Clayton’s first library branch may be demolished for county complex

by Robin Kemp

Clayton County’s oldest public library has quietly closed its doors. But patrons of the Jonesboro Branch at 124 Smith Street are saying, loud and clear, that a proposed “community room” in the county’s proposed new central complex is not an acceptable substitute. Meanwhile, county officials say nothing has been decided yet and that the Board of Commissioners’ October 26 work session will give everyone more context.

The complex would bring several scattered county offices under one roof–a very large roof, 65,000 to 85,000 square feet (the figure included in the project description is not legible). The county is proposing to tear down both 120 Smith Street and the Jonesboro Branch to make it happen. The description in a recent request for proposals for architectural, engineering, and design services approved in July reads:

“Design and build a new County Administration building. The facility will assist in increased efficiency and effectiveness of services by consolidating departments located in several buildings. In addition to the Board of Commissioners offices, centralized services such as Human Resources, Legal, Finance, and other compatible departments/services could be housed under one roof. Approximate square footage of [X5,000] with a parking deck (300 vehicles). Funding would include scope development and architectural design.”

On July 6, the Board of Commissioners approved am annual contract, renewable for five years, with multiple bidders for architectural, engineering and design services through the Building Maintenance department. Topping a long list of future projects included in the packet for for RFP 21-04 was the new county administration building at $40 million. (That project was not included on a shorter list of 2021 SPLOST projects slated for this year, which did include $7 million for a library in District 1.)

Among those up in arms over the Jonesboro Branch’s closure are Mayor Joy Day and Jonesboro City Councilwoman Pat Sebo-Hand, who say no one informed city officials in advance. (The city recently placed the top beam of its own new city complex just on the other side of Lee Street Park.)

Sebo said she found out about the plans “by accident” in March, and that Day had been told “a few years back that the library was going to be renovated.” She added that Day and Clayton County Chairman Jeff Turner had been going “back and forth and, at this point, there’s no resolution to it.”

Turner said of the Jonesboro Branch building, “It’s coming down.” However, he added, the county has not made any final decision about how to replace the facility.

Turner and District 4 Commissioner DeMont Davis have repeatedly said that few people use libraries to read books–that most come in to use the Internet connection–so they say less library space would be needed. But Sebo-Hand and a growing number of vocal citizens under the unofficial moniker “Save the Jonesboro (GA) Library” are pushing for a new freestanding library–like the city has now and like several other municipalities have gotten in the past few years.

Chief Operating Officer Detrick Stanford said it’s possible that the BOC, which already has allocated the $7 million in 2021 SPLOST funds for a new library branch for District 1, could move that project to Jonesboro, which is in District 4. The county has had problems with the ground on several District 1 construction projects. “We’ve had some bursting issues…every time” at newer District 1 facilities like the Sonna Singleton Gregory Senior Center, Stanford said, causing issues with septic lifts for the sewers to new buildings in that area.

Again, Stanford pointed out, the BOC may or may not decide to move that already-budgeted-for library project to Jonesboro.

But the county also says it doesn’t want to spend money on repairs that cost more than the building is worth, or repair a building it might tear down.

Library fans on Facebook are calling for the county to save the Jonesboro Branch but were not officially organized as of press time.

According to Sebo-Hand, one of two HVAC systems at the library was broken and Library Board member Brenda Harrison had put in a request to repair it. “The response they got from the county was that they were not going to repair it because it [the branch] was going to be demolished,” she said.

Stanford said, “The HVAC system was not working and that is the primary reason the Jonesboro library was temporarily closed.  The temperature could not be controlled, and it was unsafe for staff and the public.”

Because the library was closed due to COVID-19, no one was sure whether the books and other materials in the collection had suffered mold damage from the broken HVAC system.

“That’s the thing that really upset me,” Sebo-Hand said. “There was no attempt on the county’s part [to check the collection for any damage]. The director of the library came to me and said, ‘If we could just find another place to box it up and store it until a decision is made.” At first, the Perry Center looked like a possibility but, Sebo-Hand said, “the [school] district said there was no room.”

The Clayton Crescent asked to see the inside of the library, in order to check for any signs of possible damage to the collection, but got no response from library officials.

