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More than books: TCPL celebrates 150th through art exhibitions

Sun beams into the Tompkins County Public Library (TCPL) onto a variety of card catalogues and glass display cases. Each drawer of the card catalogue houses hundreds of messages and pictures from community members and artists. For Sally Grubb, exhibit coordinator at TCPL, this display is a perfect way to wish the library a happy 150th birthday.

The exhibition is called “150 years and counting” and is made up of three parts. “Talk Tompkins” is a series of audio-visual portraits of Tompkins County natives by artist Ben Altmann. The second part is called “Artist in the Archives” which is a compilation of artwork from three different artists, all on old card-catalogue stationary and will be housed in the library until June. Finally, “Diary of a Library” is the most interactive exhibit, in which community members are allowed to submit their own cards with artwork or a message that will be permanently housed in the library.

Grubb said that despite her initial worries, she believes the “Diary of a Library” exhibit has been a huge success.

“Well it’s always stressful putting up an exhibit, making sure it works, and worrying about what people will think about it,” Grubb said.  “But the best thing about this has been the response of everybody. The day we put it up, cards started coming in.

The “Diary of a Library” card catalogue has 15 drawers for 15 decades, Grubb said. The categories range from ‘History of the library’ to messages and art from children specifically.

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The exhibit was made possible in part by the library’s expansive volunteer base, Yvette Rubio, coordinator of volunteers at TCPL, said.

“Our resources are limited, so volunteers are absolutely vital,” Rubio said. The library receives the bulk of its funding through the county government and “Friends of the Library” foundation.

Carrie Wheeler, spokesperson for TCPL, said that the “Diary of a Library” exhibition allows longtime supporters of the library to give back in a different capacity.

“TCPL would never have survived 150 years without our patrons, friends, staff members and community supporters,” Wheeler said. “’Diary of a Library’ provides them with an opportunity to reflect on their library history while we reflect on the history of our library.”

Rubio said she was impressed with how many cards are being submitted by community members and believes this is due largely to volunteers.

“Volunteers played a huge role in the development of the card catalogue in particular,” Rubio said. “In two hours we would receive about 150 cards thanks to the volunteers.”

Exhibitions like these remind community members that libraries exist for many reasons beyond loaning books, Susan Currie, director of TCPL, said.   

“I think one of the most important things we do is give our community an opportunity to experience art,” Currie said.

Whereas not everyone can afford to view art in a museum or gallery, library exhibitions allow the entire community to experience art, Wheeler said.

“For many people in our community, art galleries and museums—the traditional homes for exhibits—seem off-limits.  The Library is a great community equalizer, where everyone has the same rights to access and services,” Wheeler said. “So being able to showcase work from local, regional and nationally-recognized artists ensures that everyone in our community has the ability to view and appreciate art in a comfortable environment.”

TCPL houses a variety of exhibitions each year, ranging from nationally known artists to artwork from people living in Ithaca’s “Jungle,” an encampment of homeless locals. Whatever the exhibit, Grubb said she is always eager to see how the community will react.

“When you come to a library you see artwork by chance because it’s there. There’s no pressure to like it or to dislike it,” Grubb said. “But, gosh, it’s amazing when you see the response.”

These interactive exhibitions, Currie said, are part of the library’s larger mission to continue to be engaged with the community.

“As the world of technology and publishing changes, the libraries have to change to meet those needs,” Currie said. “I think a library will always be an important place for community connections, for educational and civic programming. They are a neutral space where all are welcome.”

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