Hops and Skips

7 Insider Spots to Explore at the Nashville Public Library’s Main Branch

In downtown Nashville, the Main Branch of the Nashville Public Library stands tall on Church Street, stretching the entire block between 6th and 7th Avenues. I remember when this new 300,000 square foot location opened in 2001, replacing the Ben West Branch that had served as the library’s downtown hub since 1966. It came with a new tagline: 

“A city with a great library is a great city.”

Nashville has continued to embody this mantra through its dedicated funding of this institution, a public service that isn’t always treated so well by city budgets. 

A trip to this mecca of information and literature is one of my top recommendations for visitors to Nashville, especially ones staying in the downtown area. Yes, as a librarian, I am 100% biased. But! The public library is a totally free, accessible repository of knowledge, and there is so much to explore and learn within a library’s walls! In any city, the public library is worth a visit to get an unparalleled local sense of place. Here in Nashville, the Main Branch, as the system’s flagship space, is home to numerous archives and special collections, diverse public programs, and grand architectural design befitting this great space and city.

Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a frequent one, here are my favorite spots to explore:


Tucked in the center of the building, the Margaret Ann and Walter Robinson Courtyard is a slice of quiet in the commotion of downtown. Seating is scattered among trees and other vegetation native to the region; a large stone fountain is centered in this Italian Renaissance-inspired piazza. Each year, the Courtyard Concert series offers a unique lunch break getaway from late summer through early fall.

Courtyard Art Gallery

On the library’s second floor, overlooking the main entry hall, a balcony gallery hosts rotating exhibits that reflect artists, voices, and experiences of Nashville and the state beyond. It’s worth checking out during every visit to see what’s new. Plus, the birds-eye view of the library’s entry hall offers an inconspicuous perspective from which to people watch.

Civil Rights Room

At the north end of the art gallery, a doorway offers entry into two of the library’s permanent exhibits. Visitors may be unaware of the pivotal role Nashville played in the Civil Rights Movement. Beginning in early 1960, student and activist groups began organizing sit-ins at downtown Nashville lunch counters, one of the first non-violent, direct action campaigns of the movement. Violence and tension grew over the course of five months but ended in the desegregation of Nashville’s public facilities; it was the first major southern city to do so. The Civil Rights Room shares photos, videos, print resources, and a timeline of these local and national events. Further, the library’s Civil Rights Collections contains countless primary sources and personal, firsthand experiences that capture the moment in local history.

Votes for Women Room

Opposite the Civil Rights Room is another exhibit highlighting a historic moment in local history; the year 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and the Votes for Women Room opened in commemoration. If you didn’t know before visiting this exhibit that Tennessee was the 36th and final state needed to ensure this right, you soon will. The lore of young conservative legislator Harry Burn, who cast a surprising voting for ratification after receiving an urging letter from his mother, is the story most frequently told about Tennessee’s involvement in the dramatic battle, but this space follows the struggle for gender equality through a much larger lens. The often-ignored issue of race receives proper attention in the exhibit’s chronicle of the political, gender, and human rights issues surrounding the right to vote.

Puppet Theater

In the southern corner of the 2nd floor Children’s Wing, you’ll find the space that hosts the library’s weekly storytime performances. The library has had an in-house puppet troupe since 1938 when a 15-year-old Nashville native named Tom Tichenor began performing at the Nashville Carnegie Public Library with his own hand-made puppets. Today, the puppet shows are run under the name Wishing Chair Productions and include weekly storytimes, traveling shows with the Puppet Truck, and collaborative partnerships with other local cultural institutions. If your visit doesn’t coincide with one of the three weekly shows, you can still view a collection of puppets on display outside the theater.

Magazine Archives

On the 3rd floor’s northeast wing, adjacent to the nonfiction section, you’ll find my most favorite, most secret, most underrated section of the library. There are rows and rows of solid-colored, bound volumes that house the library’s magazine archives – years and years of original issues of popular circulating magazines. You can find National Geographic from the 1910s, Life from the 40s, New Yorker from the 50s, Mademoiselle from the 70s… Many publications have their entire history archived here, and I could spend days browsing through the old photos and advertisements. I just wish there was an index of these archives (a task that would be a massive undertaking), because they’d be great for primary source research.

Grand Reading Room

The 3rd floor’s pièce de résistance features lofty, arching ceilings that reflect light from the grandiose chandeliers; the floor-to-ceiling windows at the far end center upon a view of the city’s capitol building. The room houses the library’s reference collection, and the numerous tables that symmetrically line the center aisle provide ample work space. Above the book stacks, eighty hammered copper panels by local artist Gregory Ridley illustrate the history of Nashville with the purposeful inclusion of people of color. A grand library deserves an equally grand reading room, and this one doesn’t disappoint.

Further reading: The Main Library Turns 20! History of the Nashville Public Library; Robert A.M. Stern Architects, LLP: Projects

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