Shortly after noon on October 8, The Clayton Crescent noticed a table propping open the Jonesboro Branch’s front door and called inside. Two women who identified themselves as library employees confirmed that they were not removing items from the collection but would not say what they were doing, and suggested contacting Library Director Rosalind K. Lett. The Clayton Crescent then went to Battle Creek Headquarters and asked to speak briefly with Lett. Another librarian said she was not available and took down our information.

Later, Library Board Chair Deetra Poindexter said neither she nor any other board member would comment on anything having to do with the building itself. However, published minutes of Library Board meetings show the board and library staff had discussed the branch’s closure. We’ve asked for more details as to the substance of those discussions but did not get any by press time.

Stanford told The Clayton Crescent that no formal structural assessment had been done on the Jonesboro Branch, but that the county decided not to spend $70,000 to $80,000 to replace the one dead HVAC system because “if you tear it down, that would not be a good use of the taxpayers’ dollars.”

Only one of two HVAC units is working at the Jonesboro Branch Library. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

He said Building Maintenance Director Ben Hopkins had inspected it and noticed some “protruding” areas around the base of the building. The Clayton Crescent also saw several areas all around the base where spalling had popped off to expose rebar, as well as some cracks around the base and over the carport.

Rusting rebar has popped off chunks of concrete around the Jonesboro Branch’s base. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

A 2019 aerial image of the building in county tax records shows what appears to be water damage on the roof. “The issue is not structural, outside of the roof,” Stanford said. Two years ago, a contractor, Garland, had looked at the roof, and “the cost of repair supersedes the assessed value.” According to Stanford’s assistant, Marcia Davis, the property is valued at $423,000. The roof repair would have been almost $700,000.

For the record

Neither county headquarters nor the library system have said much about the closure, which has stretched for almost a year. Here’s what we’ve found:

Jonesboro created Clayton’s first library

A plaque dated 1966 marks the opening of the “Clayton County Library,” now called the Jonesboro Branch. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)
Mary Archer Barnette (right), Clayton County’s first librarian. The woman  inthe left was not identified but could be Fay Clarke, the second librarian.

There’s a reason why many Jonesboro residents are so protective of their library branch.

According to various historical sources (available in the Headquarters library and in the Georgia Archive), the Jonesboro Women’s Club started the county’s entire library network. In 1941, the group either borrowed 200 books from the Works Progress Administration or joined with the WPA to secure 200 books from the County Extension, depending on the source.

The ladies then rented a room above what was then the Jones Brothers Department Store on South Main (across from the railroad depot, which may have been at 114 Main, according to a 1956 Jones Brothers ad) and opened the Jonesboro Library–Clayton County’s first. The Jonesboro Library served “the entire county through branch service at Forest Park and loan service in several other sections.” Mrs. Mary Archer Barnette was the county’s first librarian. When she retired in 1953, Mrs. Fay Clarke took over.

By 1960, the Jonesboro Library had joined the Flint River Regional Library System, based in Griffin, giving Jonesboro (and Clayton County) residents wider access to materials, professional librarians, and bookmobiles.

Mary Archer Barnette, Clayton County’s (and Jonesboro’s) first librarian, is buried in the Archer family plot in the Jonesboro City Cemetery. (Photo: Maureen Keillor)

Retired Clayton State University historian Dr. Kathryn W. Kemp wrote in Historic Clayton County: The Sesquicentennial History, “The women’s organization helped organize the Friends of the Library, which set out to raise funds for a building to be raised on a lot purchased by the Library Board on Smith Street”(transparency note: Dr. Kemp is the editor’s mother). A check of county online real estate records shows the land at the corner of Smith and Lee Streets was granted to “Clayton County Jonesboro Library” on October 5, 1964. Ground was broken that year for the present building, which was finished in 1966. A plaque at the front entrance shows the building’s architects and engineers were John J. Harte Associates, Inc. and that the general contractors were Cleveland and Crocker, Inc.

Barnette died at age 86 on December 19, 1968, just two years after the Jonesboro Branch opened, and is buried in the Archer family plot in the Jonesboro City Cemetery.

