Nicknamed Rocket City for its long association with space flight, Huntsville is home to Huntsville-Madison County Public Library (HMCPL). The oldest Alabama institution, it started prior to statehood in 1818 in a tiny shack and moved around a lot before a Carnegie building opened in 1916. Currently it boasts AL’s highest circulation, lending around two and a half million items and getting about a million visits annually from the 360,000 or so residents.
From a distance it’s easy to see why the headquarters, Downtown Huntsville Library (DHL), inspires the moniker “Fort Book”, but as you approach, the hulking monolith sheds the foreboding aura and extends welcoming arms. Pretty passageways studded by mini replicas of the peaked roof shelter customers from foul weather.
Intriguing indentations, arches and outcrops dot the structure and offer unexpected slices of sky. Up close the brick facade reveals subtle patterns and designs. Plopped on a bench covered in glazed tiles highlighting fauna of Alabama, I admire the flora flanking the well manicured entrance. A bus stop, ample parking, a ramp, curvy bike stands and a drive-through bookdrop ease access.
In the lobby, racks of pamphlets and a big screen TV remind you of available services. To the left, the large Friends store is raising money for summer reading, employee scholarships etc. Join them or contact the volunteer coordinator to donate your time in myriad ways.
On the right I pass vitrines touting an upcoming ballet performance and displaying aggregations of turtles and shells before reaching a meeting hall…
…where I browse the mini exhibition of compelling artwork for sale on the walls.
Holds pickup is just inside next to New Science Fiction. Staffers eagerly give assistance at the enormous desk dominating the main floor and overhead signs make getting around a breeze.
Share favorites on the patron picks shelf or acquire a second tongue using ESL and foreign language materials from the international area. Nearby a security and equipment rental station has wheelchairs for those who tire quickly. HMCPL has a darkroom and numerous study and conference spaces, some with A/V equipment, can be reserved for public events or for a fee rented for private functions or business use.
Unique touches catch the eye. A roped off array of easels under the stairs creates a pocket art show that must be appreciated as you head to the long CD and media racks. A little sculpture of a building is fashioned from torn out pages.
And as an employee delightedly told me, the bell still rings on this cycle, which is used for deliveries and ridden in parades.
In just one month the library puts on a plethora of programs. There are movie and trivia nights, poetry readings and book signings. Older folks are taught brain building exercises and attend explanatory sessions on Medicare. Play Mah Jongg, Scrabble, and Bingo or stretch the mind at Chess League. Practice Tai Chi and meditation or get answers to technical questions at Open Lab. Workforce Development Lab helps you complete job applications. Learn tatting, sewing, crafts and how to paint silk scarves.
Or just bask in the serenity of DHL. Review the recommendations propped on end panels and enjoy the graphic novel and comic area and the action posters above the stacks.
The website links to variously themed book groups, a blog, the catalog, newsletter, calendar, and job ads. Download audio and ebooks, movies and music or get online homework help. Encyclopedias and reference and periodical databases give career advice and have information on gardening, the military, grants, car repairs, test preparation, etc.
Follow them on Instagram and Twitter. Facebook announces a plant swap, and a chance to make Valentine’s cards, or for your Teen or Tween to go to a Halloween Masquerade Ball. The Lunacy (pun intended) Movie Series honors the anniversary of the moon landing. Films about exploring our satellite as well as ones about encountering imaginary extraterrestrials finish with discussions led by a critic while another series is dedicated to screening mockumentaries. Bring a sandwich to a Lunch and Learn on financial planning or HMCPL’s databases or bring dinner to a documentary.
Posts trumpet grants for STEM programming, new items, concerts and an appearance by the state’s poet laureate. Some honor donors and the retiring deputy director or introduce recent hires and a list of favorite romances. Photos abound of workshops on vision boards, a local author fair, lectures on ham radios, diabetes, and media literacy and fake news or summer reading fun in a park including a giant slide, hula hoops, tug of war, face painting and bubble blowing.
