Nate Coulter grew up in Nashville, Arkansas and graduated from high school there in 1978. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard in 1982 and a law degree from Harvard Law School in 1985. After clerking for U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele and serving as assistant legal counsel to Governor Bill Clinton, he maintained a trial practice in Arkansas for over 25 years. He was a partner with the firms of Wright, Lindsey & Jennings and then Wilson, Engstrom, Corum & Coulter.
In March 2016, Coulter became the Executive Director of the Central Arkansas Library System, a public library serving Perry and Pulaski counties, including the cities of Jacksonville, Maumelle, Perryville, Sherwood, and Little Rock, AR. As executive director of CALS, Coulter oversees the budget, fundraising, and programming for the system.
CALS has 15 libraries, an annual operating budget of approximately $20 million, and 300 employees who offer a comprehensive array of services to a service area of over 340,000 people. Under his leadership, CALS has expanded outreach and programming by hiring community liaisons to better engage Black and Latino communities and launching the Count UP math tutoring program and Rock It! Lab entrepreneurial hub in partnership with the nonprofit Advancing Black Entrepreneurship. CALS has also received numerous grants and recently passed an operational millage to continue its mission to help residents reach their full potential.
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[00:00:09] GM: Welcome to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. Through storytelling and conversational interviews, this weekly biography show and podcast offers listeners an insider's view into the commonalities of successful people and the ups and downs of risk taking. Connect with Kerry through her candid, funny, informative and always encouraging weekly blog. And now it's time for Kerry McCoy to get all up in your business.
[00:00:35] KM: Thank you, son, Gray. Nate Coulter. Everybody knows that name. But can you put a face or point a finger at who Mr. Nate Coulter is or what he does? The reason for the quandary is because he's done everything and been everywhere, from academia to politics. This educated and experienced lawyer is now the face of CALS, Central Arkansas Library System.
After graduating from Harvard Law in 1985, Nate clerked for a judge, became assistant legal counsel for Governor Bill Clinton, and maintained a long trial lawyer career. First in his own private practice and later partnering with Wright Lindsey Jennings Firm. And last, Wilson Engstrom Corum & Coulter.
In 1993, Nate was the Democratic nominee for Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas. We'll find out about that. Since 2016, Mr. Coulter has been the Executive Director for CALS, Central Arkansas Library System, the public library system that serves Perry and Pulaski counties. It is my great pleasure to welcome to the table the community-minded, smart and genuine, Mr. Nate Coulter.
[00:01:52] NC: Thank you so much, Kerry. Thank you, Gray, for letting us do this on your hour, your nickel.
[00:01:57] GM: Yeah, sure. Sure.
[00:01:58] NC: And it is kind of a scary thought, though, if I'm the face of that wonderful library that's been there a long time. And we'll be there long after I'm gone. I hope it has other faces.
[00:02:06] KM: How long has it been there?
[00:02:07] NC: 1910, in the original Carnegie iteration. It was downtown. This great champion of libraries, Andrew Carnegie, donated millions and millions of dollars in the early part of the 20th century to create libraries everywhere. And we were one of the fortunate communities in Little Rock to get one of those libraries. And he built libraries everywhere. And that library was on Louisiana, I believe. And then it was replaced. Unfortunately, the building was torn down. And the replacement libraries there on the corner of Louisiana and Eighth Street, I think it is. And that was the library until about 1996 when it relocated to the old Fones Brothers warehouse where it's been since then.
[00:02:49] KM: That was a great repurposing of that building.
[00:02:51] NC: Yeah. And at the time, we forget, there really wasn't a river market area down there at that point. They were starting – the river market pavilion I think opened about the same time. But the library had been committed to coming there for two, three years after the voters had authorized the bond issue that paid for a building that they’re restoring that old building. So, the library had a long history, and it's a great institution.
[00:03:12] KM: I like the way it says all the names of the philosophers and Carnegie across the top of it. Yeah, they did a great job doing that. In 1985, he went to Harvard Law. That is not cheap. They don't give scholarships.
[00:03:26] NC: Well, somebody asked me – Excuse me. Just this week asked me did I have a big student debt? I said, “No. I had a great father who worked seven days a week in his three small town furniture stores selling appliances, and carpet, and TVs and the like. And he worked. I think he realized later in his life, he worked too much that he didn't spend enough time with his three sons. He regretted like a lot of us do, parents do, when we get older. But he did educate all of us in a great way. And he was devoted to education.
Both of my parents were really, by a lot of Arkansas standards, very fortunate to have college educations. They graduated from university in mid 1950s. Got married that year.
[00:04:11] KM: Both of your parents.
[00:04:12] NC: But for the four or so years my dad spent in the US Navy as a helicopter squadron officer, they really lived all their lives in Arkansas.
[00:04:22] KM: What did you say your dad did? He was a helicopter – He wasn't a pilot. He was a squadron leader.
[00:04:25] NC: He was a squadron officer, yeah. But he was not the pilot. And you know, as far as I can remember, I don't think he ever got in an airplane after I was about three or four years old. I don't know what he learned in helicopters, but it kept him from flying. He didn't like to fly.
[00:04:36] KM: He didn’t like to fly? He’s in the business for years, and he doesn't like to fly.
[00:04:40] NC: Well, I guess, maybe helicopters have smaller margin of error.
[00:04:45] KM: Yeah. You just drop out of the sky.
[00:04:46] NC: Yeah, right. And so, that may have chilled his interest in aviation.
[00:04:48] KM: But don’t they have ejection seats?
[00:04:50] NC: I don't know. He always just talked about flying over the Atlantic, in the Caribbean, looking for Soviet submarines with sonar and worry about sharks. You can see the shark circling around the sonar device that they dropped in the water. And he said it was not good. He said once there was a poor pilot who had gone down and the sharks got him.
[00:05:09] KM: Ate him.
[00:05:09] NC: Yeah. But anyway, back to happier things, he was a successful small town Mainstreet business leader in Nashville, Arkansas, where I grew up. He had a store in the Queen. And then one in Glenwood. He had three sons –
[00:05:23] KM: A dry good store?