Other cities around Clayton County soon opened branches: Forest Park in 1967, in what is now the Leonard Hartsfield Community Center on Main Street; Riverdale in 1968, then at Georgia Hwy. 85 near Upper Riverdale Road; and Morrow in a storefront on Old Rex Road. (See the library system’s full timeline at https://claytonpl.org/history/.)

Edith Hanes Smith helped edit a history of Clayton County. A plaque on the Jonesboro Branch memorializes her.

Another plaque on the Jonesboro Branch is dedicated to Edith Hanes Smith, who helped put together an important history of Clayton County. We ran across a photo of her in that book, which is at the Headquarters Branch. A librarian there said it was one of the books the Headquarters Branch kept after turning the former local archive into a computer room a few years ago, and speculated that some of the materials may have been forwarded to the Georgia Archive.

Today, more than a year after COVID-19 shut the public out of their local branches, six locations of the Clayton County Library System are open–all but the Jonesboro branch.

It’s a bitter pill for local residents to swallow, as Facebook posts show.

Meia Ballinger, who is collecting books for incarcerated people in Clayton County, said, “There is no excuse for Jonesboro Library to be shut down. There are no plans to rebuild, fix or to relocate. Nothing but a bunch of talk. Not everyone has access to the internet. Jonesboro Library is in a safe and beautiful place. It needs to be reopened. I think we have the funds to fix what needs to be fixed. In my opinion, they just don’t care enough about Jonesboro residents.”

Drew Sanner said, “I had not heard but find it distressing and an indication of a deeper problem.”

Karen Cheli Sullivan wrote, “Clayton County Commissioners, you need to rethink your decision to do away with the Jonesboro library. I understand it is in rough shape but if you demolish that building, you need to rebuild it in a downtown location. It has always been a gem and needs to be accessible to the Main Street area.”

Arlene Charles linked the problem to politics: “This is [the] result of the voters electing officials that cares nothing about our communities, only about gaining power!!”

And Bob Porter put it succinctly: “No libraries should close.”

The Jonesboro Branch is walking distance from Lee Park, Lee Street Elementary, the Historic District, the Historic Courthouse, and the Keystone Apartments. Jonesboro’s children now must travel several miles outside of the city just to find a public library supported by their parents’ tax dollars.

For Sebo-Hand, the idea of the county taking away Jonesboro’s library or of substituting a computer room is untenable.

“Riverdale got a new library, the headquarters was recently renovated,” Sebo-Hand said. “It seems like everyone around us except the county seat is getting their library renovated or a new library.”

What shape is the building in?

Lett told The Clayton Crescent in a written response to a list of questions about the branch, “There are major structural problems, HVAC issues and the need for a complete renovation. However, one AC unit is operable which gives out less than optimal airflow but enough to temporarily maintain the collection. Plans are underway to move or store the collection depending on many variables, among which are storage capacity, cost of moving the collection, and other alternatives. There are however, no historical records or rare books in the Jonesboro Library, thus there was no need for any special retrieval efforts.”

A plaque on the Jonesboro Branch dedicated to Edith Hanes Smith. Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent

Some damage is visible outside the locked building. The Clayton Crescent observed exposed rebar where concrete had flaked off of some spots around the base of the library walls. However, it is possible to repair spalling and rebar issues in some cases. Whether the damage has compromised the building’s structural integrity remains unclear without a structural engineer’s report.

Edith Hanes Smith, who was memorialized in 1992 with a plaque on the Jonesboro Branch, is also buried in the Jonesboro City Cemetery. Smith edited an important history of Clayton County. (Photo: rhondajo)

One HVAC unit was shut off at the breaker. The other was running. A peek through the windows last week showed some lights on and a bin of newspapers, including one from late September, waiting to be transferred to another location.

The Clayton Crescent asked Clayton County Chairman Jeff Turner whether any any structural engineering or other inspection report had been done on the Jonesboro branch, and whether the rebar could be undercut and repaired or had to be demolished.

Turner said, “I was advised by Ben [Hopkins, county director of Building Maintenance] that there is no structural damage to the building that can’t be repaired. The building is temporarily closed but no decision by the BOC has been made to close it permanently or even to demo it at this time.”

