Judging Books and Their Covers

Appearances aside, is the Houston Public Library doing the right thing for all?

A city library in the River Oaks area has been replaced at a cost of $6.2 million. The Looscan branch has grown by two-and-a-half times and its staff will double. Neighborhood groups came together and raised $1 million for additional land for the facility and promised another $1 million for the warm, shiny brown wood molding by the ceiling and other upgrades.

Another city library in a much poorer section of town was scheduled for renovation, but now will be moving to smaller leased quarters at a cost of about $2.5 million. The decision to move came after the Morris Frank branch, near the corner of Fondren and West Bellfort, suddenly found itself in the flood plain when the city got its new, updated maps.

It would cost too much money (at least more money than was set aside in the bond issue) to jack up the bright red structure the 18 inches needed to escape anticipated floodwaters. Or to build a two-foot berm all the way around it. Instead, the Frank branch will shrink and move around the corner into part of the twin Brays Towers, office buildings which look in need of some repair work themselves.

John Middleton says slimmed-down library branches are the wave of Houston's future.
Margaret Downing
John Middleton says slimmed-down library branches are the wave of Houston's future.

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The entire subject makes John Middleton, assistant director for planning and facilities with the Houston Public Library, just a bit uncomfortable in the midst of all his excitement about building new libraries. He knows how it looks. But critics are not right, he says. And what appears to be a case study in the power of affluence is not really that at all, he maintains. One size does not fit all, he says, and the city is working to put the right resources in the appropriate places, bounded by the reality of budgets, bond elections and the time it takes to build something.

The Frank branch will be getting "an exciting new concept" known as the HPL Express being promoted by the Houston library system. After calculating how many shelves can go into the smaller space, library officials will determine how many of the branch's collection of 90,000 items will be making the trip. The only thing that is known is that it will be a lot fewer.

In the HPL Express model, anyone who wants a book not on the shelves can order it and pick it up in a couple of days or so. All of which sounds efficient and practical, except for the fact that it puts a big divot in the concept of browsing, of finding something unexpected in the shelves.

And if this is such an exciting concept, why didn't the folks from Upper Kirby, River Oaks, Afton Oaks and Oaks Estates want it?

Well because, like most of us, they wanted more. And like some of us, they were able to achieve that by organizing a group called Friends of Neighborhood Libraries which raised $1 million in four months and close to $2.5 million in all (minus $30,000 in expenses). And if they are able to do that, if they are willing to put the time and money into something like that, well, what should anyone do but stand by and applaud?

As for the Frank folks, after some initial questioning, they're willing to give downsizing a go. As Jim Myers, director of Community Services with the Brays Oaks Management District, puts it: "I'm not sure there was a whole lot of negotiating room in this." Choices were to close Frank entirely or "try something that's never been tried before." The other option was to put the project up for more money in another bond election, delaying it even further.

"It's not that we're dumping on Morris Frank customers," Middleton says. "It's like we can respond quickly and not have to wait or close it."

As with any huge, longtime organization, the Houston Public Library System has to constantly reinvent itself. It studies its parts, determines where the breakdowns are and prioritizes its work based on a combination of available money balanced with usage at any particular branch.

Middleton, a University of Houston graduate with a degree in architecture, has been part of the planning for more than five years now. He says he loves libraries. "There's not a more public place in our culture." Hired to do the central library renovation, he's traveled to libraries around the world looking for ideas.

He is always factoring in change. Online means more students can do a lot of their schoolwork at home, negating quite so many trips to the library, unless you offer them more computers, a place of their own, a chance to meet. Libraries are now looking to install cafes to meet the expectations of people used to hanging out at Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. A less reverent public expects to be able to talk while surrounded by books. (Although, as they found out at the new Stella Link branch, unrelieved talking can be a burden. Middleton says they have plans to go back in there and carve out some space for a quiet room.)

The main library downtown, which has been shut down since April 2006 with plans to reopen in May 2008, will have a cafe on the first floor. There will be "welcoming" desks. The children's collection will finally be brought up from the basement (adjacent to the dark parking garage) and given windows to share the fourth floor with a new teens section (complete with video games). Space for this new area was opened up when Middleton had the administrative offices moved to a building on West Dallas. The whole building will be wi-fi.

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