Memphis Libraries: Concerts, Games and, Oh Yes, Books

Dec 18, 2017

Fun and learning wait behind the Tween Haven door at the Whitehaven branch library.
Credit Renee Davis Brame

The Memphis Public Library has begun a reinvention, of sorts. “Re-branding” may be a better term. The strategy is called #StartHere.

But what does that mean, exactly?

For “starters,” it’s about turning libraries into community centers for the Information Age. The effects are already visible outside Whitehaven Library, adjacent to Robert R. Church Elementary School.

Here, two lines of kids leave school for the day: one heads toward the cars waiting to pick them up. Another bee-lines to the library, maybe 30 to 40 kids. Some children will do homework or play video games. Others will enjoy the library’s after-school programs. This is all part of the Memphis Public Library trying to expand the meaning of the word "library."

“My only hope is that we are doing this community justice,” says Jamie Griffin, Whitehaven’s branch manager. “We are definitely a center for all ages… without a doubt.”

He says he’ll see upwards of a hundred children and teenagers every day.

In 2016, library officials hired research group Little Bird Innovation and the advertising firm of Doug Carpenter and Associates to think about ways libraries could remain relevant to Millennials and beyond.

One solution: give individual branches unique personalities, based on neighborhood needs. Then, get people through the door. Memphis Library’s Twitter feed now uses #StartHere to let people know about classes, lectures, exhibits and even concerts.

MPL’s new Start Here campaign encourages its patrons to consider cultural and political issues of the day.
Credit Renee Davis Brame

In Whitehaven, the focus is on kids and teens. One popular evening program is called Teenhaven. Kids 13 and older can hang out in a safe space with computers, online games and board games. They can also just sit and talk.

“People find solace in this space,” says Bertam Williams Jr. who develops programing at Teenhaven. “There’s a true sense of family, and that’s what I think makes this space truly a community hub.”

Launched in August, the program was so popular that younger kids wanted their own program. Now there’s Tweenhaven as well. Part of Williams’ job is being the kind of adult that kids can talk to. A super-librarian, if you will.  

“The Sweet spot is in the genuine eye contact and finding out, you know, what’s really going on on the day to day,” Williams says.

“They’ll show you love in here!” says DeAngelo Howard, a seventh grader.

Sixth grader Courtney Fleming who’s in a program called the Whitehaven Boys Squad, a group he is enthusiastically proud to be part of.

“It’s to encourage boys to stay off the streets and things like that, and don’t let bad things get in your mind,” Fleming says.

After the first month of Start Here, 2,600 new library cards were issued.

Twitter engagement rose by almost 90 percent.

Each branch now has its own Facebook page.

As the campaign continues, libraries will keep evolving. Two branches, South City and the Randolph branch, are due for exterior renovations, with community input.

Officials say that these efforts in time will help libraries and communities move forward together.

This story was written in partnership with High Ground News. For more information on Memphis Public Library, visit