[00:05:23] NC: These were home furnishing stores. It’s the carpet, TVs, appliances, furniture, dinette sets. And most of what I learned about real life, I learned from being a delivery boy from my dad's furniture store when I got to be 14. He knew that labor law, the child labor laws allowed you to work your kids when they turned 14. I started working on weekends after football season and after school. And that was a lot. I learned a lot of things delivering furniture across the counties.
[00:05:53] KM: I think we do not do a service to our children by letting them not work late in life. I also began working at 14. And it's just a great time to start honing your social skills and learning work ethics.
[00:06:07] NC: Yeah. And one of the things I've realized now as I've gotten into my seventh decade, I guess, if you're in your early 60s, or in your 70s.
[00:06:14] KM: No. You're on your sixth.
[00:06:15] KM: That first decade was zero to 10.
[00:06:18] GM: Yeah. I think it’s technically your seventh.
[00:06:19] NC: It's scarier to say seventh. Yeah, discouraging.
[00:06:22] KM: Bum. You’re bumming me out over here.
[00:06:25] NC: But one of the things that I'm sure as a 16-year-old, I thought I was so much smarter than these guys. I worked with
[00:06:29] KM: I know, right?
[00:06:31] NC: Yeah, who were delivering furniture with me. And the great day was when you would come in in a hot summer day and you'd get an assignment to drive to Shreveport and pick up a load of refrigerators or something. So, it was basically going to kill the whole day from Nashville.
But I realized now that I learned a lot from these guys, because although they didn't end up with the kind of education that my father and mother afforded me, they did have a lot of smarts, and they were insightful. And hanging around them on the dock and they'll be making deliveries on country roads. And so, it was talking. So, it was a good education.
[00:07:01] KM: You got both sides of your brain developed at a young age, education and common sense.
[00:07:07] GM: Wisdom as some people call it.
[00:07:09] KM: I can only say I have common sense, because I don't have a lot of education. Everybody that ever listen to my radio show knows that. But –
[00:07:16] NC: Well, I would say I got the opportunity to get wiser and be educated. I'm not sure I always fully availed myself of those people around me who were there to teach me. I tried. But it wasn't for lack of opportunity or exposure to –
[00:07:29] KM: How did you pick Harvard school and being a lawyer?
[00:07:33] NC: There is a story that will sound sort of hackneyed or cliched, but I had, literally, a little old lady English teacher. And she was not old, I'm sure. By my standards now, she would have probably been in her 50s when she was teaching 11th grade English in Nashville, Arkansas. And she called me up to her desk one day and said, “Where are you going to college? Are you thinking about that?” I said, “N, ma'am, not really.” And she said, “Well, why don't you think about going somewhere different?” I said, “Well, my parents went to Fayetteville. I’d probably go to Fayetteville.” And she said, “Well, why don’t you think about going someplace far away just see what you can do?” I said, “Where, Miss Byrd?” “Why don’t you go to Harvard?”
I had no idea where that was. I knew on Saturdays, if you were interested in college football, as I was in high school, you had to watch through all these early East Coast scores from places like Harvard, or Holy Cross, or Colgate, or Cornell. And I didn't know anything about any schools on the East Coast. But Miss Byrd was the sort of teacher that when 17-year-old boys got loud, she didn't have to raise her voice. She just looked at them and we listened. And when she said, “You need to go think about going someplace else.” I said, “Okay, all right. Well, show me how to do that.” And then it all along, it was, “Well, I'll do this to appease Miss Byrd. But I don't know if I really want to do that. But I'll just go along with her because I wanted to satisfy her, please her and make her happy.” And then once I was admitted, I realized what a wonderful opportunity that was.
[00:08:50] KM: You got admitted.
[00:08:52] NC: I didn't want to pass on that. But there were times when I was wondering about the wisdom of Miss Byrd’s advice. But –
[00:08:58] KM: Why?
[00:08:59] NC: Well, I was from a small town. I'd been –
[00:09:03] KM: A warm small town. Now you're in Massachusetts freezing to death.
[00:09:06] NC: That’s right. And it's a lot busier and crowded, and people are not – their folkways are not as friendly.
[00:09:12] KM: For Harvard Law School, do you just go four years for an undergrad?
[00:09:14] NC: It’s three years. You went four years for undergrad and three years. I had too much of a good thing. Seven years in Cambridge was a lot.
[00:09:21] KM: So, then you came back and you own your owned practice?
[00:09:24] NC: Well, I actually first came back and worked for Judge Isley, probably as a federal law clerk. Best job I've ever had. Because when you're a law clerk for a federal judge, lawyers returned your calls. When you're practicing law, they don't necessarily do that all the time. But they want to know what the federal judge has to say about their case, so they returned my calls.
And then I went into private practice and had a couple of hiatuses when I was dabbling with politics. And as one friend later said, “Nate, you have a mandate from the voters to practice law.” After I’d lost an election, so.
[00:09:53] KM: Oh, nicely said. A mandate from the voters to practice law. That’s a nice way of saying, It’s too bad you lost.”
[00:09:59] NC: Right. Right. Right.
[00:10:02] KM: So, practicing trial law is tough. You got to really prepare. Don't you have to get up and make speeches and pace in front of a jury in trial law? Jury law? I mean, don't you have to –
[00:10:16] NC: Did you ever see my cousin, Vinnie?
[00:10:23] KM: Three times. I've seen that show three times. It's great.
[00:10:25] NC: The hard part about trying lawsuits is that they're never alike. And no matter how long you do it, they're 1000 things you worry about not quite working the way you've prepared for them to work. And the stress of that doesn't seem to get any better no matter how many times you've done it. The learning curve remains pretty steep, or the anxiety and the stress of it. When I decided, after I turned 50, that I was going to look to do something else that was maybe a little less adversarial and a little less stressful.
[00:10:52] KM: And not as much work to get – Preparation.
[00:10:54] NC: Yeah, you know, most people are going to work whatever job they have at whatever level their personality makes them work. They're going to try to be prepared. I still do that. I probably work as hard now as I did as a trial lawyer. But the stress is different. I don't have to be worried about clients being disappointed in outcomes of cases where I've been their lawyer for years. You worry about other things. But you work hard if you're just inclined to – I teach to all my kids. They’re now old. They’ll say, “You know, I got half of my dad's work ethic.” And I think sometimes y'all got half a mine. And they didn't like that backward compliment. But my dad had a very stringent work ethic. And I was fortunate enough to be around that and picked up some of that. Whatever job I've had, I think I've tried to work it pretty hard.
