Judging Books and Their Covers

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

A grand central staircase and an additional set of elevators will replace the aging escalator system — 30 years old and much too expensive to replace, according to Middleton. On the outside, an LED light wall (software by a UH-Clear Lake computer class) will let people know the library is there, and even when its doors are closed, can be accessed electronically — a beacon of intelligence in downtown.

For its branches, however, the Houston mantra now is to build smaller libraries, house fewer items and network more. Instead of dozens of the same books sitting on all the shelves of all the libraries, there will be more circulation of books among the libraries. A fleet of white vans with Power Card logos on their sides working out of the main library, will shoot the books around town upon request five days a week.

HPL Expresses can be tucked into spaces of 2,000, 5,000 or 7,500 square feet, usually housing "a reading center, a computer center and a classroom area." The traditional reference section "will be replaced with a robust selection of commercial electronic databases." Depending on the size of the Express unit, there may be an Internet cafe.

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.

Location Info


A no-frills example of this concept has already been operating in the Julia Ideson building next to the shuttered main library.

The Express there consists of one room, with almost no books in it. On a recent weekday afternoon, the lack of books was matched by a similar scarcity of patrons spread between a brief children's book section, a rank of new releases and a bank of computers.

Some local librarians have posted their protests online, saying that the Express model will limit readily available books to best-sellers, resulting in a subsequent dumbing down of patrons. It seems to also follow that with this much downsizing, fewer librarians will be needed. Middleton says there is still work to do to educate the librarians about the benefits of the HPL Express.

Books are ordered by searching for them on one of the computers. It takes a little while to figure out how to access them (type in the last name only of the author, for instance, and then narrow it down from there), but it did work. Except...

Except, what if you don't know what you want? How do you know the book exists? What if you want to read through a few pages to see if you'd like to try a new author? The librarian at the Ideson building was helpful, but warned it would take at least a day to get a book from next door to this location. No impulse acquisitions here.

"We don't have to buy a large number of books," says Middleton. "This reduces the number of inventory you have to buy. You need less room to store books. We don't need to dedicate 70 percent of our space to bookcases.

"If you're successful, half your books are out at any time."

In the face of these arguments that smaller is better, how did Looscan, scheduled for its grand opening at 4 p.m. on September 5, balloon to 20,000 square feet?

And especially when the library reports usage statistics showing that Frank had 105,000 visitors in fiscal year 2007, but Looscan had only 61,000 in fiscal year 2005 (the last figures available since Looscan closed in August of that year)?

Bonnie Brooks is president of the Friends of the Libraries. She credits her neighbors and her fellow board members with pulling together to raise this extraordinary amount of money. She says she had never done anything like this before, but they all felt it was needed for their ­neighborhood.

Original plans called for the Looscan branch at 2510 Willowick to be renovated at a cost of $5.37 million. The community then contacted the library system, asking for a discussion. A group from Upper Kirby proposed an alternate site near a YMCA, but this wasn't a popular choice with everyone.

This is when Friends of the Libraries formed and immediately started raising money. They paid $1 million for the property next door to the library, and handed the land over to the city.

"This is a community library," says Brooks, explaining that a smaller HPL Express just would not work. Branch libraries, in particular, she says, have the capacity to change lives by not only offering books, but by bringing people together. She anticipates a large contingency of students in the after-school hours come fall.

The one-and-a-half story structure will house a garden club archive room, thanks to a $200,000 donation from the Garden Club of Houston. The whole building has wi-fi. A mural by internationally known artist Bert Long will be installed; the Houston Arts Alliance is managing the project.

"Libraries are the new community gathering centers. They are taking on a new tone and evolving as we speak," Brooks says. "People want to come together with other people, and there's usually some food component."

So Brooks and her friends went and spoke at civic clubs and the Rotary, pretty much to whoever would listen. They sold bricks and pavers. "This area has a very strong grapevine...The whole neighborhood knows somebody who knows ­somebody."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Houston Concert Tickets