Judging Books and Their Covers

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

In the end, more than 850 donors chipped in a contribution, she says. Middleton calls it a great partnership.

Beryl Davis is the head of the Southmeadow subdivision near the Frank branch, and she also wanted some answers when she heard changes were in store for her library.

Middleton came over in the spring and talked to a group just as convinced as the Looscan folks that libraries serve an equally vital function as community centers. The development district's Myers said there were no plans for a community room at the new library, until his organization insisted upon one. (The Library administration says no, a meeting room is always part of the HPL Express ­prototype.)

The new Frank branch will move into a building across the street from Westland YMCA and next to an HPD storefront operation. It is two blocks from an elementary school and three from a middle school. State Rep. Alma Allen has her offices in Brays Towers.

No determination has been made yet about how many librarians will move into the new facility.

Davis says even after Middleton's talk, she doesn't know many of the details of the plans for the Frank Branch. She knows where it's moving to and that it will be more of a "virtual" library. But other details haven't been forthcoming, she says.

"My real bone of contention is their failure to reach out to the community," she says. While some information is posted on the library system's Web site, Davis points out that not everyone in her community is aggressive enough to research the information online. "They've been a little slow to get their message out to us," she says.

Everyone understands financial realities and economies of scale. And several smaller libraries all over Houston rather than a few enormous monoliths does seem to be the better option, particularly in a spread-out city like Houston.

Everyone wants a library, Middleton says. "How do you get your services to everyone equitably? You really can't build your way out of it in the same way."

The present Frank building is probably at the end of its viable life. The city needed to repair its failing foundation due to under-slab sewer line decay. Inside the building, wear and tear and an outdated design are evident.

During a recent visit, though, the library was filled with people of all ages either reading or on the computers. Asked about the upcoming changes at the front desk, a librarian said she didn't know when the switch-over would happen. "First they say December, now they say next year. We don't know. Just do it. We're ready." Asked about this, Middleton says no, there hasn't been any push-back and construction will start by the end of this year.

Middleton and everyone involved in the HPL Express design seem genuinely concerned and dedicated to doing the best they can for all the libraries.

It's just kind of hard to get wrapped around the idea that in a poorer area of town, we're going to offer fewer books, CDs or whatever on display. In an area of lesser resources, we're going to require more of adults and children to order books by computer, to know what they want before they ever see it.

Maybe it will work out great. Maybe it's not important to put a book in a hand. Perhaps people will step past the rack of best-sellers to find other, maybe tougher, maybe more important books. Maybe our ideas of what makes a good library are ­outdated.

Or maybe, if it doesn't work out so great, the city can set up bus routes, maybe field trips shuttling the Express folks over to Looscan, to Stella Link, to the downtown library. To see beyond their neighborhood possibilities.

The HPL Express approach may be exactly what the Frank folks want. It remains to be seen if it is what they need.

margaret.downing@houstonpress.com

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