WWKVD? What Would Kurt Vonnegut Do? You could almost put it on a bumper sticker; though the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library won't, executive director and founder Julia Whitehead jokes, because Kurt wasn't particularly keen on organized religion. Still, the idea of doing as Kurt would do, being interested in what interested Kurt, has been a guiding principle for Whitehead and her cohorts as they figure out the library's role in Indianapolis and beyond.
And so when a Missouri high school banned Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five from its curriculum and library, the KVML stepped up to give away free copies to students, a move that earned the library its first national and international press of note. (Whitehead notes that the state of Indiana gets a gold star in light of the controversy; not only are Vonnegut's works freely available in the state, but KVML's workshop teaching Hoosier teachers to teach Vonnegut is headed into its second successful year.)
But maybe that's an obvious move for an organization championing Vonnegut's work. Less intuitive — but just as brilliant — has been the library's programming pertaining to veterans' issues. "Kurt used the arts to help heal his wounds," says Whitehead, "and so we've expanded our mission to help support veterans suffering from combat-related mental illness."
And because there's strength in numbers, Whitehead says that the library "loves partnering with other arts and humanities organizations" — from the Heartland Actors Repertory Theater, which did a stage reading ofVonnegut's play Happy Birthday, Wanda June during the library's first anniversary celebration, to the Indiana Historical Society, with which the library is working on a guidebook on Vonnegut and Indianapolis.
Whitehead, who first had the idea for the library in November 2008, says things really took off after securing a permanent location, which opened January 2011 in a space on Senate Avenue donated by CVA winner Katz & Korin. With a mailing address in place, people became comfortable with donating both money and memorabilia, and the honorary board began to fill out with celebrities — Michael Moore, Lewis Black. Not that it's a one-woman show: Whitehead is careful to point to others doing yeoman-like work, including Vice President Chris Stack, "who gives so much of his time, knowledge and energy," as well as Vonnegut's family members, who she says are always more than willing to answer any requests.
Whitehead admits that it's more "about the trees than the forest" for the library at the moment. But the public calendar looks as far ahead as November 11 (both Vonnegut's birthday and Veterans Day), when the library will host "Reclaiming Armistice Day: A National Conversation on Veterans Using the Arts to Heal," which will also see the release of the first issue of a literary magazine published by the library.