But lawyering is rough, because people are always in there, especially for a trial lawyer, they’re always in a bad place. They're either been sued, or they need to sue someone. And I used to tell people, it's not a good way to resolve things. It's better than more primitive ways of fighting or drawing their injuries at 12 paces on the banks of the river. But it is a rough tool to try to get something approximating justice. And people most of the time feel like they had to accept something they didn't want in order to get something else they did want. And it's a rough outcome. People are not always entirely happy. But I think it's so much better than other ways people had – humans have had for so many things.
[00:12:27] KM: Compromise. There's always a compromise. You say when you decided to get finished with that stressful job, you decided to do something else. When it came to you that I'm not going to keep working this hard, what did you decide you were going to do?
[00:12:41] NC: Well, I had a lot of bad ideas, as I've often done. I've been to – sort of like Winston Churchill said about America. You can always count on America to do the right thing once they've considered all other options or tried all the other possibilities. I rummage through some other possibilities in my mind, but finally wound up, again, maybe serendipitously with somebody or some group of people influencing, giving me advice and influencing at the library. And it was really, in some ways, ideal for a person who's always been sort of interested in books and a little bit of a nerd. And it also had some overlapping things with lawyering. The library is really at the core, a very democratic little D institution like the courthouse is, in theory. Everybody should have access to the courthouse. Everybody should have access to materials they want at the library or resources.
And there are a lot of overlapping things like intellectual freedom. First Amendment issues are dear to lawyers. And they're also dear to librarians. We want people to be able to read what they want to read, write what they want to write.
[00:13:40] KM: Oh, we're going to talk about banning books later. Don’t go there.
[00:13:42] NC: And if library doesn't have some books in it that offend everybody, then it's probably not a very big library. There ought to be things in library that bothers everybody. But that's what the library is for.
[00:13:52] KM: You didn't go from private-private practice for yourself into the 2016 working for CALS, Central Arkansas Library System. You went to Wright Lindsey Jennings. Talk about high pressure?
[00:14:05] NC: Well, I was in a big firm, with the right firm. We have lots of friends. They're great lawyers. And then I decided I was going to do a smaller firm, where you're a little more responsible for buying the paper clips and the legal pads and –
[00:14:20] KM: Is that Wilson Engstrom Corum? And you’re a partner there.
[00:14:23] NC: And I did that for about 20 years. And then I was fortunate enough to get an opportunity to go to the law school in Fayetteville for an appointment for two years as a faculty member, a practitioner.
[00:14:33] KM: Do you have to move up there?
[00:14:35] NC: Well, no. I had a good friend who had a condo I rented from him. And I would go up there on Sundays and work and teach and come back on Thursday nights.
[00:14:45] KM: That’s the perfect marriage. All right, this is a great place to take a break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Nate Coulter, Executive Director for CALS, Central Arkansas Library System. Still to come, why books are important? And the library does a lot more than you might think. We'll be back after the break.
[00:15:04] GM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. Over 40 years ago with only $400, Kerry founded Arkansas Flag and Banner. During the last four decades, the business has grown and changed along with Kerry’s experience and leadership knowledge.
In 1995, she embraced the internet and rebranded her company as simply flagandbanner.com. In 2004, she became an early blogger. Since then, she has founded the nonprofit Friends of Dreamland ballroom. Began publishing her magazine, Brave. And in 2016, branched out into this very radio show, YouTube channel and podcast.
In 2020, Kerry McCoy Enterprises acquired ourcornermarket.com, an online company specializing in American-made plaques, signage and memorials for over 20 years. And more recently, opened a satellite office in Miami, Florida. Telling American-made stories, selling American-made flags, the flagandbanner.com. Back to you, Kerry.
[00:16:04] KM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. I'm speaking with Nate Coulter. He's the Executive Director for CALS, Central Arkansas Library System, serving Pulaski and Perry counties with like five big cities.
Before the break, if you're just tuning in, we talked about Nate growing up in Nashville, Arkansas, about his father, about his kids, and about going to Harvard Law, and freezing his tail off up there in the North for seven years. And then we talked about him being a trial lawyer and the stress of that. And I know from friends that do that, you're always on the egg. Every time you win a case, you're back on zero again. You're starting over. But now we're going to talk about the library system. But before I do, I want to mention that I did not read where you were a founding member of Our House?
[00:16:50] NC: I was that was one of the great things if you're a lawyer, a young lawyer, you got time on your hands. All sorts of boards and community organizations are looking for volunteers in the form of a lawyer who will help. Yes, I was on the group that filed the articles of incorporation for Our House back in the mid-80s, probably ‘86 or ‘87. A lot of great people working from different congregations. The Jewish Federation had a representative, the Episcopal Diocese did, the Catholic Diocese. And there are a lot of people of faith who are involved in that. And their theme was we want to provide these services without conditioning it upon someone accepting our creeds or our practices.
And the reason they did that was there was an ecumenical that people who were involved in it didn't share all the same creeds but think they believed in the need to have some shelter of that kind and –
[00:17:38] KM: Tell people what it is. What are Our House is?
[00:17:40] NC: Our House is a shelter that attempts to find people who need a place for shelter, need a place to live, and gives them an incentive to try to find work to get jobs to move into their own housing over some period of time. It's grown enormously. Been good one. Has done a tremendous job. They've lost a big building project. I think they've raised $14 or $15 million. They're expanding. They've really expanded – when we first started in 1985, I think it was in the old parish hall of St. Andrews Catholic Church downtown in Louisiana Street. That building is no longer there. It moved for a short period of time, I think into a building on Main Street, and then it landed out there where it is now in.
[00:18:23] KM: On Roosevelt.
[00:18:24] NC: On Roosevelt, next to the old VA hospital. But the campus has expanded.
[00:18:29] KM: Is the VA hospital going to be part of their – Is that the building you're talking about?
[00:18:32] NC: Yes, I don't think that – the hospital apparently has been purchased by a developer for some sort of retrofitting and maybe making condos. But the shelter is a little east of the hospital.
[00:18:43] KM: I was wondering, the retrofit of these apartments that are going to be there next to Our House, are they for people that are coming out of Our House out of homelessness? And is it part of their moving on up and getting an apartment? Is it going to become that sort of a place?
