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Big Ideas: Rethinking the nature of the library 

The Central Arkansas Library System's ambitious plans for its coming Children's Library.

Back when they were still playing baseball in Ray Winder Field, if someone crushed a ball foul over the right field fence, it would've landed across I-630, likely somewhere in the five-and-a-half-acre tract where the Central Arkansas Library System hopes to break ground on a new children's branch next spring. That CALS is building in a routinely overlooked part of town is reason alone to applaud. But to hear library officials talk, this new branch, scheduled to open sometime in late 2012, could very well be the system's signal achievement — a model for future library development in the state and beyond.

Don Ernst, the head of the Children's Initiative at CALS, does most of the talking. And he's a good talker—eloquent, yet conversational; the type to stop midway through a sentence to ask you to remind him your name so he can punctuate his points with it; the rare professional who can get away with starting every third sentence with "man." Tellingly, when Ernst talks about the children's library, he doesn't call it a library. Rather, it's a "community-embedded, supportive learning place."

Which means that while the Children's Library, as the new branch is tentatively known, will house typical library amenities — books, computers, comfortable chairs — it'll also offer performance space, a teaching kitchen and a cafe. Outside, plans call for a garden, a green house, a teaching tool house and re-creations of Arkansas's eco regions, complete with an arboretum, meadowland and a small wetland that'll serve as a natural border of the grounds and hill space.

The building itself, designed by Reese Rowland, Central Arkansas's go-to architect for statement buildings (Heifer International, the Arkansas Studies Institute), will be LEED-certified and, like CALS' main library and newer branches, heated and cooled by geothermal systems. The engineering behind those green building choices — windmills on the grounds and a system to capture and clean water are possibilities, too — will potentially be on display for young patrons to see in action.

Ernst, a Greene County native, came back to Arkansas to work on the Children's Initiative two years ago after nearly 30 years bouncing around the country "straddling the divide between politics and education." During that time, spent doing policy work for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, former Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh and Gov. Bill Clinton and working on various education initiatives across the country, Ernst says he's been steadily "honing an informed critique on how we educate children." The upshot?

"Increasingly, I think schools aren't particularly imaginative. Part of our big picture goal here is to create a really wonderful place that energizes kids' imagination and creativity and inspires self directed learning, which I think is missing from the lives of so many of them."

To make that happen, he'll need partners. The project, budgeted for around $11 million, is pre-funded, paid for from a 2007 bond issue. But that covers only construction and the core components of the library. To secure funds to position the Children's Library as a true outreach center, CALS will rely on Ernst's ability to sell his vision, through grants and partnerships. Ernst says he's aggressively pursuing the more significant philanthropic organizations in and outside of the state, particularly, in the latter category, Gates and Kellogg foundations.

Of course, Ernst also has plenty of potential partners for neighbors, in all directions, with Arkansas Children's Hospital to the east; War Memorial Park and the Little Rock Zoo to the north; UALR, which recently received a $430,000 Promise Neighborhood Grant to create programs to help children in the area the future library plans to serve, to the west; and those merchants and city leaders behind the ambitious 12th Street Revitalization Project to the south.

Project architect Rowland envisions the Children's Library not just impacting the area immediately adjacent to the grounds, but serving as a destination for kids all over the city. Moreover, he said he hopes the library will spur the city to invest in development to safely connect the library grounds with the zoo and park to the south. In fact, he and his colleagues at Polk Stanley Wilcox have already conceived a plan to do just that, calling for the city to condense traffic lanes on Jonesboro Bridge to gain 15 to 20 feet for a pedestrian promenade, with trellises and a path for bikes and small trams to shuttle kids to and from, say, the zoo and the library.

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