Our free and inclusive Library-Lovejoy Ride this coming Monday, August 26th, will line up alongside the new reading park pictured above at the Buffalo and Erie County Central Library (1 Lafayette Square, downtown, 6:30pm sharp start). While our setup and afterparty will take place across the street in Lafayette Square, we encourage attendees to arrive early, bring their library card and loan out a book to enjoy this open space – just keep bikes off of its newborn grass.

To learn more about the reading park and library in general, read below from Buffalo and Erie County Public Library community engagement manager Anne Conable.

When was the building built, and how has it evolved since?

The current downtown Central Library building opened in 1964, replacing a much smaller building that had served as the Buffalo Library since 1887. The present building is 400,000 square feet, five floors and two full city blocks big, designed as the headquarters of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library System – 37 libraries across Erie County and Bookmobile service — created in the 1950s through merger of Buffalo’s three previous libraries.

This building houses our largest urban branch library, our exceptional Rare Books and Special Collections, several exhibition spaces where our collections are featured, a 300 seat auditorium currently undergoing renovation, meeting rooms open for community use, a computer training lab, our Launch Pad makerspace, and centralized functions for the Library System. Our 100 computers available free to the public are booked full nearly every day. Dozens of programs are hosted here each year – everything from author talks, movies and family craft activities to job and wellness fairs, community discussions and celebrations, and tours and workshops for students. It’s a busy place, these days a true community center with free resources available to everyone.

What’s the inspiration behind and vision for the reading park?

The greenspace, our “front lawn,” that has just been redeveloped as “Buffalo’s Reading Park” was actually part of the street encircling Lafayette Square. For a number of years we were looking for a way to do something with that abandoned space, right in the middle of downtown, that had no purpose and no reason for anyone to be there.

We were very lucky in 2017 to win one of three national grants from Southwest Airlines, intended to revitalize downtown spaces into “people places.” The grant included design and planning support from Project for Public Spaces of NYC, the inventors of the international placemaking movement. We wanted the space to become an extension outdoors of what we offer inside the building, with opportunities for all-ages programs, public art, interactive activities, and of course, reading! And we wanted the space to evolve over time as a comfortable, fully accessible place that office workers, nearby residents, families, and hotel guests could use in many different ways – a place to eat your lunch, learn something new, make something, or enjoy a program.

So far we’ve added landscaping, an outdoor stage, flexible seating, and our “Writers Walk” honoring Buffalo-connected literary figures. Other features will be added over time. We’re so grateful for this opportunity! We’ve been collaborating with Just Buffalo Literary Center, WNY Book Arts Center, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo Maritime Center, and others to offer free maker workshops outside this summer, and we had a very successful Harry Potter Day here in June. The Reading Park was officially launched on August 13. Upcoming activities will always be listed on the Library’s website – stay tuned.

What are your favorite fun facts that few know about our public library system?

Much as we love people to come to our libraries, there’s so much you can do through our website that’s always open 24/7 and free: database research, search our catalog, request or renew a book, and much more. In 2018 our website was visited over 12 million times!

–The downtown Library has 57 miles of shelving and houses more than 3 million items. Close to 300,000 people visited this library last year.

–Last year there were more than 6.5 million items borrowed – who says nobody uses libraries anymore?

–The Library was the first in the U.S. to have a children’s room and book collection, was a test bed for the Dewey Decimal System and one of the earliest American public libraries to have a Rare Book Collection.

–Our “greatest hit” is the original handwritten manuscript of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, given to us by the author – and just recently available in its digital entirety through our website – but we also hold 40,000 other special items: maps, prints, scrapbooks, a full set of Shakespeare’s Folios and Audubon bird prints, manuscripts, sheet music, first editions of the history of science and architecture, anti-slavery material, local theatre playbills, genealogy materials, and newspapers. These collections are based in the Central Library’s Grosvenor Room on the main floor.

How do you explain the importance of public libraries to our communities? 

Buffalo’s libraries have held a central role as a center for culture and education since 1836, when library services first began. The fact that the Downtown Library has been located so prominently in the middle of downtown was a choice indicating its importance.

Libraries can be considered “the great equalizers” because they are open to everyone regardless of age, income, ability, or social status. They provide valuable services to the public but they are so much more than that. They are an ideal base in encouraging lifelong learning throughout one’s life, whether you are two or 82. The ever-changing array of resources offered here come in many different forms: printed, audio, digital, visual, social, or interactive, and these can be personalized depending on what you’re looking for through our librarians.

Libraries today are where people go to learn English, look for a better job, get free internet access and use of computers, improve their skills, do research important to them, and find great things to read for enjoyment. It’s easy to take the library for granted but libraries are actually the best promoters of an open, free society. And we are often viewed as a safe, judgement-free zone in the community for young people and the disenfranchised. We work hard to be that place for this community – vibrant, welcoming, something always going on.