[00:19:01] NC: I have not seen that. The only things I know are generally what I've read in the Arkansas Business or the Democrat Gazette, I guess. But I think they're not – really, I think that's a private investor. And Our House is a nonprofit. But Our House has a significant footprint down there. And they do take folks and families, that was the other emphasis that Our House was founded on, was we would take people off the street who had children and try to house them in ways that were stable for those kids. And the incentive was always to give them some stability. Give them a little bit of resting space to try to rehabilitate their employment possibilities. Give them some hope, some process. And eventually – and I think there are lots and lots, hundreds and hundreds of success stories down there where people have achieved that.
We have a program with the library that's related in some ways. We have a program for entrepreneurs, particularly entrepreneurs who are under-resourced. And we had – They had a person in this program last year who had come out of Our House and had his own housing. He had a lawn care program. And he was learning in the entrepreneurial classes at the library how to grow his business.
And he won some sort – they had a contest for a business idea. And he won. And he worked down there all the time. He was just – back to my point about you're sort of blessed at birth with your appetite for work. And some of us get a little more of that than others, but like my dad. But this man was very ambitious and was working his way out of being unsheltered and homeless into a place where he could have his own business. And what we also do is try to find folks who they've got a job. It's with the library program now. It's called Rocket Lab.
[00:20:42] KM: Rocket what?
[00:20:43] NC: Rocket Lab. They got a job, but they're a single parent. They got two kids. They have a great idea. If they could just get a little mentorship and get a little help, a little guidance, the kinds of things that lawyers who go to a new board for Our House can give that board, they need that sort of help. We have volunteers who come in. You need to perhaps buy the software program. Come to the library and use it here to keep up with your books. And what they're looking for is just some encouragement. Because as you know, starting a business can be very discouraging, and it's not a straight line to success.
[00:21:14] KM: Mostly comes from friends and family that help you. If you don't have family –
[00:21:18] NC: I notice where you had to get – You had gotten –
[00:21:21] KM: Money from my mother?
[00:21:22] NC: Yeah, your living rent free as long as you painted the place, right?
[00:21:25] KM: Yeah. In my first place when I moved out of my house. Yeah. Mom said you can have this place for your business as long as you paint the place and take care of it.
[00:21:34] NC: Well, like your mom, if the library can give folks a chance to add, $6,000, $8,000, $10,000 a year to their household income for a single parent with two kids, that's just an enormous uplift. We're trying to help folks in that realm.
And I know that about your background, because one of the great things the library does, which is a traditional function in a modern iteration is the online encyclopedia, Encyclopedia of Arkansas. And there is an entry this morning. I checked it out for Kerry McCoy. And we have over 6,000 entries. And it's about people in Arkansas, places in Arkansas. If you can think of something interesting and a little bit odd perhaps that you've only heard about the ghost on the railroad track in Clark County in your garden, there's an entry for that.
[00:22:18] KM: Oh, I'd like to read that.
[00:22:20] NC: There are all sorts of interest in the encyclopedia. It's online. Here's the thing. Libraries have always been places where you could look up things and get things. Now, since we've all got one of these, we think we don't need a library for that. That's not quite true. There’s another side of that story. But here's a great resource –
[00:22:35] KM: And he’s pointing to his phone, y’all. We’re not on TV. Well, we kind of are. You could watch it on YouTube. But if you're listening on podcast.
[00:22:43] NC: If you’re listening and you want to know something about someone in Arkansas History, political, Civil War, modern history, like Kerry McCoy, you can go to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the library is a resource. It's a reference tool. But it's entirely digital. And what we learned during the pandemic was a lot of kids, as we know, were forced to learn remotely. And we can look at these analytics that showed once kids were out of school in March of 20, and we worked with teachers in schools to tell them about the EOA. The numbers went way up. And the heartening thing is –
[00:23:17] KM: What does EOA stand for?
[00:23:18] NC: Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
[00:23:19] KM: Okay. It’s what I thought. Okay.
[00:23:21] NC: The numbers have stayed up. What it tells us is that there was an absence of awareness of that resource once they were forced to do things online, and the library was helping to lead them there, they continue to do it. Teachers love it. Parents love it. Students, obviously, love it.
[00:23:34] KM: I love it. I had no idea it came from Central Arkansas Library.
[00:23:38] NC: I think it's true, still true, that it's the largest online reference tool run by a public library. Most of the states who have these kinds of online encyclopedias are run by state universities.
[00:23:50] KM: If you were to write your library on scale of one to 10 compared to that of all the other libraries in the country, where would you put our library? Seven?
[00:23:59] NC: I would say we're probably an eight, you know? In some things, we might be a 10. In some things, we might be six. And I think the thing that – And it’s in spite of the personality. Here's the library now in lots of ways. But here's the thing. People come to me, and this is sort of damning with faint praise. And as a native, it bothers me a little bit, but the essence of it is good. They'll say, “I moved here from Iowa. I moved here from Washington State. Or I moved here from Illinois. And you know, I didn't really expect the public library in Little Rock to be as good as it is. It's as good as the library I left behind.” They're telling me in an objective, external way that my eight is probably about right. We want to be a nine or a 10. There's no resting. The other thing, the external information last year in 2021, we were the Client Community Impact Library the Year. That was a national competition. We did get a quarter million-dollar prize that we're spending on playground equipment.
[00:24:55] KM: Did you spearhead that? Do you have the application?
[00:24:57] NC: Staff did. I was involved. But I have great staff. Most of the successes that the library has of that sort are done by the staff. And as you said, I may be the face of the library. But the hard work gets done every day with people –
[00:25:08] KM: It's always that way. But they're going to have a good leader. Before we talk about the library and how awesome it is and all the things it offers, which I think people are going to be surprised to find out that it's more than just books. In 2012, you were appointed to the faculty of the University of Arkansas School of Law. And what I found really interesting in that, you've said in the last segment that you spent four days up there up in Fayetteville, a week. But you established a walking clinic for homeowners facing foreclosure. This seemed like a little bit of a segue into what you're doing now helping the public. Talk about how that came to be.
