The Main Event
Celebrating 20 Years Downtown

Join in our "$20 for 20 years" campaign to celebrate the 20 great years on the campus. Participation is easy, simply use your mobile device and text "CALS" to 41444.

How We Got Here

Main @ 20

Libraries of various stripes existed in Little Rock as early as 1834. Downtown has had a permanent library presence since the first Carnegie-funded Little Rock Public Library opened its doors in 1910. The original public library was constructed at 7th and Louisiana Streets, a building which stood more than 50 years until a new building was constructed on that site in 1964.

By the 1980s, the library system found itself at a crossroads. As the city continued to expand to the west, the cry for branches to serve the new neighborhoods grew louder. However, as each new branch opened, the Main Library experienced a decline in circulation.

"We were dying," said Bobby Roberts, CALS director from 1989 to 2016. "People were just not using (the Main Library). That building – structurally it was fine, it was a big, strong, heavy building. But it was built in the '60s so you couldn't shift the walls around."

Parking issues and lack of physical space led the CALS board to discuss taking action on the matter as early as 1983, but action was stalled by lack of funds and a cohesive plan forward. The biggest issue was the pittance one-mill cap on library taxes that had been in place since World War II.

"If the constitution didn't change, there wasn't going to be any new library unless somebody walked in with $15 million and gave it to us," Roberts said.

So Roberts set out to change the state's constitution during the 1991 legislative session. The result was a constitutional amendment proposal to increase the millage from one to five with an additional three mill to be had with voter approval. The amendment passed in November 1992.

Fones Building before renovation
Fones Building before renovation
Main Library after renovation
Main Library after renovation
Fones Building before renovation
Fones Building before renovation
Main Library after renovation
Main Library after renovation

Should I Stay or Should I Go

With that solidified, the CALS board could then turn its attention to where the new Main Library branch would be located. Two camps quickly emerged: stay downtown or leave it.

Anyone who was around Little Rock in the 1980s and 1990s, can understand the idea to leave downtown. Critics questioned the wisdom of spending millions in a derelict neighborhood of crumbling warehouses where the average citizen was afraid to go.

The opposing camp was equally strident in their view that the Main Library should remain downtown. According to Linda Bly, who spent 40 years in various CALS departments, the fact that the district had become depressed only underscored the argument for staying.

"I was in the 'stay downtown' camp because I always felt a strong and vital downtown was necessary for a first-class city," Bly said. "A public institution investing in an area brings stability and hope to other investors."

Bill Spivey, bond attorney for CALS during this time, perhaps summed it up best.

"I won't say that was the seminal investment that triggered the redevelopment in the River Market," he said. "But many of us who have watched this believe that but for the public investment, that area might not be what it is today."

Arkansas Studies Institute before renovation
Arkansas Studies Institute before renovation
Arkansas Studies Institute after renovation
Arkansas Studies Institute after renovation
Arkansas
Arkansas Studies Institute before renovation
Arkansas Studies Institute after renovation
Arkansas Studies Institute after renovation

Finding a Home

Once the CALS board decided to keep the Main Library downtown, they had to find a suitable location.

"We needed to get at least 100,000 square feet, maybe 150,000," Roberts said. "We couldn't build a building like that in downtown Little Rock for $12 to $13 million. The next thing was OK, if we're going to stay down here let's see if we can find an old building."

Three buildings would be considered. The first was the Gazette Building, but it couldn't support the weight of all the books.

"The problem was, libraries are not like building a house. You've got to have a load capacity in them that's probably three times what an office building is," Roberts said.

The Terminal Warehouse was next on the list, but it was too big with a price tag to match. It was then that Roberts took a look at the Fones Building, a decrepit former hardware warehouse at 100 South Rock Street, recommended by Bill Spivey.

"The building was in bankruptcy, full of pigeon crap, the windows knocked out of it," Roberts said. "It was a God-awful looking building. I told Bill, I said, 'I don't have any interest in that damn building.'"

Once the search cycled through the other options, Roberts reluctantly agreed to a tour to get Spivey off his back. Instead, Roberts took one look at the massive concrete columns that ran straight through to the top floor and saw the future.

The building had a lot going for it – proximity to the Interstate, sufficient square footage (156,000 square feet over five floors and a basement), visibility, prospective parking areas, and, being in bankruptcy, was an unbelievable bargain.

"We bought it and the building where the Flying Saucer is now and where the (library) parking deck is now, and another building adjacent to Flying Saucer," Roberts said. "It was all of that for $500,000 which was a bargain!"

Because of the rock bottom purchase price, CALS had $12.5 million to spend on the renovation, a fortuitous largesse given that $125,000 would be required solely to remove decades of pigeon droppings.

