Photograph courtesy of Cleveland Public Library
Then and now: Cleveland Public Library’s main building as it looked under construction in 1869 (left), and as it looks now, (right), 150 years later, blended together in a special photographic effect.


The 150th anniversary of the Cleveland Public Library (CPL) is not only a chance to throw a party, or four or five, it’s also an opportunity to showcase its legacy, its recent accomplishments, and much more. CPL’s history is deep and richly textured. An overarching theme of service, accessibility and progress echoes through the decades, as the library was and is a vibrant, inclusive cultural touchstone and source of information for children and adults, native and foreign-born alike.

In a recent address to The City Club, CPL Executive Director and CEO, Felton Thomas, Jr. briefly outlined the highlights of the institution, from its founding just four years after the Civil War to becoming one of the first truly public libraries in the country, when patrons were allowed to browse the collection. (Previously only librarians were allowed to access the stacks.) “Ours was a library committed to creating connections and to providing Greater Clevelanders access – not just to the materials, programs, and services of the Library – but connecting patrons with ideas, skills, knowledge, and cultures,” Thomas says.

“Over the past three years we’ve developed a strategic plan that would conclude on our 150th anniversary year,” he added. “We wanted to use the 150th as a platform as to how we were going to think about the library in the future, over the next 150 years.”

So where do we start with the celebrations?

Step one – a new way of thinking about older and valuable aspects. CPL is taking the revered, perhaps sentimental out-of-school reading club into the modern day, transforming it into the Summer Lit League. With an emphasis on more interactivity and technology, the list of events is extensive: Free lunches (vital for children living in economic distress), puppet workshops at all branches, reading and blogging, and for teens a CLE Reads Book Fest at Edgewater Park to meet today’s hottest YA authors.

Next, the rather politely named Friends of the Library is now the Cleveland Public Library Foundation with a more robust agenda regarding fundraising, from seeking grants to administrating special events. Its goals are fourfold: Ensure every child reads. Connect people to crucial resources. Build a ready, area-wide workforce. And, bridge the cultural divide. This newly minted foundation will host a benefit, the Book Ball Gala in November.

The third part of the outreach agenda is a very special anniversary party on July 27. CPL will shut down lower Superior Avenue to celebrate. Local branches will close, but shuttle buses will take patrons from their neighborhoods to downtown to join in the street party which features live music, crafts and more. The culminating event of the 150th is the opening of the new branch in University Circle honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on MLK Day, January 20, 2020.

Director Thomas sees both the past and the future in these decisions. In an interview for Currents, Thomas points out he is just the 14th director in a century and a half of library history. “I stand on their shoulders,” he says, and also expresses appreciation to the dedicated work of 750 staff members scattered across 27 branches, plus the main library. Another way these professionals are leveraging the anniversary is by creating a master plan that will renovate and touch every building in the system.

“I’m really comfortable with what we’ve been able to do,” Thomas says. “Every branch had community meetings and discussions with our staff. I feel like we understand what the community wants. Every building in every neighborhood is different. Some are crowded with children after school. Some cater to seniors, and one is used overwhelmingly by young professionals. We can’t use a cookie cutter approach.” The newest branch is already ten years old, he explains, and the oldest ones are between 75 and 100 years old. “The last time we did major renovation was in 1989 – 30 years ago. Our goal is to make every branch safe, warm and dry, and aesthetically pleasing.”

Yet CPL’s improvements are so much more than skin deep. For anyone who has access to the Internet 24/7, it’s hard to imagine having little or no connectivity. Student homework assignments, job applications, contacts with banks, insurance, even the State of Ohio depends – a lot – on having access to the Internet. Those who cannot connect run the risk of being left behind. Looking forward to the next 150 years, CPL aims to change all that.

“The thing we understand about libraries of the future is that we will be using different tools and resources to enlighten people past the book. As we move on, we see how more folks need different resources to be successful and enlightened in life,” Thomas says. “Last year CPL had over one million computer sessions – one million. Literacy is so much more than reading. Our job is to give people tools like Wi-Fi, and [Internet] hotspots. Nearly 40 percent of our community has no regular access to the Internet. So, we will create it.” We are called ‘The People’s University’ for a reason.”