[00:25:47] NC: Yeah, that was probably an omen or a portent of where I was going to wind up. The dean of the Law School in Fayetteville asked me if I would take this appointment in the condition, exactly to your point, that I needed to create a couple of things. They had gotten a settlement. The state of Arkansas was one of many states. I think we're 49 that got some funds out of the lawsuits that were filed nationally against the mortgage handling companies who essentially as we recall, in the Great Recession, they were handing out loans to people who didn't have income to sustain those. And they were essentially giving them these teaser rates and then raising the interest.
There were a lot of litigation, monies paid by large mortgage handlers. And that money is divided on the state. The deans of the two law schools here got some of that from the Attorney General. The dean in Fayetteville says, “Let's set up a clinic and let's have some classes on mortgage finance for students.” What we did, I shopped around. I didn't know where to put it. We had students that we were teaching how to help counsel pro bono with my law license on top of it to supervise them. Where can we put this? We looked at the electric co-op building, some other places, and people were saying, “Go to the library, because everybody trusts the library. It's not got an agenda. If you get help with the library, they know. It's just because that's what you have available. Nobody wants to sell you anything. It's not all things. It doesn’t have an agenda.
We wound up in the library, the Fayetteville Library. It’s a wonderful library. And we were there once a week with students giving advice to people who come in. You could schedule it or you just walk in. And so, that was an indication to me that turned out to be true when I got this job. The library is still this place where, for different reasons, different people in the community go there. And they all find something about it that is helpful. And they trust it.
And one of the great side effects of all that is that people come in to someplace. Like a park, a public park, a public library, for whatever reasons. Walk your dog, or to sit on a blanket, or throw your Frisbee. And you're around other people who have a different background. That's a great thing. It's called social infrastructure. The library is a great part of that. The library draws people from all sections and all sectors of the community. And it's a heartening thing to see people appreciate the library.
We live in a very polarized society. It's no secret. But one of the things that I think is heartening is that so many people trust and respect their public library. And when we had a couple of ballot referenda, we got large majorities to support the library because everybody –
[00:28:14] KM: You know, when I started Arkansas Flag and Banner, there wasn't the internet, because it’s 1974 or 5. And so, I had to go to the library to research. I can't remember the name of this big tome that I had to take off. This book was gigantic, and I had to take it down and put it on the table and flip to – it’s like a Yellow Pages. And flip to where you can buy flags manufacturers and found the flag manufacturer. Found a list of them that I could call. And yeah, it was very – You’re right. I mean, it does so much. But the funny thing about libraries – my granddaughter found out that the internet was only 15, 20 years old. 20 years old, I guess, now.
[00:28:56] NC: She thought it came down with Moses.
[00:28:57] KM: She just didn't know. She's 16. She didn't know. It's always been there since she's around. And when she found that out, she asked my daughter, she said, “How did y'all find anything out?” And my daughter said, “We went to the library.” And she was aghast.
[00:29:14] GM: Oh, yeah. Or we just didn't.
[00:29:16] KM: Or we just didn’t.
[00:29:17] GM: Yeah, right. How far away is the moon from the earth? It's like, “I don't know. I don’t know either.” It’s like, “Oh, no.”
[00:29:22] KM: Oh, you got encyclopedias.
[00:29:24] NC: Yeah, we had the world book.
[00:29:26] KM: And paid it off over a six month or one year – All right, we're going to take a really quick break. And then we are going to come back and we really are going to talk about more about the library and the things that you can use at the library. It's kind of amazing. We're continuing our conversation with Mr. Nate Coulter. He's the Executive Director of the Central Arkansas Library System in downtown Little Rock. We'll be right back.
[00:29:47] ANNOUNCER: The holiday season is upon us. And for lots of you, that means being generous with donations to organizations. Here's a good one that flagandbanner.com is associated with. Let me let you hear from Matthew McCoy, the Director of the Friends of Dreamland ballroom.
[00:30:02] MM: I’m Matthew McCoy. I am currently the Director of the Friends of Dreamland, which is the nonprofit that is restoring this beautiful ballroom that we're in, Dreamland. I certainly have always loved old buildings, and we always grew up in them. I live in an old building now. Remember us on Christmas.
[00:30:21] KM: Donate for the end of the year, it's tax deductible, and you'll be going towards a great cause. It's a labor of love for us. And we hope that you'll give and we hope you’ll come and use it.
[00:30:31] MM: For the Friends of Dreamland.
[00:30:33] KM: You're listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. And I'm speaking today with Nate Coulter of Central Arkansas Library System, CALS. The library has, as their mission, to provide resources and services to help residents reach their full potential and to inspire discovery, learning and cultural expression. How does the library get funded? Military? Grants?
[00:31:03] NC: Yes, both. But primarily from local property taxes. About 92% of our money. We have a budget now of between $23 and $24 million for operations, 325 employees, 15 buildings that you described and communities all over the county. The bulk of that money is coming from local property taxes. What I've said and many people before me is the library really is your best illustration of local control.
If we do what we say we aspire to do, and we provide resources that help people reach their potential, then people will make that investment. If we don't, or if we tell you we're going to build something or provide something and we either do it in a poor way, or we don't do it, then people will rightly say, “Well, wait a minute. We made this bargain to give you our tax dollars, and you didn't deliver.”
Long before I got there, my predecessor had expanded the library to lots and lots of neighborhoods. And he had always – Bobby Roberts had always delivered on what they offered do to provide. The money comes from the county property taxpayers. We get a little bit of money from the state, about 2% of our budget. And we are now getting more and more money from philanthropy, from grants. And that's a great thing. People are generous, and they invest in things like the Rocket Lab that I mentioned earlier.
[00:32:19] KM: You do fundraisers?
[00:32:21] NC: We don't have a lot of fundraisers.
[00:32:22] KM: I’ve never seen the library do a fundraiser to speak of.
[00:32:24] NC: We will send out a yearend request for people to donate. And people are generous about that. What we do though, and I think a more efficient way than we have been, until recently, we look for opportunities for people to couple their interest with something the library can do. Let me give an example. We started from scratch a math tutoring program during the pandemic. We got a generous grant from the Walton Family Foundation, and essentially had 40 or 50 tutors, volunteers who were doing it by Zoom virtually with students from grade six through 12 in schools all across the county, charter schools, public schools, private schools. And you just had to sign up. And the response we got from both tutors and parents of these children who were lagging in math was phenomenally encouraging. People respond when you ask them, “Look, would you support something like that?” The Walton Foundation funded that for a couple of years. And then we found other funders.
