By Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
For the Birmingham Times
Floyd Council Sr., the new executive director of the Birmingham Public Library (BPL), could read music before he could read a book.
“Singing was actually my first love,” said Council, a lyric tenor who doesn’t perform as much as he once did. “I’ve done a lot of weddings, [and] there was a … tire commercial I did in Germany like 28 years ago.”
The 53-year-old has sung in several weddings, including a performance at his sister’s nuptials in Dallas that prompted a call from a record company.
“They were asking, ‘Why aren’t you singing?’” Council recalled. “I said, ‘I do sing. I just do other stuff too.’”
“Other stuff” includes overseeing the BPL.
This year, Council emerged from 106 applicants to become the leader of the city’s 19 library branches. He is the first black male executive director at the BPL; at least two black females have served in the role.
Before taking over the BPL system on Nov. 13, Council was the central library administrator for the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System in Georgia. He’s a veteran of the U.S. Army and has three decades of public service, including 14 years at libraries across the country.
Beyond Library Walls
Council said he plans to be in Birmingham for a while: “I don’t want anybody to think, ‘This guy’s going to get a record deal and leave Birmingham,’” he laughed. “I don’t want people thinking I’m some dreamer of a performer masquerading as a library director. I am very passionate about the library profession.”
Council said he wants to partner with Birmingham City Schools to improve test scores for students. He wants to develop a new awareness of a reading culture that stretches beyond the walls of library branches. And he wants to get leaders — especially among African-American men — to become active participants in accomplishing those goals.
“I intend to engage all 99 [neighborhoods],” he told the Birmingham Times in a recent interview. “I’m going to visit churches, places of faith, shelters, social-service organizations. Basically, I’m going to permeate the whole fabric of the city. It’s going to take more than a year to do.”
In the early stages, Council plans to canvass the city, meeting and greeting people to make connections. On December 5, he held a two-hour meet-and-greet with elected officials, neighborhood leaders, and other visitors at the downtown Central Library.
Everything made Birmingham the right place,” Council said, noting the city’s place as the cradle of the civil rights movement.
Council did his homework before accepting the BPL position. He spent at least 60 days researching Birmingham. Like an independent consultant, he considered the city’s communities, school system, and libraries, including the physical condition of those libraries.
“After looking at that, I started to look at my skills, and I [felt this would be] a great opportunity to engage real passion, to get excited about working with the schools and working with the condition of the current library system to move it forward,” he said.
“I had to know for certain that this would be the place where I could employ passion at the community level and this would be the place where I could freely engage the faith community, the civic community, the business community, so I would be able to lead good public-service programs and partnerships.”
Some have focused on the disrepair of elevators and escalators at the Central Library downtown, for instance. And after a facilities assessment, Council expects to unveil a master plan for all libraries.
“I’m fully confident that the mayor and [City Council] are going to bring us back to where we need to be,” he said. “We simply cannot sustain the library system by selling chicken dinners and buttons and T-shirts. It’s impossible.”
Council wants the BPL to tap into national networks to bring in exhibits, authors, and facilitators. Among other things, he is looking to do a tribute to American cabaret singer and pianist Bobby Short, who greatly influenced Council, as well as other jazz and cabaret greats to bring attention to the art form.
The BPL executive director expects to work collaboratively with jazz artists and musicians in the city, too: “You’re going to see us do a lot of performance-related programs. I’ve brought that to each work environment where I’ve been.”
Library Is Everywhere
Council prides himself on being a 21st century librarian, one who is more concerned with what a library provides than where it is.
“When people ask me where the library is in my community, I instantly tell them the library is everywhere,” he said. “Wherever there’s a library employee, wherever we can create a new access point, that’s where we are.”
People still consider the library the most economical way to borrow books, movies, music, and other materials. In fact, BPL patrons have already checked out about 63,623 items in 2017—up from 50,443 this time last year.
While person-to-person interaction in branches will always remain, Council says the library can be available to patrons 24 hours through digital access points. Primary among those access points is the library system’s website.
“Some people don’t want to come in,” he said. “They just want their answer by [online] chat.”
Council cited resources like Homework Alabama, which provides live tutorial help to schoolchildren.
“Most of our local children are not accessing those resources because they don’t know about them,” he said. “Homework Alabama is being marveled around the country. You’ve got live tutorial help, not just videos. Live tutorial help around the whole state during segments of the school year — that’s absolutely unheard of in most other states.”
Council was born in Shelby, Miss., in the heart of the Mississippi Delta between Memphis, Tenn., and Jackson, Miss. The product of a blended family, he says he grew up all over the place, what he calls “a big mix and mumbo jumbo.”
“I was usually in Dallas or Chicago or the Mississippi Delta,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of my summers were in Dallas, Texas, or Chicago, so I got exposed to all kinds of libraries and culture centers.”
The library leader said his school years consisted of “a beautiful blend of spending part of the year in the North and part in the South. I got exposed to great summer programs at Chicago State University and the Girls and Boys Club.
“From the time period of my teens until I was almost an adult, I got exposed to some of the best programming from libraries and community organizations,” he said. “I think that’s where the foundation for my community engagement and library programming skills came from.”
Council earned a master’s degree in library and information science from Florida State University’s College of Information and a bachelor’s degree in media communication from American College. He studied as a Juris Doctor candidate at the Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School before switching to the public library profession.
The Digital Village
The new BPL executive director, who has two sons — Floyd Council Jr., 10, and Jonathan Trevor Council, 5 — noted that Birmingham is almost 73 percent African-American, and a huge number of African-American children are lost during the early literacy stage, between birth and 5 years of age.
“We have to look at things we really haven’t done before,” Council said. “We have a lot of African-American men in Birmingham, but too many of them are missing from the village. We need to find a way to bring African-American men back to the physical village and the digital village and ask them to be accountable for the development and education of our children.
“We can’t compel anybody to come, but I think we have enough men in leadership in this city who would be self-compelled enough to come back to the village.”