Friday, August 19, 2016

TOP STORY >> New director of CALS talks library futures, construction

Leader staff writer

Nate Coulter uses words like “lawyering” in an engaging Southern drawl and in jest and talks about growing up in Nashville in Howard County. His words are punctuated with a smile. He’s disarming in a country boy kind of way, tall, lanky and perhaps those around him are fooled, but not for long — Coulter is Harvard educated, twice, and he’s a quick study.

Despite success as an attorney, he took down his shingle to take a job as Arkansas’ top librarian.

The Central Arkansas Library System, the state’s largest, is headquartered at the Main Library in downtown Little Rock. The system has an annual operating budget of about $17.5 million and more than 300 employees.

CALS is a public corporation created by inter-local agreement among Pulaski and Perry counties, and it has libraries in Jacksonville, Sherwood, Little Rock, Wrightsville, Maumelle and Perryville. It serves about 403,000, but through its Gateway Project, CALS serves another million patrons.

In 2015, there were more than 2 million visits to CALS libraries, and users checked out more than 2.7 million items.

Last December, the CALS Board of Directors named Coulter executive director. He succeeded the beloved and respected Bobby Roberts, who retired in March.


Coulter has one of the best views in all of downtown Little Rock, from his west and south facing, third-story windows a portion of the River Market is visible, the Historic Arkansas Museum’s grounds and buildings, the 300 Third Tower and more.

It’s one of the best views in downtown Little Rock, and before Coulter, it belonged to Roberts.

Perhaps Roberts is best known for his decision to build the Main Library in downtown Little Rock, which during the 1990s was not at all like the bustling area it is today.

There were more vacant buildings than occupied ones and more broken windows than not.

The area was scary during the day and even more so after dark. The River Market opened in 1996 to rumors of the possibility of a Clinton Presidential Library.

It was a slow start to the resurgence of downtown; nonetheless, Roberts wanted the library there.

He had doubters.

The decision to build in downtown Little Rock would earn Roberts accolades that extended to the farthest reaches of Pulaski and Perry counties for his vision and perseverance.

In 1997, he was named Librarian of the Year by Library Journal, in part because of his efforts to repeal a statewide cap on public library tax rates and to build the Central Arkansas Library System’s main branch.

That was the same year the downtown library opened.

Under Roberts’ watch, libraries were built, computers installed, e-books readied for download and patron numbers rose. He readied the CALS libraries for the 21st Century so finding the right person to replace him was daunting.

According to CALS board member Annette Herrington, “Many central Arkansas residents do not realize that CALS is nationally ranked as one of the top library systems in America. Bobby Roberts has been a visionary and the library board realized that he was a very tough act to follow.”


Coulter’s not new to the party. He served on the CALS Board of Trustees for six years and their Foundation Board from 2013 until 2015. In all, he’s volunteered about 15 years of his life to its success.

Last year, he served as finance chair for the library system’s millage campaign.

It was successful and raised money for expansions at the Thompson, Dee Brown and Fletcher libraries, and a partial renovation of the Main Library.

Board member Frederick S. Ursery says Coulter was chosen for the job for a number of reasons, including his education and library service.

“He had been active with CALS in the past and had served on numerous committees. Therefore, he was thoroughly familiar with the organization and its people,” Ursery says.

Herrington says, “In Nate Coulter we found a unique candidate. Nate has national credentials, and he brings a fresh perspective to the entire organization.”

The board believed because he was familiar with central Arkansas and the library system’s unique mission Coulter could lead CALS in the tradition that Roberts established.

Coulter says, “Libraries are so much more than a reference desk. It’s more than bricks and mortar or digital content, libraries are valuable to a lot of people across the community.”

“In Nate, we really got the best of both worlds,” Herrington says.

Ursery says, “In his first six months on the job he has performed well and the board looks forward to a bright future with Nate at the helm of our organization.”

Herrington says, “Nate has already introduced podcasting of Radio CALS and a new ‘Primary Sources’ program that features accomplished, interesting Arkansans.”

As CALS executive director, Coulter oversees construction projects, the entire system’s operation, budget, fundraising and programming.

He says it’s a challenge he relishes.

Before Roberts retired, he introduced Coulter to Jackson-ville Mayor Gary Fletcher.

“Bobby Roberts did a tremendous job,” but Fletcher says he has faith in Coulter’s abilities.

“I look forward to working with him,” Fletcher says.


Actually, Coulter was on the CALS board that approved the new Jacksonville library that was built on Main Street in 2009, and he remembers attending a number of city council meetings prior to its construction.

Prior to construction he also talked with Cindy Powell, a librarian at Esther D. Nixon Library, about what they would like to see at the new facility.

Coulter says, “I remember she said they needed more desktop computers, more meeting rooms.”