On September 23, Davis wrote to Jonesboro City Manager Ricky Clark, Jr., “The Jonesboro Library has served the downtown Jonesboro area for many years providing the full array of library services. They regularly partner with the First Baptist Church of Jonesboro to offer training, workshops, and summer performers. The Jonesboro library staff is still creating digital content and hosting online programs. Patrons are being referred to other branches where staff has been reassigned. We will need the resources of the Jonesboro branch to exist even if it is moved to another community, such as the Panhandle, where there is an untapped part of the county with no library within walking distance. The Jonesboro Library also offered some of the following services to the community: Tutoring, SNAP Enrollment Assistance, Notary services, external meetings, document scanning and copying, providing reference via telephone and chat, reader’s advisory, access to newspapers and magazines, easy access for students at nearby schools, convenient distribution point for PINES materials, access to computers and printers. “

Both Turner and District 4 Commissioner DeMont Davis confirmed rumors that the county was considering replacing the library with a “community room” in the basement of the proposed county complex. That would consist of a few computer terminals “where people could look for jobs,” Turner said–and maybe a few books, too. Turner said of the proposed smaller space that the Jonesboro branch got very low traffic and that most library patrons don’t use books anymore–they use computer terminals.

Pictometry dated 2019 from the Clayton County Tax Assessor’s office shows the property line of the Jonesboro Library Branch, as well as what appear to be stains from water damage on the rooftop.

But that complex reportedly will not include a new library. Instead, a “library component”–a room in the basement–would offer a few computer terminals for adults seeking employment.

“Please tell me what that is,” Sebo-Hand said of the “library component.”

“Will it be open on Saturday? Will the public have access? Will there be a place for children’s books and storytime for kids?”

Sebo-Hand pointed out that, after hours and on weekends, places like City Hall are closed to the public for security reasons.

“Will it be open during those times for our local population to access books and the Internet? Is it going to be locked up at times it should be available to the public?”

Judy McClure Serritella, coordinator of library media services for the Georgia Department of Education and a former Clayton County Public Schools library media specialist for over 31 years at both Lovejoy High School and J.W. Arnold Elementary, posted a call to Facebook to save the branch library: “We need to start a letter writing campaign…to the commissioners, the library director, the library board, the state, letters to the editor, and more. The Jonesboro branch is used by citizens of all ages and is/was always busy. It would be a terrible shame to not have a library in the city of Jonesboro. A proposed ‘resource room’ in the basement of the not yet constructed complex instead of a stand alone library is not acceptable.”

Turner, Davis, and Lett all were quick to add that none of this is engraved in stone–not the computer room in the new county complex and not a new free-standing library branch in Jonesboro.

Lett told The Clayton Crescent, “The architectural drawings for the new facility have not yet been rendered; therefore, plans for a basement location are unsubstantiated. Our libraries today are more dependent on digital resources, technology and innovation than in years past. Any library structure designed in the new administrative space or elsewhere, will be designed to meet future library standards, keeping community engagement, as well as, technology and innovation at the forefront of the design.”

Have computers made books “obsolete”?

Some people think that bound books are “obsolete” because digital technology presents some books in that format. But research shows digital vs. print is a both-and, not an either-or, choice. For one thing, you can’t touch or sniff the Internet. Some people prefer carrying a portable electronic device with their personal library on it. Others prefer or need to read from the page because they can’t deal with the light, the scrolling, or the vertical format of screen-reading. And studies have shown people are better able to retain the information they read when they’ve read it from a page and not from a screen. Truly voracious readers may consume both electronic and print books. [Note: The editor has a house full of books and multiple caches of electronic texts and audiobooks, and has taught college literature using both formats, including one American literature class taught exclusively with free online texts. She also has a library book out and owes $5 in fines.]

Perhaps the notion of an electronic versus print divide is a false one.

Books and computers at the Northwest Branch Library. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Experts beg to differ with the claim that books are somehow “obsolete.” In 2020, while everyone was cocooning amid COVID-19, book sales soared, according to The Economist. Physical books are inherently valuable in themselves as artifacts, not to mention the added value of an autographed copy or rare edition. Books don’t require electricity or an Internet connection to access the information inside. What’s more, the Internet is not big enough to hold the contents of all books that already exist–and more are published every minute.

