Keen Wisdom in Key West


Southernmost city in the contiguous US from the naval air station

Despite the town’s raucous reputation, the Key West headquarters branch (KWL) of the  Monroe County Public Library is a gracious pink stucco building.  A specimen of the island’s ubiquitous roosters perches on one of the low walls that hold back an array of jungle foliage and swoop up to the steps leading to a doorway framed by white hurricane shutters.


In 1892 the Key West Library Association opened the first public library in southern Florida in a Masonic Temple.  After 1896, other groups assumed responsibility – notably the Key West Woman’s Club who ran services for 44 years and obtained the money to construct the May Hill Russell Public Library, opened in 1959.

As I entered the bustling locale I noticed a stunningly vibrant mural sporting a mass of tropical flowers.  By Suzie dePoo (Zuzak), its border is composed of artfully designed donor plaques.

IMG_2118I was greeted by friendly Wendi at the light wood Circulation Desk, one of several staffers who advised me to be sure to see their famous local history department and extolled the talents of Tom, the curator.


A warm welcome and a sparkling smile from Wendi

Inside it’s a pleasant one story facility.  Pale green carpeting and flooring beneath beige walls complement the plants atop the stacks and the verdant street scene visible through the windowpanes.  Raised ceilings above higher shelves give it a light and airy feel.  Shorter racks have tempting titles and show off recommendations.

Mardi Gras beads adorning a bust and a model of a Tudor house give the décor an eclectic feel.  An abundance of handwritten or printed signs and Plexiglas pockets displaying information sheets or advertising upcoming amusements make sure you don’t miss a thing.


As we all know, Key West has had more than its fair share of famous inhabitants.  Black and white photographs above a case of brochures proudly honor some of them, including a number of Pulitzer Prize recipients.  In a different section, by the book sale and its honor box, a cart presents a map of Florida.  “YOU ARE HERE” is printed tongue in cheek at the very tip.

There’s a big choice of A/V items and separate spots for new DVDs, Blu-rays, audiobooks, nonfiction, large print…  All 14 of the public internet stations by Reference were occupied.  They have four in Children’s as well, plus wifi and teach two computer classes weekly on Macs, Androids, iCloud etc.

The system website offers homework help and Learning Express for adult and K-12 educational help, career and college prep, and tests.  You can chat, email or text in questions to AskALibrarian or download ebooks and eaudiobooks or access a selection of databases.


Patricia in her domain

When I met ebullient Patricia, the Senior Librarian for Youth Services, she was wearing her favorite I love Karma t-shirt.  Starting here at 15, she adores KWL and minored in art therapy, which is really helpful for her work, especially with minors from the Department of Juvenile Justice.  Program participants who seem really interested become part of her cadre of teens working on kids and young adult services, and she now has quite a big group.

She works with youngsters on the autism spectrum and does socialization and various gatherings for adolescents include two weekly gamer times, Smoothie Day, glitter bottle crafts, costume parties, Graphic Novels Club, and Teens, Tweens and In-between hangout/reading sessions three days a week.  The small set has art, mother/daughter and father/son sessions and toddler and preschool storytimes (some have singing and dancing).


Space for the smaller set

The kid’s area was in a state of pleasant disarray.  A chalkboard table top gets creative juices flowing and benches dotted with throw pillows, plastic boxes of toys, stuffed animals, quite a few pop up titles and a mini puppet show box draw the young ones in.  The older and younger users are separated by a partition lined by materials on both sides.

Summer reading events seemed pretty exciting.  At one, a farmer brought in rescued alligators, pythons and even a sloth!  At another, firemen talked about the job and later, Navy and Coast Guard members explained the details of theirs.  But to me, the water balloon fight sounded like the most fun 🙂


YA Area

A PAC sits on top of an old card catalog and in Young Adult, posters and artwork abound and lime and chrome bar stools are perfect for chatting.  Cheery handmade penguins sit beside the terminals and a globe and chess set reside above the graphic novels while a glass cabinet contains seasonally appropriate dolls and trinkets.