One more way to engage the community comes in the admittedly headline-grabbing “no more fines” policy. CPL’s board realized that fines were harming people who need access the most. For some, a $40 fine for a lost or seriously overdue book means making a choice between using the library and buying groceries. “There’s still a charge if the item never comes back,” Thomas says, “but this has been received wonderfully, with no push back.

In his address to The City Club, Thomas said: “We work tirelessly to spark curiosity each and every day: For our youngest citizens who are just starting their journey to literacy; for our students who work tirelessly to master new skills and take on new experiences; for our adult strivers and lifelong learners, who search – search for a book, a job, for answers, for inspiration. And, just like that… you’re 150 years old.”

More information is available at

Cleveland Public Library hosts

free citywide street festival

To celebrate Cleveland Public Library’s 150th anniversary and to thank the community for its longstanding support, the Library invites the public to a free, daylong street festival on Saturday, July 27 from 1 to 10 p.m.

“The CPL150 Street Festival honors both the Library’s 150 years of service as well as the community members who make our work so meaningful,” says Felton Thomas, Jr., Executive Director. “Throughout the day, we’ll have activities appropriate for children and families, and the evening will include programming for adults. This festival will be a colorful, joyous occasion created specifically for the people of Cleveland. Consider this your formal invitation to come downtown on July 27 to take part in the festivities.”

Clevelanders can expect an eclectic range of activities and entertainment at the CPL150 Street Festival, including a Ferris wheel, a puppet parade, balloon animal creations, a Tri-C Vocal Arts Academy performance, a bold and colorful inflatable public art installation, MOCA’s LOADED performance series, the Cleveland Inner City Ballet, a roller-skating performance, and an appearance from artist and illustrator Raúl the Third, among others. From 1 to 5 p.m., the family-friendly daytime offerings include story times, school supply giveaways, a Lion King ticket giveaway opportunity for Summer Lit League program finishers, and more. In the evening hours, adult-focused programming will take over from 5 to 10 p.m. to feature comedy, art exhibits, a beer garden, and a DJ-led dance party.

The CPL150 Street Festival takes place on Superior Avenue, between E. 3rd and E. 6th Streets, which will be closed to traffic for the day, and at Main Library and the Louis Stokes Wing of Cleveland Public Library. In the event of rain, activities will be moved inside the Louis Stokes Wing at 525 Superior Avenue. Seven Cleveland Public Library branches will offer free, regularly scheduled trips on Lolly the Trolley between 12:30 and 5:30 p.m. – Eastman, South, Sterling, Woodland, East 131st, Addison, and Collinwood. All remaining neighborhood branches in the Library system will close on July 27 in honor of the festival.

Festival highlights include:

Comedian Roy Wood, Jr.

Roy Wood, Jr., who appears on “The Daily Show” (among other Comedy Central programs) and has performed widely on stage, television, and radio, will entertain Clevelanders during the festival’s evening hours.

Producer & DJ DâM-FunK

DâM-FunK is the epitome of funk. His DJ set, which features selections of soul, funk, R&B, and hip-hop, will close out the evening’s 150th anniversary celebration.

Author Eric Litwin

#1 New York Times bestselling and acclaimed children’s author Eric Litwin brings early literacy and music together in a song-singing, guitar-strumming live performance including his beloved characters from the original four “Pete the Cat” books, “The Nuts” and “Groovy Joe.”

Big Bang Boom!

A trio of dynamic dads—Chuck Folds, Steve Willard, and Eddie Walker—make up this pop/rock music group who play parent-friendly children’s music. This is kid’s music for adults who have had enough of Barney, The Wiggles, and Kidz Bop from a band that has been compared to U2.

Ballet Fusion Dance Company Hiplet

Hiplet fuses classical pointe technique with African, Latin, Hip-Hop, and urban dance styles rooted in communities of color. Performances incorporate the rhythms of African drums with Tchaikovsky, arabesques, beat-boxing, or even Tango en pointe, all set to popular music.

For a full list of performers, activities, and a schedule, visit
of-events/. Select performers available for interviews.