Powell, too, remembers those meetings, and she describes Coulter as having a “great sense of humor and very approachable.”

When he took over as executive director, she says she was impressed that he contacted “all the staff, telling them, ‘I’m here.’” He welcomed their input on what worked and what didn’t, she says.

The Nixon Library opened with about 12,000 books, but now has five times that number, plus DVDs and other items.


Fletcher envisions a renaissance of downtown Jacksonville with the library and the new high school serving as Main Street anchors.

The 13,500-square-foot Esther DeWitt Nixon library, at 703 W. Main St., is only about seven years old.

“It’s nice that the high school will be so close to the library,” Fletcher says.

The area along Main Street between the two institutions could be redeveloped with more restaurants and shops. Fletcher and others hope for the same kind of impetus the main library provided downtown Little Rock.

A proposed Jacksonville downtown revitalization might include more green areas like the arbor on the northeast corner of the library’s property.

“It’s inviting,” the mayor says, and helps create spaces people want to visit.

The mayor said that the library is like the town’s courthouse and a vital component of the area.

Coulter says he is pleased the Nixon Library is playing such an important role in Jacksonville, and he believes the new high school and library can be great partners.

“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Coulter says.

Powell says already the library is attracting teenagers with free WiFi and activities like an anime club, and she expects to see more teenagers in the library once the new high school opens.

She says to keep up in the fast-changing world, “Nate’s doing everything he can to spot trends and to keep CALS relevant.”


While studying the latest architectural drawings with excitement, Ginann Swindle, manager of the Amy Sanders Library, says she’s a big fan of Coulter’s.

She describes him as smart, focused and aware of the niches each CALS library fills in the communities they serve.

For instance, the Sherwood branch goes to great lengths to engage its patrons, through educational — and sometimes with just good old-fashioned fun — classes for kids and adults.

Computers are important to many of their patrons, Swindle says.

Coulter says individual libraries’ offerings are patron-driven and education throughout the system is big.

For instance, Sherwood has higher than expected usage because of Air Force Base personnel, and the library tries to serve their needs, he says.

Construction of a new Amy Sanders Library in Sherwood is one of the latest projects undertaken by CALS, and the construction will be overseen by Coulter.

Building a library isn’t an easy task. He describes the Sherwood library as “an outlier,” and says a new facility is long overdue.

But he believes the city supports the decision, because voters recently passed a millage increase. Funds for the new library are coming from about $6 million in bonds, which will be paid off by a 1.3-mill property tax.

Already the architectural plans are complete, the soil samples taken and the site survey is complete, and the construction manager should be on the payroll by the end of August, says Sherwood Mayor Virginia Hillman Young.

Coulter says building a library is like birthing an elephant. The gestation period for an elephant is about two years.

It has taken dozens and dozens of meetings to get the project to this point, and the mayor says the groundbreaking should happen by mid-September.

She also has high praise for Coulter and his approach and the interest he has shown during this process.

Amy Sanders, for whom the library is named, agrees and for her, it’s completion can’t come soon enough.

Herrington says, “Nate is deeply interested in budgeting CALS resources and completing current and planned construction projects. He’s set to ensure that the new Sanders Library will be the best library for the community that it can be.”

Young says moreover, the new CALS library “could set the tone for future buildings being built in Sherwood.”

Although not yet built, she adds, “We’re very proud of it.”

Coulter says, “The architect rendered a fabulous blueprint, as good as in any in our system.” It was designed by Taggart Architects of North Little Rock.

As libraries continue to evolve, Swindle says she’s optimistic about Coulter’s leadership.

“He gets it,” she says. He’s willing to listen to others, including library leaders around the country, as well the CALS staff—like the guy manning the reference desk.

“He is proactive and approachable…I see great things ahead for our library system under his leadership,” Swindle says.


Coulter has two degrees from Harvard University at Cambridge, Mass., including an undergraduate degree in history and a law degree.

After clerking for U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele and serving as assistant legal counsel to Bill Clinton when he was governor, Coulter practiced law in Arkansas for more than 25 years.

He was a partner with the law firms Wright, Lindsey & Jennings and with Wilson, Engstrom, Corum and Coulter, both in Little Rock.

During that time he was selected as a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates and served as chairman of the Arkansas Bar Association’s Board of Governors in 2005 and 2006. In 2012, he was appointed to the faculty of the University of Arkansas School of Law for two years as the law school’s first Distinguished Practitioner in Residence.

In 1993, Coulter was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor of Arkansas in a special election after Clinton was elected President.

Coulter was a charter member of Our House Shelter’s board and the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission, and now serves on the Downtown Little Rock Partnership Board and is a member of the Downtown Little Rock Rotary Club.

Coulter has three children, Caroline, Nathan and Tom, who all graduated from Little Rock Central High and have attended or are attending universities at North Carolina, Arkansas and Missouri.