Memphian To Meet: Shamichael Hallman and The Library of Tomorrow
Ed. Note: Contributor Wesley sits down with Shamichael Hallman to find out exactly what’s going on with the Cossitt Library in downtown Memphis.
In the year CE 105, in what today is Leiyang, China, a guy named Cai Lun invented paper. Almost two millennia later, J.K. Rowling wrote the very first novel, and people went wild. They had to build book repositories all over the world just to hold the daunting amount of Harry Potter literature, which they called libraries. But then, a calamity named Amazon.com scared a great many people away, and caused the libraries to suffer a bit of an identity crisis.
“But Wesley, are there any of these libraries left?” you’re probably asking me. Absolutely! In fact, right here in Memphis are 17 active public libraries, between which offer thousands of programs and services per year for the community.
The 18th will be the re-imagined Cossitt Library, located on Front St. in downtown Memphis. It’s currently closed undergoing renovation.
I went to Cossitt and met Shamichael Hallman, Branch Manager of Cossitt and Civic Engagement Coordinator at The Fourth Bluff (a joint project from the City of Memphis and the Riverfront Development Corporation designed to invigorate the riverfront area), to get a glimpse of Memphis’s newest community development project.
We were supposed to take a walk around the building’s interior, but that was quickly shot down.
“There’s a lot of asbestos that needs to be taken out,” Shamichael told me. I was disappointed I wasn’t going to get a sneak peek of the renovations, but I do like not having mesothelioma, so I let it go.
He and I went to Cafe Keough, just a couple blocks away, for a little Q&A session, and to see some mockups of the library post-renovation.
Shamichael Hallman, self-proclaimed “preacher-slash-programmer” and all-around great guy.
Wesley: First off, thanks for meeting me on a Monday afternoon.
Shamichael: No problem, man.
Wesley: Can you give me a little background about yourself?
Shamichael: I’m from a little town in Alabama called Margaret. It’s about 40 minutes northeast of Birmingham. Super small town, man. Like, couple years ago we got our first traffic light, it was a pretty big deal, man. [laugh]
I went down to Montgomery for undergrad and then came back to Birmingham. I worked for a little bank called AmSouth in the internet banking department.
Wesley: How did you make it to Memphis to work at Cossitt?
Shamichael: I served at this church in Birmingham, and I had a chance meeting with someone who was from a church here, New Direction Christian Church. They asked me to come up, they kind of created a position for me. I was doing, like, three things. I came here in 2010, so I been here about eight years. Last year, I had a meeting with the director of the libraries, Keenon McCloy, and she told me about what she hoped to achieve with Cossitt, and I was in at that point.
Wesley: What about this project made you so eager to be a part of it?
Shamichael: It makes sense to me now, seeing as how divided we are as a country. The library is like neutral ground. I hope that as we go through this process and rebuild the place that we truly get it to a place where all Memphians can come.
Wesley: So what’s Cossitt going to do that other libraries aren’t?
Shamichael: The Memphis Library does something like 3000 programs a year between all 18 locations. From tax prep to cooking classes. Often times those are driven by library staff. What we want to do with this space is get to a place where that same stuff is happening, but it’s driven by community members, by professionals, by people saying hey, I’ll do this for an hour a month. I’ll come facilitate a workshop.
Wesley: How did the renovation process start?
Shamichael: We had to empty the place completely. The week between Christmas and New Years, the public was invited into Cossitt to help pack up. Box up the books, break down the shelves.
Community members removed the books and placed them in storage, where they await the day they return to the shelves. Pictured below is the emptied second floor.
Wesley: What’s this new Cossitt Library going to look like?
Shamichael: There’s a real focus on creating a space and an experience that draws lots of different people. You gotta have something that can serve as a good foundation. The first thing to go will be the fence around the property. We’ve always felt like it’s a barrier between us and the public. Kind of like, “you’re not welcome here.” We want to add a set of stairs, and more doors that will lead into the cafe area.
This is what is imagined for the front entrance of Cossitt. Notice the diverse cast of characters!
Wesley: Cafe area?
Shamichael: Right, it can also serve as a sort of cafe incubator, a space where food trucks who are trying to move to a physical space can test out the concept.
Wesley: This sounds more like a community center than a library.
Shamichael: It’s a community hub. We still got books, the technology will still be there, but it really becomes a central gathering place. One of the things we’re gonna try is to have a different person or a different group curate a list of books each month for sections. So we have a rotation of books. One month it may be an artsy thing, one much it’ll be a design thing, one month an African American history thing. The bookshelves will be on casters, so they’ll be easily changeable.
Wesley: I see some meeting spaces and workshop areas here. How’s that going to work? Is it free?
Shamichael: It’ll be a registry. Everything that we do has to be free. In that, the message we convey is that this is a community space, and all of us should take ownership of this space in some kind of way. Instead of paying 50 bucks a month, would you commit to facilitating three workshops?
Or spend a couple hours over the course of this month picking up trash around the building? That’s a way to help people think, this is my library, but this is also your library. I don’t want to come here and just consume, but to give back.
Above are more mockups of the inside of Cossitt. I love how it looks like Barnes & Noble went to art school.
Wesley: What’s going on on the second floor?
Shamichael: The second floor is where more of an active program is happening. We’ll have a performing arts stage with an acoustic curtain stretching wall to wall. What we imagine for this space is a diverse mix of dance, music, acting, and film, open to the community. This space would ideally be used by smaller productions who need a space to perform. We’ll also have studio spaces for people to record video, do podcasts, something along those lines. There will be a music section, with a curated vinyl selection and listening stations.
Wesley: Kind of like the Cloud901 program at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library?
Shamichael: Yeah, it’s magical. We want to bring that feel downtown to this library, but make it for adults. A digital playground for grown folks.
Wesley: I like everything I’ve seen so far. But I have to say — public libraries are historically a safe space for the homeless and destitute. What’s your take on that?
Shamichael: There’s a stigma, like they’re lazy, they want to panhandle and don’t want to work. Before we closed, a good segment of our customers were homeless. By us being a public space, and being one of the few public places downtown, it was a place homeless people could come in the day time. They’re coming for shelter, for information, finding out how to get ID, how to find jobs.
As a former minister, I know we have to deal justly with the poor. We can’t toss them to the side. We can’t just say, y’all get out, this is our library. What I’m trying to drill into my staff right now is this — day one, when we open up, we have to be very mindful to let people know this is a place for everyone. Because it’s a place for everyone, it’s gonna mean you’re gonna come in contact with people you’ve never come in contact with before. We have to let down our walls in terms of who we think belongs here.
In an effort to beautify the space, Shamichael and the rest of the Cossitt team asked community members what they were thankful for, and hung the answers on the Cossitt gate. I, too, am thankful for Crazy Noodle.
Wesley: Man. Directing a public space seems like a challenge.
Shamichael: Any time you do something like this, you’re gonna have problems. You’re gonna have challenges. What I would hope is that the greater Memphis community sees what we’re trying to do and says, hey, I can help out.
Wesley: Can you give me a date when Cossitt will reopen?
Shamichael: I can’t give you an exact date, but we feel really good about fall or winter of this year.
Wesley: Any parting words of wisdom?
Shamichael: If you don’t have a library card, you should have one.
Wesley: Couldn’t have said it better myself.