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The first significant amount of public money committed to the River Market district was for construction of a new Main Library of the Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), for which voters had approved a property tax increase. Skeptics doubted that a new library, while needed, could do much to advance the planned revival of this part of downtown. They were wrong. The library has become a pillar of the neighborhood, drawing nearly 450,000 visitors a year, twice as many as the old library, with special programs and a much larger collection of books. And it continues to expand, development leading to more development.
“We started on our own,” says Bobby Roberts, director of CALS. “There was no grand master plan for the River Market area.” Nor was there any cohesive group overseeing development. “Things just came together.” Roberts said. “It proves again that luck is better than skill.”
Since 1995, taxpayers have invested $36 million in the Main Library and its satellites. First was the purchase and renovation of the old Fones manufacturing building at 100 Rock St. The five-story building opened as the new Main Library in 1997. (The old library was on Louisiana Street, in a building owned by the city and then sold to private interests. The building is vacant today.)
One of the new library’s most notable features is that around the top of the building appear the surnames of famous writers — Dickens, Austen, et al. — carved not in stone but in drivet, an artificial material. When the building opened, it was rumored that the names would be changed from time to time, but Roberts says that’s not so. Faulkner’s place is safe. The rumor may have grown out of a newspaper columnist’s complaints about some of the names included and some of those left out, Roberts said. The names, chosen by Roberts, intentionally reflect diversity in race and gender.
Next, CALS bought the old Cox building on Commerce Street, across a parking lot from the Main Library. “We wanted the parking and to get the parking, we had to buy the building too,” Roberts said. Today, the building houses a used-book store and some of the library’s art collection. Parts of the library’s periodic book sales are held there, too.
More property has been acquired: two old buildings at Clinton Avenue and Rock Street, to house a new Arkansas Studies Institute. The institute will include the existing Richard C. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, which will move from the third floor of the Main Library. The Butler Center preserves and interprets Arkansas history, with special emphasis on genealogy and on African-American, business, cultural and political history. The new center will have a wider reach, Roberts said. “The center will try to promote all things Arkansas — books, music, art.”
The two old buildings at Clinton and Rock are somewhat historic themselves. One, most recently called the Budget office building, was built and used for years by Little Rock’s Jewish community for meetings and social activities, Roberts said. It was known as Concordia Hall in those days. The other, the Geyer and Adams building, was built for a wholesale grocery business. Roberts said he didn’t know much about Adams, but Geyer was a German immigrant who came to Little Rock in the 19th century, established a business and prospered.
A new manuscript storage facility is being built for the center to hold various documents, including the papers of Arkansas governors. CALS owns the gubernatorial papers of Bill Clinton, Dale Bumpers, Winthrop Rockefeller, Jim Guy Tucker and Frank White. (Clinton’s presidential papers are a few blocks down Clinton Avenue at the Clinton Library.) The papers of other governors are in the Ottenheimer Library archives at UALR, but they too will be kept at the new center, which is a joint venture of CALS and UALR. Construction work is under way.
And there is still work to be done at the Main Library. Most of the third floor, which will be vacated by the Butler Center, will be used by the library’s youth services division, to house more books and possibly a computer lab for children and teen-agers. The fifth and top floor of the building is vacant. Roberts wants to renovate it and put it to use. “It’s the best in the building in terms of visibility and space,” he said.
Roberts, 62, grew up in Helena and graduated from Helena Central High School. His higher education culminated with a Ph.D. in military history from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He came to lead CALS in May of 1989. At the time, he was on leave from a job as head of archives and special collections at UALR, but he never went back. Like many of the go-getters in contemporary Little Rock, Roberts has a strong Bill Clinton connection. He first met Clinton in Fayetteville, when Roberts was “a starving graduate student” and Clinton was running for Congress. Somebody told Roberts that a political gathering for Clinton would offer free food. “I just went for a sandwich,” Roberts said, but he came away a Clinton supporter. He worked on Clinton’s staff for a few years while Clinton was governor, and later Clinton appointed him to the state Board of Correction. After Clinton was elected president, he appointed Roberts to the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science.
— Doug Smith