Thursday, September 11, 2014

A tribute to Laman Library's Jeff Baskin

Posted By on Thu, Sep 11, 2014 at 11:20 AM

click to enlarge jeff_at_laman_50p.jpg

Debra Wood, the gallery director at the William F. Laman Public Library in North Little Rock, posted on her Facebook page yesterday a tribute to library director Jeff Baskin, who died earlier this week of pancreatic cancer. Wood gives us a fine picture of Baskin, who thought libraries were about more than books — they should have galleries, too, and places for teenagers to gather and live music and author's events — and transformed North Little Rock's public library with that notion. 

Wood chose this photograph for Eye Candy because it was taken at the library during last year's exhibition on 9/11. Next to the aways natty Baskin is Maureen Mitchell from New York, whose firefighter husband was killed when the towers collapsed. Also in the picture is Mark Pryor, who gave Mitchell an Arkansas Traveler certificate, retired NLR Fire Chief Robert Mauldin and Wood.

Baskin's funeral is at 1 p.m. today in the chapel at Griffin Leggett, 5800 W. 12th St. The Laman Library System will be closed from noon to 4 p.m.

Wood's tribute: 

A story for you. It’s gonna be long… A few weeks after I closed my business, an artist I’d represented asked if I would pick up her painting that had been in a show at Laman Library. The exhibit was ending and this person was out of town. She knew I lived in NLR, not far from the library. I was to meet a lady in the exhibit hall at a certain time. The day happened to be my birthday and the lady I was supposed to meet was not there. In her place was Jeff Baskin, the library’s director. Jeff had been a customer at my gallery. I knew him in that capacity, but not well. Jeff asked what I had been doing, and I let him know I was taking some much needed time off and was going to start the job search very soon. He told me their exhibits person was leaving and would I think about applying. I told him no – I wanted to do something that didn’t involve art. I was burned out. He insisted I follow him to an office where he had someone print out the job description for me. I took it home and didn’t give it a second thought except to tell a friend of mine who said, “You’re going to apply, aren’t you?” I said I wasn’t. Heck, I didn’t even have a library card. Her words changed the course of my life for the next few years. “You’re the one who’s always wanting to change the world. What better place than a public library?” I ended up applying, and I got the job.

If you have ever worked with Jeff Baskin you know that instructions are vague, his trust in your abilities is absolute, and self-motivation is a must. For someone like me, that is a ticket to big ideas – always outside the box. Jeff’s response was either a scrunched up face shaking his head no, or “do it.” If the latter, my job was to take the ball and run with it. “Make it good,” he’d say.

In the nearly 5 years I’ve worked at Laman Library, because of Jeff Baskin I’ve been able to do the impossible in a public library. A concert series that started out with a junior high band playing their hearts out on our plaza stage has turned into a series that had 150 people in attendance recently. We’ve been able to pay local musicians for their time and in turn help our economy and invest in our people and their talents. There is a 2-year waiting list just to perform here.

We have put exhibits in our gallery space that even the originating venues said were too big and “too much” for us. We brought in speakers who touched many by their words and life stories – some that will never be forgotten by those who heard them. In June alone, we helped feed over 2,000 hungry kids in our city. Overheard at a recent health and wellness program, a senior lady told a new and much younger person that she had been to nearly all of the programs and had learned so much. A list followed and concluded with – I even learned how to kick-box!

A magazine article I once showed to Jeff turned into a “little free library” system all around our city. Hundreds and hundreds of books have been circulated by city residents – encouraging reading, recycling, and sharing among neighbors.

I didn’t always agree with Jeff. My head echoes with the zillion times I looked at him and said – you want me to do what??? I told him once that it took 8 years working for a President to get good enough to work for him. And whenever he signed contracts for me, we sometimes pretended I was the Staff Secretary at the White House and he was the President signing a bill into law. During my yearly evaluations, he would always say, “You’re invaluable to this library, but you’re nuts.”

If you have been touched in any way by anything that involves Laman Library, it is because of Jeff Baskin. The guy who taught us that libraries should be the “third place” in communities, following home and work. The guy who said libraries were more than just repositories of books and places to read. And the guy who gave me the extraordinary blank canvas on which I may not have been able to change the world, but I’ve sure been able to help make a positive difference in my community. For that I thank him.

Jeff passed away last night after a courageous battle with cancer. I will miss him, and I promise to continue to “make it good.”

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