When you think of a library, you may naturally think of browsing and borrowing books, or making copies of your favorite recipes or (countless) thesis drafts. This minds-eye view is accurate, but fuzzy. I invite you to look further, deeper. Many libraries also offer author events, free access to computers and the internet, meeting rooms and quiet study areas, community programs and classes (robotics for kids; meditation for adults), book clubs, employment and career services, free research resources, and seasonal/cultural events and activities - among many other services. In addition to making physical books available to borrow for free, many libraries also allow patrons to borrow e-books, audiobooks and movies/TV series on DVD, and even have platforms for movie streaming .
Over the last year, as COVID-19 has kept most people away from public spaces, libraries have worked hard to develop and expand virtual resources and events for their patrons, with many now offering virtual author events, gardening classes, story-time for kids, history lessons, musical performances and more.
As with most things in life there's always more than what you see when it comes to a library.
In 2021, the Harris County Public Library (HCPL) of Texas marks the anniversary of the "first 100 years" since the library system was founded. In addition to the millions of artifacts housed amongst its 26 branch libraries, the HCPL system also "boasts maker labs with 3D printers and laser cutters, a gardening tool lending library, and their super library on wheels--the Curiosity Cruiser" and serves a population of more than 1.3 million.
In celebration of HCPL's centennial, my good friend and passionate Assistant Manager of Youth Services Programming at the HCPL, Jenn Bacall, was gracious enough to answer a few questions about her experiences as a librarian, why libraries are so important to their communities, and how we can best support our local libraries.
Tell us a little about the Harris County Public Library system and how you're celebrating the first 100 years.
We started in 1921 with one woman, Lucy Fuller, serving her patrons from a series of small stocked libraries, very similar to today’s Little Free Libraries. They were in post offices, businesses and private homes throughout the county. Now we have 26 branches, several outreach vehicles and hundreds of employees. We are celebrating [our centennial] with curbside crafts available for pick-up at the branches to celebrate each decade. We are also offering theme-specific programs for each month, including concerts, author visits, even a magic show. Our staff are creating videos for each decade celebrating the music, film and culture of each era.
We have a digital archive that features the visual history or our system. Each branch has sticker sheets to give away to use to decorate your HCPL library card and each branch has postcards that patrons can give to the library to share their memories of the library, or to send to friends. Besides all of that, individual branches are having their own celebrations and programs too.
What services does the HCPL provide that people night not be aware of?
I think that people would be amazed by the number of programs and services we provide. Besides book clubs, story times and after school activities for kids, we have ESL classes, computer literacy, and maker spaces where people can create on 3D printers and design with lasers. We offer a high school diploma program, Book Buddies for students who need help reading, and an unfathomable amount of resources. We provide access to millions of digital articles, journals, magazines, music and even have the film streaming service Kanopy.
This year we created a digital archive to celebrate our 100th birthday, and in the Fall we will be introducing a huge Early Literacy initiative. It will include instruction, materials and events for parents and our youngest patrons.
What do YOU want others to know about public libraries?
I would love for people to realize how relevant and plentiful we are. Libraries are so much more than a place to check out books. I hope that people will take a moment to discover all of the services that we offer. I would also love for people to realize that even though they may not “need” the library, thousands of people do. We offer computer access, a safe and cool place for families to go and we provide a welcome space for people to work and do homework.
What challenges have libraries faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and how have they addressed them?
For starters, many libraries had to let people go, restructure or close permanently.
Thankfully, at HCPL we all kept our jobs in large parts thanks to the foresight of our library director. He made sure that all employees would have plenty of work to do from home while our branches were closed. We created committees and created and/or revisited our policies on Accessibility, Early Literacy and more. It allowed us to take a break from our normal work and focus on some things that deserved better policies and procedures.
As the pandemic continued, we needed to redesign our programs to virtual, including our largest: our summer reading program. There was a need to train with software, video production and more. All the while, staff at the branches were adapting to curbside check outs, quarantining books and creating original programs and events that patrons could participate in online.
How can we help our local public libraries?
The simplest way to help your public library is to use it. Find out what your libraries are doing by following them on social media and visiting them in person and online. Like their pages and share events and experiences that you think others might enjoy.
On a political level, let your leaders know that you prioritize libraries and their position in your community. Don’t hesitate to let library employees know what you like and enjoy and long for in their service and programs. Our goal is to serve the community.
Which books have been the most popular at your library over last year as millions of adults and children have stayed safe at home?
The most popular titles for adults:
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
A Minute to Midnight by David Baldacci
Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis
Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don't Know by Malcom Gladwell
The most popular titles for kids:
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney
Frankie Sparks and the Class Pet by Megan Frazer Blakemore
Pass Go and Collect $200: The Real Story of How Monopoly Was Invented by Tanya Lee Stone
From an Idea to Disney: How Branding Made Disney a Household Name by Lowey Bundy Sichol
What inspired you to be a librarian?
My mom likes to tell the story that when I was young, I used to say that I wanted to be a “bibary.” I also wanted to be a photographer, a journalist and a filmmaker, but I kept coming back to books. I love public service and the fair mantel that library systems are built upon. It’s a great field for people with varied interests and who define themselves as knowing a little bit about a lot of things.
What kind of career path have you followed?
I have had an indirect path to my current position, although I have worked with books for most of life. I’ve worked for several book stores, and have worked in technical services at a University, built a grade school library in Gretna, Louisiana, from the ground up, and have worked for public schools and public libraries of all sorts of locations and sizes.
What have you read lately that you loved?
How can we ensure the HCPL - and all libraries - continue to grow and thrive for another 100+ years?
Becoming involved in your library is the best way to ensure their strength. We are a living entity and when community becomes infused, it strengthens the experience for all. Most locations have a Friends of the Library group that offer funding for activities and hold events for patrons. Make sure that your government officials see your admiration for your library.
Like and share events that your library posts on social media. Let the library know what you would like to see and what you like about what they are already doing. Like any good relationship, the only way to know how things are going, is to communicate about them.
Special thanks to my dear Jenn for her heartfelt insights.
"A library outranks almost any one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert." -Andrew Carnegie
I have fond memories of going to the library with my mom every 2 weeks to borrow and return books. The thrill of taking home an armful of new-to-me books to read never lost its luster. Books, and libraries, were always constant friends, even when life didn't make sense. As I grew older, libraries were a refuge when studying and researching for school or writing projects. I've voted at a library, attended author and musical events, borrowed e-books and movies (the only place I could find the Lonesome Dove DVD series), and attended events as interesting and random as rock polishing for hobbyists.
"Without libraries what have we? We have no past and no future." - Ray Bradbury
Libraries are more than just a collection of books, and even more than the vast programs and resources they offer. Libraries are repositories of our history and launchpads for our future.
Please join me in supporting our public libraries. I challenge you to discover what services and resources your local branch provides and use them; to ask how you can contribute to or support their efforts during these turbulent times and do what you can. For more information on what libraries do and how you can support them, visit ilovelibraries.org.