When but a young boy – now many years ago – many afternoons were spent at the family business.
My father was a veterinarian who opened a solo practice in the 1960s on Noland Road, taking care of all creatures great and small.
My father’s patients and their owners often became our family friends. This is how I met James Leathers. His two salt-and-pepper Schnauzers were frequently left in our care as Leathers traveled for business. In due time, I learned he ran a library.
He loved his dogs.
And he dearly loved the library.
These memories were recently triggered by an event.
This past Thursday, First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed about 125 people “to the little museum that we like to call the White House” to recognize five libraries and five museums with a National Medal for extraordinary service to the nation.
One of those recognized in the East Wing ceremony was the Mid-Continent Public Library – the system that Leathers spent two decades building.
Many kind things were said.
Many photographs were taken.
Personal social media accounts lit up with posts and comments – mine included as I had the privilege to attend.
There were the thoughtful comments, crafted by a speechwriter, delivered by an articulate speaker who truly cares. It was impressive, evocative; an occasion not to forget.
But more touching to me were the many notes I read earlier in the week posted on the wall of the North Independence Branch.
The handwritten notes – from library patrons young and old – shared how “lives change @your library.”
Here are a few:
“The library in Independence has been part of my life since I was 10. It introduced me to worlds beyond my own. Now I am 78 and have returned to Independence after being away for 55 years. The library is still an integral part of my life.”
And this from a 7-year old.
“(The) Library makes a better place because you can pick your own books.”
And this perspective from an adult.
“Through the years, libraries have offered me a chance to read as many books as I wish; watch and attend movies; research homework assignments; homeschool my children; attend lectures, workshops and entertainment; and learn new crafts. And all at no cost. It is a fantastic resource available to all regardless of means.”
Across the 30-plus MCPL branches, others shared thoughts about their local library.
Leathers built the foundation of the major public library system – now one of the 25 largest in the United States – by consolidating libraries in Clay, Jackson, and Platte counties. It was a remarkable achievement.
This consolidated library system – officially created in 1965 – serves all who reside in a diverse mix of urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods covering 1,349 square miles – nearly as large as Rhode Island.
The library district serves 775,000 patrons – more than the entire populations of four states (Wyoming, Vermont, North Dakota and Alaska) and the District of Columbia.
The recognition was not for being big, but for being innovative and serving the community in unique ways. MCPL has grown with its communities and with the times.
It serves small communities like Lone Jack and Buckner. It has strategically opened new service outlets in growing areas – check out Woodneath Library Center in Clay County – and it has established service in several community centers.
“The primary purpose of libraries in the 21st century is to build access through community and collaboration,” said Steven Potter, director and CEO of Mid-Continent Public Library, on whose board I serve.
MCPL was recognized for expanding learning opportunities for young children, responding to summer reading loss by students, supporting home school families with resources, connecting with community groups (veterans in particular), and providing significant information and resources.
The library’s expenditure on materials, as a percent of total budget, is the highest in the nation. Its investment in digital resources and new electronic formats – a service showing exponential growth – is also nationally recognized.
Libraries are vital, alive, and significant civic and cultural institutions for communities – what some consider “the people’s palace.”
Mid-Continent Public Library system next year turns 50 years old – an occasion for a fitting community celebration. Plans are in development. We want to celebrate our history, but focus on our future and what we can and need to be doing.
Receiving the National Medal, while truly thrilling, came with this challenge and frank assessment from the First Lady.
“I want to challenge you to reach even higher for those kids in your communities who you might not see so often – the kids who only make it to your buildings on a class field trip, the kids who don’t know how to get a library card, the kids whose neighborhoods don’t offer a lot of positive learning environments.”
“And these kids exist in every single one of our communities. And I know many of you are already touching these kids, but it is up to us to reach higher for them and to give them the opportunities they need to fulfill their boundless potential.”
And that is a challenge.
How do we create a local place or virtual space where all are welcomed, respected, served, and afforded an opportunity to access the world?
The Washington, D.C., trip was shared with the Moores – a family of four who chose Liberty when relocating to the area. They wanted to be near a great library to home school their two children, clever 11-year-old daughter Katie and intrepid 9-year-old Jackson.
The children watched anxiously with their father Michael as their mother Alicia (representing the community) joined Potter to receive the award in a ceremony broadcast live from the White House.
Earlier that morning I had asked Jackson about his mother’s role in impending events.
“We are about to go into the White House,” he said. “And my mom is going to get an award for the library, and we are going to take it back to Liberty to the library. And we are going to have a little snack and have a fun time in the White House.”
And we did.
But delivery of the award was entrusted to a reliable carrier rather an overhead airline bin.
It should arrive at the Independence headquarters this week. A staff member will sign the shipping receipt. We will accept the package and equally the responsibility and challenge to do more.
Brent Schondelmeyer lives in Independence and currently serves as president of the Mid-Continent Public Library board.