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.

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.

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.

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."

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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