Commentary

This morning when I turned on my iPad app for the Louisville Free Public Library I read some news I was disappointed to see:

“Louisville Free Public Library Director Craig Buthod Announces Retirement.”

Instead of clicking on the card catalog to see if any copies of London Mayor Boris Johnson’s new book about Winston Churchill were available yet, I went directly to the story. Craig, who has been a friend since shortly after he arrived in Louisville in 1998, is now 60 and after a highly successful 17-year run as director has decided to step down. Tomorrow is his last day on the job, though his retirement won’t be effective until the end of the year.

Craig’s years of service have been among the most notable in the Louisville library’s long history. Our city’s been blessed with a series of excellent librarians. I’ve known all of them since Clarence R. “Skip” Graham, who became a national figure in the 1950s when he and Mayor Charles Farnsley made the public library a model, with the first radio station (WFPL) in 1950, university classes and concerts in the libraries, a circulating collection of 16-mm movies and prints of works of art you could check out for your own home. Around the time Mr. Graham retired in the early 1970s, the library seemed to go into a slump of sorts. Things began to pick up in the early ’90s when Mayor Abramson recruited Harriet Henderson, who led a big effort to increase the city occupational tax to support expanded libraries.

I worked hard as editorial page editor of The Courier-Journal to support that tax increase effort; we assigned one of our best editorial writers, Laurel Shackelford, to research what peer cities were doing. She determined that Louisville was doing far less for its library users than most comparable cities.

The voters rejected the proposal (as they would do again in 2008), but energy and demand as well as the creative leadership of Ms. Henderson and her successor, Tulsa-born Craig Buthod, made up for what the taxpayers would not provide.

Rather than rely on my memory, I am turning to the LFPL press release: “Library director Buthod credits LFPL’s many accomplishments during his tenure to the dedication, creativity, and hard work of library staff and community supporters. ‘As for me personally, I feel a little like Lou Gehrig when he said, “I’m the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” For forty-two years I’ve gone to work every day in a library, a place where I could engage with smart people pursuing their education, and I could learn something myself every day. What could be better than that?’”

One morning a few years ago that seemed, at the time, like the library’s darkest hour contained a silver lining: A rare flash flood inundated downtown south of Broadway, doing massive damage to the main branch at Fourth and York streets. Fortunately, the LFPL had good flood insurance, and within a year the branch had gained the kind of modernization that its advocates had long hoped for. Included among these were first-rate computer rooms; new departments for children and young adults; and a first-rate auditorium where lectures and panel discussions frequently occur.

In some cities, libraries are facing hard times with shrinking usage and the rise of e-books. Not so in Louisville, where change has been embraced (yes, you can check out books on your iPad or Kindle or Nook, and you can read magazines on those platforms – all for free). More than 10,000 patrons are served in the library system in person, and another 10,000 are virtually served online. The number of materials—including CDs, DVDs, e-books and plain of books—circulating to the public has increased 25 percent since Craig took over.

New libraries have also been part of the Buthod legacy:

  • In 2009, the opening of a brand-new, state-of-the-art library in Newburg was the first stand-alone new public library to open in Louisville in decades.
  • There’s a new LEED-certified Fairdale Branch.
  • A renovation of Louisville’s historic Western Branch Library
  • Renovations of the Bon Air, Shively and Middletown branches
  • And most recently a new 40,000 square foot state-of-the-art Southwest Regional Library opened, serving more than 100,000 people.

The list goes on and on. You can read his achievements at the library website, lfpl.org. For all of these things, Craig was named Librarian of the Year for the United States in 2010.

As a nearly 60 year card-carrying Louisville Free Public Library patron, I salute Craig Buthod, and I have a suggestion for how we can do that best: Let’s name the 1969 wing of the Main Branch in his honor, and while we’re at it, let’s honor Clarence R. “Skip” Graham by renaming the Carnegie Wing for him. It would be a fitting recognition of the achievements of two remarkable men of ideas and creativity.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. 

Read his past WFPL commentaries here.