And once you start something and it works and you've got metrics and evidence to show that it's successful, people will help you do it. That's the public private partnership that we're proud of. The public is all in with the tax money that they give us. But we look for ways to leverage that with private donations. And we are in a community where people believe in a lot of things we do.
[00:33:45] KM: You have a $20 million budget.
[00:33:48] NC: 23 million now.
[00:33:49] KM: That's a lot of money to manage. Describe your day.
[00:33:53] NC: Well, one of the great fortunes I have, the blessings that I should be particularly mindful of this time of year, is that I have an extremely talented chief financial officer, a CPA, named Joe Spencer. We have run the budget frugally, efficiently, like my dad would have been proud of in his small town. And he said, “Son, there's no difference in another dollar earned or a dollar you save. You’re going to both have $1 to your bottom line.”
We do take seriously our obligation to be good stewards of the public's money. We treat it as though it's ours. And we have a comprehensive budget that we prepare about this time every year. The board reviews that. Get a long memo explaining different things. And we just stay on that budget throughout the year.
[00:34:36] KM: It’s hard to stay on budget.
[00:34:37] NC: It is. We have about 68 cents of every dollars for staff. And so, that's obviously with every organization.
[00:34:43] KM: You have 300 employees or more.
[00:34:44] NC: Yeah, that's what drives – we want to pay a living wage. We want to take care of people. Because people don't go to work for the library to make money. They go because they're interested in service and they're interested in education and literacy.
[00:34:58] KM: Let's speak about why you go to the library. You can rent toys, telescopes, tools, hotspots. What else can you rent?
[00:35:04] NC: Well, it is about books but it’s these other things, seeds. We have a seed library down in
[inaudible 00:35:08]. We have a tool library down in
[00:35:11] KM: How do you return seeds? You put them in the ground. I mean, how do you return them?
[00:35:14] NC: It's a grow something – if you feel inspired, bring us back some seeds from your pumpkin patch or from your tomatoes. It's a revolving door of seeds. And we catalogue them. There's a nice – the old school book catalog, book card catalogs down in
[inaudible 00:35:30]. And you can go in there. And the seeds are in an alphabetized drawer.
[00:35:34] KM: You alphabetize your spices at home.
[00:35:35] NC: I do not. But you're right, it's now about a lot of things, not just the books. Telescopes. You can check out a telescope. You can get toys. You can get tools. You can get seeds, as you mentioned.
[00:35:50] KM: Did you think when Amazon started selling books online, did you think, “Oh, here we go.”
[00:35:55] NC: Some people are impatient. If a new book comes out, they just go buy it. And I have a lot of friends who can afford to buy libraries worth of books. And say, “Look, you want to go to the library because you can listen to audiobooks instead of doing Audible for $15 a month for free. You can get current released audio books, if that's your thing.”
[00:36:14] KM: Can you do it from your home with the library? If you buy library membership, you can download –
[00:36:18] NC: Yes, you can download – If you live in the service area, you have a membership, you just download the books on your tablet or you download them to your device if you want to listened to them.
[00:36:29] KM: Why didn't everybody do that? Why don't we even use Audible if you can do that?
[00:36:34] NC: Oh, because I've got friends like this. Sometimes it's just a little more – until they have cleared the learning curve about how to use the book. But here's the great thing. The library's about all these things you described. It's a library of things, books. But it's also a library of helping people. And we've got – again, thanks to a grant from Wingate, we have now what people we call digital guides. I call them digital navigators. These are two fantastically talented young people who, if you have trouble with anything on your device, or you want to know how to do Excel, or you're having trouble. A lot of people my age are not as tech savvy. And they'll come to the library and they'll get help. And they've sent me these wonderful thank you by email. They leave messages saying, “Jacob or Camille are just fantastic. They know thing was too small. They talked to me respectfully. And they helped me. I've now got this.”
Part of the problem is just the learning curve for people who are my age and they don't want to fiddle with it. They know how to order things from Amazon or Audible. But if you will bear with it and get some help, it's going to save you money in the long haul.
And the good thing is if there's a book that you think your library should have, and we don't have it, we're generally pretty responsive. Tell us about it and we'll try to get it. Because as I said earlier, we want to have books for everybody. That means if your interest is aviation, or gardening, or porcelain dolls, or whatever it is, if there's something you want to read about, we'll try to help you find what you want.
[00:38:00] KM: Can you rent costumes?
[00:38:02] NC: We don't have a costume rent. But we do have a prom dress giveaway or circulation. You can get prom dresses that people – people wear those once. And so, we've got a librarian over at McMath, who several years ago decided she was going to get people to donate their old prom dresses.
[00:38:17] KM: How do people find out all the stuff you do?
[00:38:20] NC: Go to cals.org and just surf around. If you need help to figure out how to do that, call the library and we'll get Jacob or Camille or somebody to help you.
[00:38:28] KM: You mean you can call the library and get somebody on the phone? That's a new concept.
[00:38:32] NC: Yes, you also can go online and send ask CALS. You can go send us an email and–
[00:38:36] KM: Do you still have a homeless problem of people coming in? You have a background in homelessness because you helped fund Our House. But in the old days, I know that a lot of people that were homeless used to go to the library and kind of sit in air conditioning and read.
[00:38:49] NC: Yes. And you know, the society has a homeless problem. The community has a homeless problem. And obviously, the library doesn't pick and choose. We don't ask to see your 1040 or your W-2 when you come in the library. If you come the library, you come to the library there. There are a couple of rules. One rule is you have to behave. You can't disturb other people. And the second rule is if you can't follow rule one, then you have to leave.
But people who, as you say, need to be out of the elements are in the library oftentimes when the doors open. One of the things that – and I think we have a good reputation of treating those people like we treat everybody, which is part of, again, the library's institution of respecting people no matter who you are. But one of the things that we face coming up is that, thanks to the generosity of the taxpayers, they have reauthorized some bonds, lowered the tax in doing it. But they're going to get an upgrade to the downtown library. It's been 25 or so years.
[00:39:37] KM: The downtown library is 25 years old?