Construction elements weren't the only monumental task facing CALS; the staff was faced with moving the books, periodicals, and other materials, a collection that numbered well over 100,000 items. Employee Jennifer Chilcoat devised a tagging system and corresponding mapping of the shelving configuration at the new location that was remarkable in its efficiency.

"We had two shifts of people working six-hour shifts and we were able to move the bulk of the collection from the old Main Library to the new library, shelf to shelf, in three and a half days."

Cox Creative Center before renovation
Cox Creative Center before renovation
Cox Creative Center after renovation
Cox Creative Center after renovation
Cox Creative Center before renovation
Cox Creative Center before renovation
Cox Creative Center after renovation
Cox Creative Center after renovation

An Instant Success

The new Main Library opened September 20, 1997, and was an immediate hit. Circulation jumped by 50 percent the first year, launching the branch into the top spot among all CALS locations, a perch it holds to this day.

"To have the overall acceptance and to prevail over the naysayers that said downtown is dead and nobody goes downtown anymore and you're going to build that big building and nobody's gonna use it. It was really a case of if you build it they will come," Bly said.

A New Dawn

Roberts is widely considered the visionary of not only the Main Library branch, but the downtown library campus as a whole. During his time as director, three new buildings with distinct purposes would be added to the campus.

The Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, established in 1997, was moved from Main to the Arkansas Studies Institute (ASI) building, a historic reuse project completed in 2009. The Butler Center features research collections, a research room, and art galleries.

In 2001, the 13,000-square-foot Cox Creative Center was renovated and eventually turned into River Market Books & Gifts, a used bookstore and coffee shop operated by CALS.

Finally, the new Ron Robinson Theater opened in 2014. The 315-seat venue provides programs including films, concerts, and lectures.

"Libraries have got to do a lot of different things," said Roberts. "It needs not only books, but the programming to go with it. It needs book clubs. You need to bring in speakers. It's a balancing act to have the really mainstream and not so mainstream."

"You need to get people thinking. I mean, the only way out of any plight is to think your way out of it."

Join in our "$20 for 20 years" campaign to celebrate the 20 great years on the campus. Participation is easy, simply use your mobile device and text "CALS" to 41444.

20th Anniversary Events

Legacies & Lunch: 20 Years and Family Films

The program will feature a video celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Main Library in the River Market District and the founding of the Butler Center.

September 6 • noon
Main Library, Darragh Center
100 Rock St.

The Vietnam War, a film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick

A screening of clips from The Vietnam War will be followed by discussion about the Butler Center's Arkansas Vietnam War Project.

September 16 • 2pm
CALS Ron Robinson Theater
100 River Market Ave.

Hattie Caraway's Long Shadow: Women in the U.S. Senate

Dr. Donald A. Ritchie, Historian Emeritus of the United States Senate, will relate the influence of women on Capitol Hill since Arkansas voted for Hattie Caraway in 1932, making her the first woman to be elected to the Senate. This lecture is part of the Betsey Wright Distinguished Lecture series.

September 21 • 7pm
CALS Ron Robinson Theater
100 River Market Ave.

Boos & Booze Kickoff

The Fall Terror Tuesdays series kicks off with the 20th anniversary edition of I Know What You Did Last Summer (R) and ends with a Halloween bash. Special beer selections will be available each Tuesday. Purchase $2 general admission tickets here »

September 26 • 6pm
CALS Ron Robinson Theater
100 River Market Ave.

Cake with CALS

Drop in for cake, share your CALS stories, and view our special anniversary video.

September 27 • noon - 2pm
Main Library, Lee Room
100 Rock St.

Alley Party

We're teaming up with the Downtown Little Rock Partnership for an outdoor celebration.

October 19 • 5:30pm
Main Library Campus
100 Rock St.

Romy & Michele's High School Reunion (R)

Watch the 20th anniversary edition of the movie of two dim-witted, inseparable friends hit the road for their ten-year high school reunion and concoct an elaborate lie about their lives in order to impress their classmates.

October 19 • 7pm
CALS Ron Robinson Theater
100 River Market Ave.

Share Your Memories

We couldn't present so many great authors every year, most of them appearing free to the public, without the sustained effort and support of people like you. All forms of support are welcome and truly appreciated.

Fill out my online form.

$20 for 20 Years

As a show of support, we encourage you to join in our "$20 for 20 years" campaign to celebrate the 20 great years on the campus. Participation is easy, simply use your mobile device and text "CALS" to 41444. From there, you'll be able to complete your donation of $5, $10, or $20.

Mail Your Donation

Contributions are always welcome in any form. If you would like to send a donation as a check, please mail it to:

Lee Ann Hoskyn, Director of Communications
$20 for 20 Years
Central Arkansas Library System
100 Rock St.
Little Rock, AR 72201

You may also make a secure online donation here