdoor community gathering space is comparable in size to the historic Fayetteville square,” according to the FPL. “It features polished stone amphitheater seating that surrounds an open, grassy area lined by benches and native trees.”

Herrera says this space can be used for organized events — with space for up to 1,000 guests — or in a more casual way, as a place to study, read or socialize.

Teaching Kitchen

With 16 cooking stations and a walk-in refrigerator and freezer, the 1,500-plus-square-foot teaching kitchen has been carefully designed in partnership with Northwest Arkansas Community College’s Brightwater culinary department in order to offer concurrent college credit opportunities for Fayetteville Public High School students. The library’s new “casual deli” is located right outside the teaching kitchen, allowing visitors to grab a quick sandwich or salad and watch new chefs through the viewing window. Herrera says in addition to the Brightwater training, the kitchen can host culinary programming by professional chefs and cookbook authors, as well as opportunities for the community at large.

“We are planning to offer culinary training for all ages and are in continued conversations with a variety of partners to provide the training,” says Johnson. “Everything from teaching young children how to make healthy snacks to sommelier classes for adults is being considered.”

Johnson adds that access to the teaching kitchen will be open to the community, “including private entrepreneurs and small business owners seeking additional space and capacity for their enterprises. What is exciting is the potential for FPL to help meet the demand in this market.”

Art and Movement Room

With its floor-to-ceiling windows, gorgeous softwood dance floor, ballet barre and towering room-length mirror, I just assumed that the pretty grouping of multi-colored pegs at the far end of the Art and Movement Room was another art installation.

“No, those are just pegs for coats,” said Herrera.

It’s an easy mistake to make when you’re standing in the middle of the airy, chic room, which is the first to greet you when you walk into the new expansion. The Art and Movement Room will no doubt draw interested people further into the building, but, as Herrera points out, the billowing curtains can be drawn to offer a bit more privacy.

“You could definitely feel self-conscious doing yoga in here if people can look in and see everything,” she says with a laugh. “You might be able to still see a bit of the movement inside but not, ‘Oh, there’s my friend Sandy, doing Downward Dog.’”

Herrera says the FPL envisions classes like tai chi, yoga and dance will be held in this room, as well as adult art classes when tables are added.

“Personally, I am really excited for the Art and Movement Room,” says Fitzgibbon. “Intellectual wellness and physical wellness are closely tied, and having affordable, unintimidating access to movement-based programs provides important health literacy to our community. I am also excited for all of the opportunities the expansion offers my preschool-age daughter, who will grow up with tremendous access to the arts and technology.”

Post-pandemic, Hoover says the room will be available to local organizations as a rental for dance and exercise classes.

Children’s Library

If you’re between the ages of 6 months and 18 years old, you can’t help but feel valued by the FPL’s expansion.

Or so my 10-year-olds tell me, loudly and multiple times, on the way home from our tour.

The new building doubles the space dedicated to these age groups, with 32,000 square feet split into three separate areas for pre-schoolers, grade schoolers and teenagers. Each new area has its own distinct personality: Bright colors and accessible book bins will attract preschoolers to their downstairs space, and they won’t be able to tear their eyes away from the retired antique airplanes that swoop above their heads as they hang from the soaring ceiling. The Walmart Story Time Room has a puppet theater, and the dedicated craft room means no more juggling chairs and art supplies to try and make one room fit all needs. Two parents’ rooms also allow for quiet feedings.

Upstairs, the space for early adolescents features comfortable chair groupings and tables. My kids couldn’t take their eyes from the row after row of chapter books, many of which are new. Study rooms and alcoves line one side of the room, offering ample space for quiet retreats.

Across the way, you’ll find the teenage space, decorated in a soothing blue with hip, space-age swivel chairs. Cunning little nooks are cut into the walls, complete with electrical outlets with which to charge devices, and study rooms come complete with large monitors.

Oh, and there’s a dedicated game room, something my children were beside themselves to discover — though they’ll have to wait a year to enjoy it. The teen section is limited to kids from the ages of 11 to 18; while others can access the books in that section, hanging out is strictly limited to that age range.

The J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Center for Innovation

Herrera says part of the planning for the expansion was to take a look at libraries all over the world and pull a little bit from the best of them.

“Our whole goal is to expand your knowledge,” she says. “Literacy goes beyond books. You can be literate in so many things — you just need the opportunity.”

If there’s one thing the Center for Innovation offers, it’s opportunity. This suite of studios will feature audio and video production facilities, podcasting booths, a fabrication and robotics lab, a virtual reality studio, a computer bank and co-working space, a photo studio and a simulation lab for forklifts, backhoe, aviation, standard vehicle and CDL training. Herrera says everything here is designed for a range of abilities, from the casual hobbyist to the person looking to boost their career with new skills.



Opening an new 80,000-plus-square-foot wing of a public library during a pandemic cannot be easy — though the folks at the Fayetteville Public Library sure made it look as though it was. In their “2021 in Review” flyer sent out to library patrons this month, the library announced that there had been more than 1 million checkouts this year; staff had served more than 1,500 people through outreach programs; logged 4,165 volunteer hours; added 15,545 new items to their collections; and hosted 695 programs with 13,726 attendees.

“Our library card registration numbers unfortunately dropped off last year due to the pandemic, but we are currently at a 47% increase from 2020, getting us right back to 2018/2019 numbers,” says Willow Fitzgibbon, director of library services. “We’re sure the expansion is a factor of this — we have seen a lot of new patrons come to the library to experience the new spaces, including the Center for Innovation, study and meeting rooms, and the Youth and Teen Libraries. We expect the number of patrons will continue to grow as we start offering more and more in-person programming, specifically our daily story times.”

Sarah McClure, manager of youth and teen services, says the teen section — with all of its nooks and crannies and gathering spaces — has been very popular.

“Groups of teens frequently gather to study, hang out or read,” says McClure. “It is not uncommon for visitors to be in awe of the space, the view, and the seating! We have board games and a button maker that we offer for something extra to do in the space, and the gaming room is open and available for checkout. Because this space is for grades 5-12 only, it is a delight to see teens discover the space, feel at home there and engage with peers. Librarians are always there to help with the collection, open study rooms, or just chat with teen library patrons. And, of course, since the space is attractive to all ages, librarians are also there to make sure the space fills with teens only!”

Melissa Taylor, manager of the state-of-the-art J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Center for Innovation, says that space has been more popular than originally imagined.

“On any given day there are several reservations booked over our various suites,” she says. “In the Fabrication and Robotics Lab we have seen every single class, orientation and maker lab fill up within a couple of days. The Audio Recording Studio is constantly booked by musicians and other recording artists — there have been over 250 individual reservations made since June. The Simulation Lab is taking off in popularity, and the flight simulator has been the most popular piece of equipment in the CFI with over 300 reservations since opening.”

The new, huge event center has gotten some serious use this year, including hosting two TheatreSquared shows (“Matilda” and “A Christmas Carol”). As live events continue to regain momentum, FPL event coordinator Kristen Hoover says the center will see a lot more traffic in the coming days.

“We are so excited to be offering this space and we have loved how the community has used it,” says Hoover. “We are booked for several nonprofit galas in early spring, but the thing that I am looking forward to the most is the dance recitals. There have been many local dance studios reaching out to FPL to host their company recitals. It’s great to see!”

Categories: Family Friendly