Last Halloween was fantastic despite a budget of just $250 to do the haunted house.  So for Haunting in the Stacks, the Stephen King’s It themed affairthey had to be inventive.  Body bags were fashioned from garbage sacks and milk jugs, and they somehow acquired a donated skeleton and use it to make a mummy via a plastic heat gun, insulation foam, Mod Podge and paint.  Later she had a teen compose an award winning video of someone dancing with the mummy by the Christmas tree.  How convenient she studied art and what a great idea person!  Patrons were very enthusiastic, and over 300 people of all ages came.

Patricia frequently uses board games like Dungeons and Dragons or cards and video games.  This year she had a “wonderful poetry slam, 20 students read their original works. It was inspiring.”  Themed Anti Valentine’s Day, it concentrated on the tragic story of the saint 😉  Each year’s slam has a focus such as anti bullying, Love for Races, (as the populace here is very diverse)…

A popcorn maker turns a large room with a big screen and projector into a theater where attendees order from a stand just like they would at the cinema.  Storytimes are also held in this podium and easel equipped auditorium accommodating 80.  A pinball machine in a corner comes in handy for the mechanics program when they take it apart to understand the inner workings.


In addition, there’s a conference enclosure that seats 15.

Over the Adult Literacy Collection, old brass tablets remind you of the Samuel L. Golan wing, the Mary Esther Bedford Children’s Library and the natives who helped create this fine institution.  In foreign languages, there’s a fair amount of Czech, Russia, Hindi, Creole and Spanish items.

One side of Fiction is covered by a huge holder with pamphlets about the culture of the Keys, Key West and how to use Overdrive and there’s an assortment of magazines.



For me, the pièce de résistance was the fabulous brick courtyard.  Iron and wood benches are scattered around and lush fanned branches provide shade.  Grasses and trees rim the space while little emerald oases sit atop polished rocks.  An ancient burbling fountain is music to the ear and drones out the noise from cars letting you read and relax in a magical setting.


Terrific patio!

When I went, the duo Hungrytown, who, along with other shows, have been on TV’s quirky Portlandia, was scheduled to perform after hours in the palm garden and Friends of the Key West Library were sponsoring a lecture series at the nearby Key West Theater.  Customers can attend astronomy sessions including stargazing opportunities, 3D printing instruction, author talks, needlework, job fairs, documentaries and popular movies, jazz concerts, plays, Indian cooking demonstrations with free henna tattoos and Café con Libros has guest speakers on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.


Tilted tiers

KWL has three active Facebook pages with lots of great snaps and clever promotions.  A general site is for everyone  and profile snaps for the teen page are from last year’s Holi festival, that brilliant Hindu holiday of colors and love, held in the library garden since the sheriff wouldn’t let them do it on the beach.  Patricia said there are lots of Indians here so Holi was done as a family celebration.  During the day there were more adults than juniors, but at three the kids poured in to throw Rangoli powdered paints around.  Children’s shows examples of no-sew dolls done at crafts, happy boys and girls creating watercolors on newsprint or enjoying play group and eating snacks and encourages tots to come in for milk jug art and the Easter egg hunt.

I spoke to Ann, the Library Administrator, who said the Friends help out a lot, and they have two full timers in the Florida history room and about a dozen full time employees at this location.  She’s justly proud of the archives and their 18,000 images on Flickr (over 13 million hits so far).  Lots of oral histories and a Key names gazetteer can be retrieved online too.


Florida Room

Unfortunately the amazing Tom, who manages local history and writes a blog on the topic, wasn’t in.  I was a bit disappointed as I’d heard so much about him, but Patricia let me in and told me of the fascinating handwritten Santeria tome with spells, her favorite thing to show to visitors.  I saw all sorts of realia and memorabilia, ship models, eagle sculptures, lots of old photographs, documents and paintings, as well as a model of how the library looked in 1952 (Children’s and this space now occupy the new wing).


Original painting of Duval St. by famous local artist Mario Sanchez

What a marvelously stimulating place benefits the citizens of the Conch Republic!



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