When she stopped back in Memphis after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, Keenon McCloy had no intention of staying. But an intriguing offer from the new Mayor-Elect and the opportunity to see the city from a whole new perspective drew Keenon into the inner workings of her hometown. Twenty-seven years later, she now heads Memphis Public Libraries and has been part of a sea change in the way information, education and opportunity are shared. Meet this week’s enlightening FACE of Memphis, Keenon McCloy!
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Memphis at Baptist Hospital. I grew up in Central Gardens, right around the corner from the main library at the time.
I went to Hutchison and went to sort of the exact opposite higher educational institute — University of California at Berkeley. I just wanted to be with people who didn’t know me, so I could find out what my strengths and passions were in a larger ecosystem.
What brought you back to Memphis?
I came back after school just to check in with my family for a little bit. I fully intended to leave; I knew I was never going to come back to Memphis. And then I opened my eyes. I thought, “This is not the city I remember.” It was actually amazing to discover a whole different side of Memphis than I’d ever known before. I did end up working with the Mayor-Elect, Dr. Willie Herenton, my first job back. It was really exciting and energizing to see the city I’d lived in all my life and never had really known. Somehow, every year passed and I thought, It’s getting better and better and better.
How did you join the library system?
I worked in the Chief Administrative Office, the Mayor’s office, with the City Council, and the Sexual Assault Resource Center, and then the Division of Public Services and Neighborhoods, which had 20 to 25 different service centers.
[The libraries] became part of the Public Services division. I was the director at the time, and so the libraries reported to me. There’s pretty much nothing we did in Public Services and Neighborhoods that’s not being done at Memphis Public Libraries, so it was a really natural fit. Those areas are ones I have a tremendous amount of passion for.
What is your first childhood memory of being in a library?
I grew up one block over and one block down from the main library at Peabody and McLean. I stayed there for hours. I was a loud kid, and they were very shushing, but they also knew exactly what I was looking for. I also loved the music collection. We had a record player and could check out record albums.
What role do libraries play in an increasingly digital society?
A lot of people think, if they haven’t been to a library in a long time, it’s what it was when their children were in storytime or when they were growing up. We definitely do a lot of things libraries wouldn’t have done before. We’re just evolving.
I know so many of us have different opportunities to access things, and libraries are one of the places that level the playing field. It’s really wonderful to be able to provide 18 locations throughout Memphis and Shelby County where people can grow. No location or programming is focused on one particular customer base, one resident. Everybody is equally welcome.
What is the first thing you want people to feel when they enter the library?
Welcome. We want them to have a positive customer experience that starts when they walk in. Being not just friendly and welcoming but also fresh and fun. We have experiences that are different every time you come. With some people, we might be the only person who can help them transform their life or spark curiosity about lifelong learning.
How do you feel when you walk in?
Energized. Inspired. Passionate. Excited.
How does library programming help connect women in Memphis?
Most of our volunteers are women, and women really pour into the Memphis Public Libraries. There are lots of fun things they can do from reading books you hear on our radio station, WYPL 89.3, or hosting a program. We also have lots of events on history, and women are a major part of our fabric.
How do you see the libraries reflect the character of Memphis?
They all mirror the community that they serve. They evolve, but they’re reflective of the populations and schools surrounding them.
If you go around the library system, you’ll see pretty much everyone is happy, is excited, is caring, is helpful. The energy is palpable. People can talk about technology, and we’re going to have more and more of it, but ultimately it’s our people. They’re our foundation.
What changes on the horizon are you most excited about?
We’re in the process of building a Family Lab in the new Raleigh branch for intergenerational activities, and we’re also putting a demonstration kitchen on the second floor. We’re renovating the city’s first library, the Cossitt. The mid-century modern portion of the building that faces Front Street will be completely renovated. There will be performance spaces and an audio booth, various studios, artists in residence. We’re also about to build a new Frayser Branch Library.
All of these are very flexible spaces. There won’t be much fixed furniture, so our branches can be more efficient. There are certain patterns in customer behavior — seniors come earlier in the day, then families may come for storytimes, then when schools get out, teens and after-school activities tend to happen, and at night we try to have really diverse programming.
Where is the first place you take visitors to Memphis?
Graceland and the Rendezvous. I go to Graceland a whole lot. I actually wrote a term paper on going to Graceland when they had just opened. It’s just always held a special place in my heart. They have 1.5 million artifacts, so you get a different experience every time. There’s always something there for everyone. It’s a real treasure for Memphis.
What is the last thing you learned at the library?
We’re starting to map our collection and geo-code every image we have. Seeing what the possibilities are going to become is really exciting — whether it’s maps or manuscripts or photographs, everything can be tied together. It’s getting me excited thinking about applications for that.
What is your best advice?
To whatever extent you can, reach outside of your comfort zone — you will grow. If you’re feeling totally comfortable, you probably aren’t pushing yourself enough.
What are three things you can’t live without?
Joy, people and learning
Thank you for sharing, Keenon! To learn more about Memphis Public Library’s offerings and events, visit memphislibrary.org.
And thank you to Mary Kate Steele of Mary Kate Steele Photography for these beautiful photos.
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