Smartest Street Corner In Hope: How The Hempstead County Library Fills The Bill From Kids To Seniors

By Scott Jester, 06/15/21 7:12 AM

It’s the smartest street corner in all of Hope. Inside the building that stands there, a child can dream big and actually begin the journey in making them happen. High School students, standing in the crossroads of life, are able to continue learning for free and open doors that may have once been closed. Adults, who like to travel, can do so for free on this street corner. Like solving murders? There’s plenty of dead bodies found between the pages there too. All this is possible walking through the doors of the Hempstead County Library located at Fifth and Elm Street.


An example of how far a person could go in life inside the fresh, new, beautiful, well-lit, well-stocked walls of the Hempstead County Library? Imagine a very young Bill Clinton and his classmate pal Mac McLarty checking out children’s picture books from the old library, which opened in 1948. Both did quite well later in life as President of the United States and his Chief of Staff. One might see future Governor Mike Huckabee dashing in and out of the same building on his way to KXAR, late for his disc-jockey shift. And, think too, on a hard-trying Hope high-schooler, Lavenski “Vence” Smith, tackling football and his books, library books, on his quest to one day become a federal judge, and who presently serves as Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals in the Eighth Circuit.


There are many other success stories that could be chronicled, but the most important stories are being written presently by the curious kids who take part in the many programs designed to pique their explosive interests. The library also functions as a place for kids, or for anyone, to select a book, find a quiet, comfortable corner, and drift away, following the imagery of the story unwinding before them. Most importantly, the goal is to establish a relationship with a building and the people dedicated to assist those kids in becoming whatever they dream.  Or at the minimum help sign them up for a free library card.


“One of my favorite things is seeing a child light up when they walk in,” says Library Director Courtney McNiel.


She leads the charge of learning at the library, and who oversaw the massive move from the “old” library building into the new one. She has also added letters to her title, earning a Masters of Science in Library and Information Studies, which was a requirement set by the Hempstead County Library Board, not only adding personal value to McNiel’s resume` but qualifying the library for state funding.


Extensive planning for the new building took up a lot of hours, envisioning the future and designing a structure that would serve the public well, with function and beauty. “Mostly, we needed more space,” McNiel stated.


“We have an odd-shaped piece of land here, so the architect set up the way the building should lay to maximize our space which is at 11,998 square feet.”


Why not do a little “cherry pickin'” when deciding what might look nice in a brand new library? “We, which included some staff at the time, our board, and our architect Mr. Hollensworth, travelled to a lot of libraries in the Little Rock area, and many of them had this open concept where you could see the duct work. I wanted that. I wanted a modern look,” said McNiel. “We basically walked around alone deciding which things would work in our library and which things wouldn’t.”


A modern accentuation in the building is a wall of windows which extends from the floor to the ceiling of the northwest side of the building, allowing natural light to bathe the entirety of the inner building. Who doesn’t like a front row seat to a beautiful blue sky or even better, the gentle tap of a rain shower just outside while reading a book? Additionally, passers-by outside wonder what’s going inside; brilliant! “We knew we wanted a lot of windows,” McNiel said in the understatement of the year.


The children’s area greets visitors as soon as they enter with bright colors, large cutouts of familiar characters, banners, and best of all, books. “We have a lot of eye-catching things in that area,” McNiel continued. “There are toys and other things like a Leggo board, big wooden blocks, and other material that you wouldn’t have seen at the other library.”


McNiel could not get it done day-to-day without her key player, Assistant Library Director Jamie Formby, a kind, young woman with a quick, sharp wit, but is the type happy to carry a senior citizen’s books to their car. “Jaimie is so phenomenal,” McNiel said. “We have been at Kid’s College at UAHT recently and while I read the book, she’s over there pickin’ and pokin’ the kids, interacting with them.”


For those fearing technology and looking up a book for the first time, the best advice is to bring an eight-year-old child with you so they may walk you through the simple steps that might intimidate someone of an advanced age, like 35. There is an old, retired wooden card catalog case for those who long to take a trip down memory lane, but, sadly, it’s empty, and has given way to a wonderful, easy-to-use, catalog system set up on computers in kiosks safely within speaking distance of a helpful staff member.


The Hempstead County website is a cinch to navigate and even allows users to check out online books and other features. “During COVID, we had plenty of books online and many read from home,” said McNiel. It’s a great feature even without a disease keeping a reader at home.


“My staff shares my passion.” (Assistant Director) Jamie Formby is my personality,” says McNiel with a laugh. “If I didn’t have her here, I’d be lost. Vera Jackson is our cataloger, her attention to detail is what makes her so excellent at that job. You will also see her out on the front desk as well. Wanda Whitley and Tonya Dickson are the two ladies on the circulation desk. Those two are phenomenal. They know everybody’s kid’s names, their birthdays, and they just make that connection. That makes the children want to come back, when they’ve found a friend (like Wanda and Tonya). We have two part-timers, Emma Daniels and Christina King, who are now here every Saturday.


Looking for a quiet getaway for a Saturday? Looking for a perfect diversion to take the grandkids to a nice air-conditioned learning and safe play space? Think of the Hempstead Library.


“Opening on Saturdays has gone well,” McNiel stated. “We do have a lot of competition on Saturday’s with baseball tournaments, camping, etc., but it’s been a steady flow which will continue to grow.


McNiel loves her place and her space at the Hempstead County Library as she is in her 12th year on the job. “I haven’t been challenged in awhile because we haven’t been able to get out and do our normal thing due to COVID,” she laments. “I’m glad we are beginning to get into that now including Kids’ College, The Farmer’s Market, the things that make it fun,” she said.


“I wake up and look forward to coming to this place every, single, day,” says McNiel. “We want to dream big here.”


If you’d like to dream big too, the Hempstead County Library is open on Mondays from 12:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays 9:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., and Saturdays 9:00a.m. – 12:30 p.m.


The Summer Program is getting underway too. Bring yourself, or your little one to see “The Balloon Man” on June 18, at 2:00 p.m., “Magic Mr. Nick” will appear on July 9, beginning at 2:00 p.m., and “Animalogy” is featured on July 19 at 3:00 p.m.


Find the answers to all your questions by calling (870) 777-4564, or visit the smartest corner in all of Hope in person at 5th and Elm!