A Publication of WTVP

Nourishing the brains and souls of South Peoria

by Laurie Pillman | Photo by Ron Johnson |
Cynthia Smith

Lincoln Branch Library Manager Cynthia Smith, ‘superstar’

Cynthia Smith started her career at Peoria Public Library as a children’s librarian. Kids at the Lincoln Branch on Peoria’s South Side instantly gravitated toward her. 

“Young girls were gathering around my desk. They wanted to know about my nail polish, my hair, and where I bought my clothes,” recalled Smith. “And I thought, how can I reverse this? Because I don’t want it to be about me. I want it to be about them.”

Smith’s desk was in the open back then, right next to the bookshelves. The historic library, built with Andrew Carnegie money back in 1910, had just over 4,500 square feet. Smith didn’t let the limited space keep her from engaging young readers with innovative programming.

Now, more than 20 years later, Smith is the manager of Peoria’s Lincoln Branch. A decade ago, an expansion tripled the library’s space. It means her desk is now inside an office, but Smith continues to be at the heart of the library.

A ‘superstar’

“Cynthia is a superstar to every family who visits the Lincoln Branch,” said Peoria Public Library Executive Director Randall Yelverton. “When they walk through the door and see her, their eyes light up. Not just the children, the adults too. They know how hard she and her staff work and the painstaking effort they all put into creating meaningful programs.”

“I knew for this particular site that we had to have (original) programs,” Smith said. “Programs are what brought the community in.”

She credits her staff for making the library feel welcoming. That’s important to Smith, who strives to give back to the area.

She recalls how the Catholic Church hosted activities while she was growing up on the South Side. “I always remembered that I felt safe there. My parents felt comfortable with me going there. We did a lot of things in the community, and I want to put that back. We’ve been getting a great response.”

The Lincoln Branch is a gathering place for families in the area. Four hundred children got involved in its 2022 summer reading program, with some 90 bikes given away as grand prizes. Smith created the bike giveaway in the early 2000s when only 15 students signed up for summer reading.

The program keeps students’ skills up and involves them in programming outside of school. Pre-COVID, more than 700 children participated in the seven-week program. Smith, her staff and the Friends of Peoria Public Library aim to return to those numbers.

Smith especially enjoys the moment at the end of the program where participants sit together to cheer on the grand prize winners. “The coolest thing about that was the kids who did not get bikes were clapping for the ones who did. You’ve got kids who aren’t winning, but they’re actively engaged, and they’re excited for people they might not even know. It’s community building. 

Smith and her staff try to engage families year-round. The family-friendly haunted house draws over 300 people. Project Next Generation, a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) program for young kids, gives students a chance to learn coding, robotics and other technological skills. Through a competitive grant process, Smith acquired VR headsets in 2022, allowing the students to experience a spacewalk.

Smith partners with as many organizations as possible to create well-rounded programming for all visitors. She has led trips to the Peoria Riverfront Museum planetarium and the Peoria Zoo. College professors and local businesses have come in to offer sessions on art and graphic design.

“It’s not a competitive thing,” she said. “We know that everyone is doing some sort of programming. We want to be a part of something. So I’m always reaching out because I know I can’t do everything.”

A place of pride

Smith says that local adults are protective of the branch and its relatively new wing, and it shows. After 10 years of hard use, the addition still looks brand new. The locals call if they see anything they believe is a safety concern for the building, staff or patrons, she said.

It’s not surprising, as the adults benefit as much from Smith’s attentive programming as the kids do. After the new expansion, Smith and her staff hosted galas for a few years. Adults were invited to come in after hours to learn about the library in a festive atmosphere. Patrons ask about and look forward to the next one.

The branch’s adult book club is another popular program, now about 15 years old. The group has held reading pajama parties and Smith uses her connections to bring award-winning authors to talk to their readers.

“Patrons feel special and welcomed and seen and, yes, loved by Cynthia and her staff,” said Jennifer Davis, the Peoria Public Library’s public relations manager.

Local adults are protective of the branch, and it shows.

Case in point is Daurice Coaster, an “avid” patron of the Lincoln branch.

“As a single mom of two, I was very familiar with the usual activities. And then Cynthia happened!” said Coaster. “She was just a burst of passion and excitement toward the library and the community. And not a flash in the pan. She has continued just as strongly …

“She works magic on a meager budget … It’s so unusual for what you think an average librarian would do,” continued Coaster. “She uses everything she has to the benefit of the Lincoln Library. 

She just wants people to feel at home, said Smith.

“If you come in and you want to have a conversation about books or what’s going on in the world today, I will make that time,” she said. “I want [patrons] to know that it’s their facility and that they can come in here, and we will provide the best services that we can. It’s always been about this community.”

Laurie Pillman

Laurie Pillman

is an author and freelance writer/editor, based in Peoria