[00:39:39] NC: Yes. It hadn't had a lot of investment since then. We need to upgrade it. We're going to make it nicer. But in order to do that, the builders, the architects would say, “You really need to close.” We're going to close it for probably about a year next year. Probably not to the middle of year so we got time to plan. But one of things we're trying to plan for is where will the people go you described who seek shelter from the heat or the cold in the library? We don't want to leave them literally out in the cold. So, we're going to try to find someplace near there that's accessible by transportation or that they can walk. We're working on that.
We obviously are not just going to close the building until people see you on the other side. We're going to provide ways for people to still get their books and all the resources that they get that are tangible. All the things that they get from the library. And of course, they'll still be able to do all of the digital things online.
[00:40:26] KM: Six Bridges Book Festival, what's that?
[00:40:29] NC: It's an annual program where we bring authors and presenters, local and national, to the community to celebrate books and reading. And when people show up and get to ask authors questions. And some of them are virtual. But it's a great thing to remind people that even if you can't go someplace, literally, you can go someplace by a book. And there are all sorts of books that can do that.
[00:40:51] KM: How many libraries are in Little Rock?
[00:40:54] NC: There are eight libraries in Little Rock.
[00:40:55] KM: That you maintain. What’s the – Is the Hillary Clinton Library –
[00:40:59] NC: That’s a children's library over on 10th and Jefferson.
[00:41:01] KM: That is beautiful library.
[00:41:02] NC: It’s a wonderful library.
[00:41:03] KM: Yeah, it’s a children’s library.
[00:41:03] NC: Back to your point about other things, we have a greenhouse over there that kids can see plants growing. Inside the library, there is a live active beehive. We've engineered a way for the bees to get inside a little pipe that they're smart enough to figure out and they come in. We learned after we did it the first year, you have to actually put a cloth over that most of the time. Kids can pull it up and take a peek at the 20,000 bees in the queen in this hive. But the bees didn't like it if it weren't dark in there most of the time. But it's fascinating for kids to see the bees. There are all sorts of things.
[00:41:40] KM: It’s like a discovery museum.
[00:41:42] NC: We have a kitchen in there. We do things that we teach. Sometimes we have cooking matters classes where we teach parents how to shop for healthier –
[00:41:51] KM: And then there's a Sid McMath library.
[00:41:53] NC: Yes. That’s on McMath. That's a very robust library, traditional library.
[00:41:57] KM: Traditional library.
[00:41:57] NC: It’s down on Barrow Road.
[00:42:01] KM: Speaking of your library square in downtown Little Rock, there's the main library that we keep talking about that you're going to close for a little while. And then there's the Ron Robinson theater. I didn't know that was part of the library system.
[00:42:11] NC: Yes.
[00:42:12] KM: Did you, Gray?
[00:42:12] NC: 315 seats. State of the art facility for movies and music.
[00:42:16] KM: Bobby Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art?
[00:42:19] NC: That's the archive, the special collections that things that people donate to the library to preserve are in there. We have some art in there. It's just next door to the theater and just across Rock Street from the main library.
[00:42:32] KM: Gallery and Bookstore at the Library Square.
[00:42:33] NC: On corner of President Clinton Avenue.
[00:42:36] NC: So, you can buy – that's like gifts.
[00:42:37] KM: That’s gifts for Christmas.
[00:42:39] NC: We have used books are in there. And art. Things that are made by Arkansans in there.
[00:42:43] KM: And then the Lab Resource Rocket for local inspiring. And that's all on your website.
[00:42:48] NC: There's a co-working space there for people, young entrepreneurs. And we teach an academy class there with local instructors.
[00:42:55] KM: I love it.
[00:42:57] NC: None of that, by the way, will close. The only thing that will be closed will be the big old main lever that has those names that you like around the top of it. The architects are working now. We may have some surprises for that. So, we’ll see.
[00:43:07] KM: All right, that's great place to take a break. We'll come back. This is our last break. We'll come right back to finish our conversation with Mr. Nate Coulter, Executive Director of CALS, Central Arkansas Library System. I'm going to ask him about banning the books. It will be his last question on the next break. We'll be right back.
[00:43:21] ANNOUNCER: Let's talk about the biggest fundraiser that happens every year for the Dreamland ballroom upstairs at Taborean Hall, the home of flagandbanner.com. And the next event has been set, Saturday, February 11th. Tickets are already on sale at dreamlandballroom.org. Make sure you buy yours early. Get a table so you're right up front.
And if you're interested in sponsoring Dancing into Dreamland, you can contact the director of the event, Matthew McCoy, right there at flagandbanner.com and ask him about sponsorship opportunities. Also, one more thing, volunteers are needed. The Friends of Dreamland need plenty of help setting up and running and even breaking down the event afterwards. Again, Matthew McCoy can help you if you're interested in volunteer opportunities. But for sure, buy some tickets for Dreamland Ballroom’s Dancing into Dreamland, February 11, 2023.
[00:44:10] KM: You're listening to f in your business with me, Kerry McCoy. And I'm speaking today with Nate Coulter from CALS, Central Arkansas Library System in downtown Little Rock. Let's talk about banning books. What's your opinion about all the book, hullabaloo, that's going on all the time? Look, he gets so serious.
[00:44:30] NC: If you go back in time, there have been periods in the history of libraries and humans where for a variety of reasons people had urges like this to take things away. Let's not read things that trouble some of us. Let's not think about things that trouble some of us.
[00:44:47] KM: Has the Bible ever been banned?
[00:44:49] NC: Yes. And there are lots of things that you would consider to be important in the Bible that could be banned by some of the standards of book banners. What's ultimately prevailed, and I think will again, is the notion that I don't – the library director doesn't decide. The school board doesn't decide. The librarians don't decide. And people in the community don't decide what other people or other people's children should read.
A public library is by its very definition of accumulation with public resources of the written words, the expressions of a variety of people on a variety of topics from a variety of perspectives. And we don't look at the content and decide, “Well, we like this person's view and not that person. So, we'll just buy this person's books.” We buy books. As I just said a few minutes ago, if there's something you're interested in and you want to read about, let us know. And so, it's not healthy in the community, we think, for an organization that tries to serve everybody in the community to pick and choose.
[00:45:54] KM: Can anybody ban books? Does the legislature ban a book?