Banners herald scavenger hunts, family board game days and for each night of Hanukkah, a suggested title connected to the Jewish faith.
Contributions from the Archives on Throwback Thursdays show ancient scrapbooks, past versions of the town and presidential visits from their files and from Downtown’s Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, new additions. Videos of swing dancers, the “Beauty From Brokenness” mosaic installation and sneak peaks of new construction are click bait.
Youth has not one but two fishtanks. Oversize cobalt crayons provide direction through child sized flower shaped tables and primary hued wooden chairs, toys, doll homes and racetracks. Kids’ drawings cover the pillars by an expansive storytime alcove and I spy a small garden just outside.
Tots have lots of options. Marc Brown headlines a book festival. Marvel at dog tricks or dress up for a costume party. Holidays bring Easter egg hunts, scary tales and live music and at Christmas you can fashion ornaments, penguin socks and gingerbread houses, or take a picture with Santa.
There are art talks, and Chinese language and culture, Spanish bilingual and Rockin’ Storytimes, Kids and Kites Saturday, and Everyone Can Code Day. Homeschoolers have get togethers and a robotics club. Color, write, create origami animals or play cards at An Hour Unplugged or head to Bailey Cove for Toss Up Tuesday featuring STEAM topics for elementary students.
A column in YA doubles as a chalkboard to pass on reading tips and tall barstools by the plate glass windows are perfect for hanging. Teens have Zombie Prom and the system puts on Rocket City Nerdcon for gamers and fantasy and sci fi fans who love cosplay. Makerspace! creative design software, 3D printing and CNC machining equipment is demonstrated at Studio Orientation.
Out and about with a bookmobile, a temporary popup at a shopping mall and outreach to elders, nursing homes and the juvenile detention center, staff sent a contingent to a walk-a-thon and one locale sponsored a 5K challenge. A Puppet Troupe promotes awareness of HMCPL as do librarians preparing toddlers for literacy via Ready Readers storytimes at Head Starts and pre K’s.
Back at DHL, the Family Computer Center has attractions to amuse youngsters and internet for the parents.
The second level has views of the Appalachian foothills and for the public, lockers, loads of meeting spots, and a free phone and six vending machines in the snack lounge by magazines.
The business, technology training and computer centers are so well used I couldn’t take photos but there are over fifty public consoles. Classes range from the basics to Google Drive and Apps.
Opened in 1987, DHL’s three stories and 123,000 square feet contain the administrative and technical offices and more than a half million items and seat over 900 people. Per Director of Public Relations, Melanie Thornton, it’s the busiest of the twelve sites. But HMCPL is expanding and their foundation is currently running a capital campaign to quadruple the size of the branch serving South Huntsville. The new Madison facility has a cozy fireplace for quiet reading and hosts a sunset cinema on the outdoor patio. Pet adoption and a therapy feline are part of a Caturday celebration and they bring seniors together for card tournaments.
The Tax Assessor, a few government departments and the Madison County Law Library share the atrium’s third floor and desks ringing the void overlook the action below.
Cases present Huntsville history. The Heritage Room and Jane Knight Lowe Gallery are up here too. In Archives Rare Books, microfilm drawers line the walls amid historical portraits and busts. A lonely typewriter adds to the atmosphere.
They teach genealogy classes and the digital collection has historical, rare and fragile things, e.g. Civil War letters and diaries, church records and more than 25,000 images plus an index of the obituaries from old newspapers.
The system has personal shoppers and lends e-Readers preloaded with titles from categories like YA lit, romance, urban fiction, knitting, mystery… For a nominal charge ILL materials or check out a 4G wi-fi hotspot for up to ten devices. Parents borrow Playaway Views mobile video players to occupy offspring on tedious car journeys.
Conveniently located, HMCPL is a short stroll from a path along Indian Creek Canal that bisects Big Spring Park. Passing ponds, fountains, Muscovy ducks and a red lacquered bridge the trail leads to a spurting mossy rock and the vibrant downtown.
Inhabitants of the region are so fortunate to have HMCPL. What a great asset!