After more than 20 years, the City of Lawrence finally welcomed a new library branch.

The Fort Ben Branch Library officially opened to the public Aug. 19, making history as the first autism certified library in Indiana. Hundreds of community members gathered alongside library staff, volunteers, board of trustees and the Fort Ben Reuse Authority for a joyous ribbon cutting ceremony and fun-filled grand opening party Saturday morning. Patrons celebrated the opening with face painting, Silly Safaris Animal Meet and Greet, and performances by Bruce Valance, Top Groove Alliance and more.

“Congratulations, the wait is over,” Fort Ben Branch Manager Shelby Peak said during the opening. “We’re open and here to stay, and I believe it was well worth the wait.”

Autism certified library

The Indy Autism Project and Easterseals Crossroads sponsored the Fort Ben Branch, allowing staff to undergo necessary training in educational, behavioral, social and emotional needs of individuals on the autism spectrum. Additionally, the library offers sensory-friendly amenities and programming and events catered to individuals with autism and other sensory processing disorders — which Peak said earned the library international accreditation for autism through the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES).

City-County Councilor Ali Brown, Library CEO Gregory Hill and Fort Ben Branch Manager Shelby Peak welcomed guests to explore the library during a Media Day ahead of the grand opening on Aug. 19. (Photo/Chloe McGowan)

City-County Councilor Ali Brown, who is the founder of the Indy Autism Project, said Fort Ben is not only the first library branch in Indiana to earn autism certification but one of very few libraries in the country to be autism certified and is also working toward a Certified Autism Center (CAC) designation.

“Being trained in how to work with people with autism or sensory sensitivities kind of helps bridge that gap to make sure that those people who are different feel welcomed and accepted,” Brown said. “That’s what we want in Indianapolis, and we want in Lawrence, is to make everyone feel included or valued and welcomed because they are, and we have to be intentional with that.”

Oftentimes, going into spaces such as libraries, which are designated “quiet spaces,” can be intimidating for people with autism due to the need to stim — or ways someone sensory regulates. Brown, whose six-year-old son has autism, said there is a fear that many verbal and physical stims would disrupt people in a library. 

However, the Fort Ben Branch features conscious design and programming, such as a comfort room — also available to nursing/lactating parents — which offers a private space to decompress, and a sensory kit with noise canceling headphones, weighted blanket, fidget toys and sensory-friendly activities. There are also sensory-inclusive events and classes woven into the library’s regular programming, such as all ages Sensory Friendly Storytime every Thursday at 10:30 a.m. 

“The library is the only place you can exist in this city, in the state, in this country where there is no expectation of your time, your money or your talent,” Brown said. “You get to go there and enjoy yourself whether you’re here to read, play on the computer, have some quiet time or do some work. There are no expectations placed on you that when you walk out there’ll be money spent or even checking out a book. It is a collective space, and it’s so important that we grow and foster these spaces because libraries are great leveling fields.”

What it means for community

Beyond being autism certified, the Fort Ben Branch is the 25th library branch to join the rank of the Indianapolis Public Library Systems, welcoming its first patrons during IndyPL’s 150th anniversary. Gregory Hill, Chief Executive Officer of IndyPL, said he is excited for what this branch will not only mean for the community but for the library system as a whole.

The branch is also designed to be bilingual friendly, as approximately 16% of the population of Lawrence speak Spanish. In addition to bilingual signage, the library branch’s world languages collection features more than 1,500 items for children and adults in Korean, Spanish, French and Haitian Creole, Hill said.

The Indianapolis Public Library officially opened the Fort Ben Branch on Aug. 19. (Photo/Chloe McGowan)

“I feel amazing for just what this library is gonna mean not only to the community, right, but to the public library as well,” Hill told the Recorder. “I’ve talked about us as being a hub of health resources — making sure that we can meet the needs of our patrons, whether it’s providing the resources for, you know, behavioral health, mental health — anything like that would be something that we’re looking at making sure that we provide on the horizon.”

The Fort Ben Branch carries approximately 50,000 newly purchased items, from books to DVDs and other usable materials, as well as several computers with free internet access — including an accessible desk with adaptive technology though a partnership with Easterseals. The children’s section also includes toys, a sensory-friendly play space and desks with computers for educational programming and restricted internet access. 

The grand opening

During the grand opening, families and city officials came together to celebrate the ceremonial ribbon cutting, followed by kid-friendly activities, musical performances and book check-outs. Fort Harrison Reuse Authority Board President Jeff Vest and Lawrence Mayor Steve Collier each spoke of the time and dedication that went into creating a welcoming and affirming place to learn for everyone in the community to use.

“I’m taken aback by the beauty of it, what a wonderful place to learn,” Library Board President Hope Tribble said. “They have prepared a beautiful environment for people to learn and to get knowledge.”

Library board member Dr. Luis A. Palacio told the Recorder it was exciting to finally see the branch open after it has been needed in the community for so long, having left a service gap filled by other nearby branches.

“It’s been a need this community’s had … but it’s an exciting day,” Palacio said. “It’s amazing to have all this community come together and celebrate this opening of the new Fort Ben Branch.” 

Members of the community gathered to celebrate the grand opening of the Indianapolis Public Library’s Fort Ben Branch on Aug. 19. (Photo/Chloe McGowan)

Dawn Hawkins, a Lawrence resident, brought her one-year-old daughter to the grand opening and said many people in the community have been waiting for this for a long time. Although her family lives between two other branches — and have already visited them twice in the week leading up to the opening — Hawkins said she is excited about having a new library close to home that caters more toward kids.

“I can’t wait to see what happens over the course of the next few months, but I can already tell that people are really excited for this,” Hawkins said. “I know that people have been waiting a really long time, so it just it feels really good for it to finally be here and for it to finally be done.”

The 22,000-square-foot building sits on 2.4 acres of land previously occupied by Fort Benjamin Harrison, and IndyPL worked closely with the Fort Harrison Reuse Authority on the design and planning of the library to include elements such as red brick on the north wall and a Fort Harrison historical exhibit in the atrium, Peak said. The branch is designed to be safe for pedestrian and bike riders and has on-site parking with easy access to public transportation and electric vehicle charging stations.

The $14.3 million dollar project is funded by bonds approved by the Indianapolis City-County Council, “assessed without any increase in IndyPL’s current debt service tax rate,” and aims to serve a projected 180,000-200,000 patrons annually, according to a press release.

The Fort Ben Branch, which is located at 9330 E. 56th St., will fill a service gap between the Lawrence Branch on the Northeast Side and the Warren Branch on the Far Eastside, Tribble said. For more information, visit indypl.org.

Contact staff writer Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848 or chloegm@indyrecorder.com. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.