[00:45:57] NC: There are federal cases interpreting the First Amendment that have some application here that you are entitled to read things. You're entitled to express things as an author. The issue of whether the public funding entitles the public to limit what people read is the question, I guess. And I think in community after community, most people don't think that we can anoint somebody to decide what the rest of us read. That's just not a democratic, little d, way we operate. We let people read what they want to read. It's a freedom issue. It's the freedom to read what you want to read.
And we absolutely encourage people to be aware of what their kids are reading. If you don't want your kids reading certain books, then you have every right to do that. And the library will partner with you in trying to help you. We have information we can provide you about the online access for your kids. And we will help you, guide you, tell you how to be involved in that and make decisions that you want to make for your child. We just don't want you to make it for my child or somebody else’s child.
[00:47:02] KM: Everybody. Yeah, right. You urged Ernie Dumas to write his book, one of my favorite books.
[00:47:10] NC: I got the idea that I would talk to Elaine, his wife, and said, “Look, we're going to pay Ernie in advance a nice little grant if –
[00:47:17] KM: Oh, guilt him into doing it.
[00:47:19] NC: And she said, “Yes, we have a big trip planned. I'm going to make him do that.”
[00:47:24] KM: To wrap it up, what's the best thing you think the library does?
[00:47:28] NC: The best thing the library does is help people find what they want to find to get wherever they think they need to get, whether it’d be a class, whether it’d be help on digital technology, whether –
[00:47:38] KM: Do they have classes?
[00:47:38] NC: We have classes down at the library.
[00:47:40] KM: On what? Learning to sew? You teach people to sew.
[00:47:43] NC: I think you can do that in Jacksonville at our branch over there. We do have sewing machines. It's the Nixon library. Named after a woman who worked there years and years ago on Mainstreet in Jackson.
[00:47:53] KM: How do people connect with the library? They can call you? Go online?
[00:47:57] NC: Yes, they can call 918-3000. Or they can go to cals.org. And they can find us. We've got Twitter. We've got all the social media that younger people follow.
[00:48:09] KM: What's the benefit of becoming a member?
[00:48:10] NC: Well, if you have a card, you can use the access online to things. If you have the card, you can use the barcode number to get online and get stuff. Yeah, it’s the ebooks.
[00:48:21] KM: And you could get a membership card online?
[00:48:23] NC: Well, you can get a card for free if you live in the taxing area. And if you don't live in the taxing are, you can get a card if you pay $54 or $55 a year. And we do that because the people who pay all the freight to charges that I've been describing, all these wonderful things, it's only fair to them if the people who aren't paying those taxes pay some amount. And we tried to fair what we thought was fair. And so, and a lot of people in Garland County or –
[00:48:46] KM: You get a membership card. You got a barcode.
[00:48:49] NC: You got a library card.
[00:48:50] KM: You got a key to the castle.
[00:48:50] NC: Yeah. You got a key to all this stuff. That is your library. You're paying for this and we encourage you to use it. And as you say, people every day say, “Wait a minute, I didn't know the library did that. I can get that from the library? If you've got kids who are trying to study for SAT or ACT, there are things on the library's website to do that.
One of the great things we did with Mike Poore when he was here, and this was his idea. We just helped. He decided – He said “Let's give every kid in every school in the right school district access to the library's digital portal.” We said, “Sure. How can we do that?” Don't worry about whether you need a library card because you have an address. Don't worry about it. Just go to the schools, and if the school wanted to do it, we give every student a separate digital card. It wouldn't let them come to the library and check out books. But it would let them get online to our website and use all these databases that the library subscribes to. Databases about how to take test. Databases about all kinds of things that might – foreign language help. And students love it. Teachers loved it. Parents loved it.
It was so successful. We piloted it at four, five schools. It then became district-wide. We made it available to all the schools in Little Rock. Catholic school, the PA, Episcopal, all the schools, charter, public, private. And most of them say, “That's a great deal for our kids. We'll do that.” And the students love it. That's one thing you get. If you're a library card holder, you get that. If you're a student in one of the schools in the county, you get what we call the tech card. They don't necessarily have to be a library card holder. But they get access to all the things that we subscribe to.
One of the great things that we have, it's sort of like what you're talking about, calling the library. We subscribe to something that essentially allows you to ask questions and get homework help from a panel of people. I think this service is out of Philadelphia or somewhere. If you have a science problem or trig problem and you want to help, the library can help you find somebody who will try to understand the problem and try to tutor you, if you will. It's just amazing the kinds of things.
And a lot of those things are not cheap, as you would imagine. But we think if you amortize the cost of it across the entire 344,000 people you mentioned earlier, and people are using it, then people's lives are enriched. We're helping them reach their potential of being better students, of learning more, of getting a better job. And that's what we're about.
[00:51:12] KM: That is a great place to end the show. I have you a gift. It's a desk set of the US and Arkansas flag.
[00:51:20] NC: Wonderful.
[00:51:21] KM: Yeah, I don't know if you'd have one down there the library or not.
[00:51:24] NC: One of the things when I got there was to explore how we could get a flagpole at the library. Bobby Roberts was in the Navy. And he wanted to do one of these nautical flags where you have three flags.
[00:51:35] KM: Oh, yeah. Aha. A Nautical flagpole.
[00:51:38] NC: And it turned out to stick that thing on the roof and make it stable. And it was going to cost a lot of money. But now that we're doing this remodel, we'll look for a place where we can do it at less expense. Because I told you we're good stewards, but we don't like to spend your money.
[00:51:49] KM: Yeah, that's a good idea. All right.
[00:51:51] NC: Thank you so much.
[00:51:52] KM: You’re welcome. Oh, good. Thank you. In closing, I want to say to our listeners, thank you for spending time with us. We hope you've heard or learned something that's been inspiring or enlightening. And that it, whatever it is, we'll help you up your life, your independence, or your business. I'm Kerry McCoy, and I'll see you next time on Up in Your Business. Until then, be brave and keep it up.
[00:52:11] GM: You've been listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy. For links to resources you heard discussed on today's show, go to flagandbanner.com, select radio show and choose today's guests. If you'd like to sponsor this show or any show, email me, Gray, at firstname.lastname@example.org. All interviews are recorded and posted the following week. Stay informed of exciting upcoming guests by subscribing to our YouTube channel or podcast wherever you'd like to listen. Kerry's goal is simple, to help you live the American dream.