When’s the last time you upgraded your cell phone or computer? Can you read that old floppy disk today? Librarians and others who curate information must struggle with the practical matter that digital information technology periodically becomes obsolete. That makes it harder to access the knowledge, data, and other information stored on obsolete formats. Plus, you have to store the obsolete machines that access the old data storage methods. Bound books don’t become obsolete when their format changes.

Then there’s the Little Free Library movement (and its spinoffs), which has nothing to do with the county library system, but which does offer children and adults the tangible gift of a free book anytime. (See our map and our previous coverage.)

The Jonesboro Branch’s closure comes amid ongoing problems for students due to COVID-19. Early in the pandemic, when many students were forced to do schoolwork online, the county realized that not all families had adequate Internet access. Many families “war-drove” to Clayton County Library parking lots, or even fast food outlets, in search of wi-fi so their kids could do schoolwork. The school system hustled up Google Chromebooks and wi-fi hotspots to ease the digital divide among students but the situation remains less than ideal. A Chromebook without Internet access is a doorstop.

“Someone said, ‘Oh, the library’s a thing of the past. Kids have laptops.’ No, they don’t,” Sebo-Hand said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I saw parents parked all around the library so they could get a hotspot, parked in a van all day so they could do their work.”

COVID-19 also put a crimp in story time for young readers. The library system has posted a series of YouTube videos of adults reading children’s books. Here’s one example of a bilingual English-Spanish story time:

Among those who read books for the library’s remote story time: Turner and District 3 Commissioner Felicia Franklin. (And Ms. Teresa from the Riverdale Branch gives a virtual reading of Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site.) But sitting a preschooler down in front of a screen is not the same thing as that child sharing the experience with other preschoolers on a brightly-colored rug with a grownup reading to them and showing them the pictures close-up.

What is a library, anyway?

Public libraries provide more than just access to the Web. They provide communities with books and a quiet place to read, research, write, and think. They engage children and adults in literacy activities. They register people to vote. They provide meeting spaces. And they are staffed by highly-educated information experts –librarians–who do much more than reshelve books.

The ALA’s website explains different definitions of the word “library,” but points to the Institute for Museum and Library Services definition of what actually constitutes a public library:

“A public library is established under state enabling laws or regulations to serve a community, district, or region, and provides at least the following:

  1. an organized collection of printed or other library materials, or a combination thereof;
  2. paid staff;
  3. an established schedule in which services of the staff are available to the public;
  4. the facilities necessary to support such a collection, staff, and schedule, and
  5. is supported in whole or in part with public funds.”
A view of the interior of the Jonesboro Branch through the locked doors. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

Libraries have expanded the services they offer in the digital age. Libraries were the first facilities to offer public access to digital research databases and, in many cases the Internet, which includes listservs, e-mail, and the World Wide Web (which is the component that most people think of as “the Internet”). Today, some libraries offer “maker spaces,” where people can experiment hands-on with different tools and materials. The “maker movement” is linked to STEAM education approaches and is one of many library trends the American Library Association tracks.

Lett wrote that the Clayton County Library System’s “service model now includes digital programming, online classes, outreach and the integration of experiential learning. Our future libraries designs will be responsive to the community needs for knowledge and learning yet will focus on a proactive approach to providing information access and hands-on experiences.” She invited us to check out the Northwest Library Branch in Riverdale as an example.

The new Northwest Branch Library in Riverdale. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

We did. The Northwest Branch is one of several county buildings along Riverdale Road, right on the MARTA bus line near the Frank Bailey Senior Center and the Clayton County Police Department’s Sector 2 Headquarters. It’s a beautiful modern building with inviting, colorful chairs, spaces for children’s storytime and teen hangouts, a tech room that the Tuskeegee Airmen’s youth program used recently, a couple of smaller study rooms, and a small classroom-like auditorium with a projection screen. It has a lot of books in the children’s and young adult sections and not so many in the adult sections–but they do offer Spanish-language literature, large print, African-American selections, audiobooks on CD, and some magazines.

Literature in Spanish by Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez, Margaret Atwood, and Jorge Luis Borges is available at the Northwest Branch Library in Riverdale. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

The Northwest Branch also has a maker room–the height of STEAM education–complete with a consumer-grade 3-D printer. But the room wasn’t open. Staff said the library is trying to figure out how to manage a hands-on space in the middle of COVID-19. Another problem: knowing what to charge for using the 3-D printer, which is a little more complicated than paying X amount per page at the copy machine.

A 3-D printer waits for patrons in the Maker Room of the Northwest Branch Library. (Photo: Robin Kemp/The Clayton Crescent)

At the Northwest Branch, it seems there’s room for all kinds of library users, of all ages and technological preferences–room to 3-D print a robot and room to read and think while gazing out the window.

Could this be what a new Jonesboro Branch might look like?

Where would a new Jonesboro Branch library go?

“No plans, one way or the other have been made about building a new Jonesboro Library,” Lett wrote. “There has however, been discussion of a new library in an upcoming SPLOST project. However, no location for this new library has been determined.”

Sebo-Hand suggested two possible locations nearby for a new Jonesboro branch: “the old dilapidated White annex that the school system owns on Smith across from the new City Center and the Red annex which the county owns next to it. A gateway into the city from Tara Blvd to Smith to Historic Jonesboro.”

If you build it, will they come? In a Facebook post, Serritella referred to Gallup research that more people visited libraries than movie theaters in 2019.This increased traffic also seems to be the case for the Jonesboro Branch, according to data the county sent Clark:

Jonesboro Branch patron use, 2015-2019. Circulation has increased, while computer use, which has always been a fraction of the circulation numbers, has decreased–even taking wireless use into account. (Source: Clayton County)

One thing that irked Jonesboro officials: nobody at the county bothered to let them know about the library closing, much less seek their input.

Lett said, “As no decision has been made about the future location of the Administration Building at this time, there was no need to consult with the City of Jonesboro on a permanent closure or relocation of the library. However, Mr. Ricky Clark was provided context about the Jonesboro Library usage, the cost associated with restoration, and maintenance of the existing structure in an impact statement sent on September 23rd.”

“That library serves more purposes than to house books,” Sebo-Hand said. “Growing up, the library was my safe haven. It was a place to go, grab a book, sit and read. The Keystone kids can’t walk to the headquarters library. You’re taking that opportunity away from them.”

Those kids would have to walk more than an hour from public housing to get to the headquarters library on Battle Creek Road and the bus would take more than half an hour. From the Jonesboro branch to Headquarters, it’s about an hour’s walk, or a 20-minute trip by bus, or a 17-minute bike ride, or you could drive there in 7 minutes.

We made this map of Clayton County libraries for your trip-planning convenience:

Right now, it appears that the historic Jonesboro Branch’s fate is all but sealed.

On October 26, Stanford says the BOC will get an update on the library building, along with a recommendation to take it down for the new county administration building at 120 Smith Street, “which will include the Jonesboro Library footprint. The recommendation for the new administration building will include some library functions, but there is no final design at this time. Nelson is the design firm for the new building.”

 Whether Jonesboro can expect a new, improved library branch similar to those in other municipalities also remains to be seen. Save the Jonesboro (GA) Library advocates say they will make themselves heard at the next BOC meeting, which is the October 12 work session at 5:30 p.m. The next regular meeting will be October 19 at 6:30 p.m. Then comes the October 26 work session, scheduled for 5:30 p.m., when county staff will make their recommendations about the new administrative complex.

On October 2, Sebo-Hand posted, “So just a short while ago I was out campaigning for City Council near Lee Street Park and a car pulled up and two young ladies asked for directions to the library. I took a very deep breath and pointed them in the direction of the library only to inform them that it was closed and that there was a possibility that it would not be reopened. I suggested that they attempt the Headquarters Library on Battle Creek Road. For those people who still do not believe that a library is important in the city of Jonesboro, YOU are sadly mistaken.”

“We don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” Stanford said. “I think the October 26 work session will provide some context for this community.”


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