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McAllen Public Library Part 1: Building a Community

Outdoor children's area. Monarch mosaic.
You may have heard of the McAllen Public Library. It has been mentioned in such places as the L.A. Times and Time. It is the library that won the 2012 ALA Interior Design Award, the library converted from an abandoned Wal-Mart. But while the media may concentrate on this unique layout, the McAllen Library is so much more than building, amazing as it. While this blog post will focus on some of the marvels of the building itself, it is only the first part. Come back next week to learn more about the amazing programs and people involved in this “big-box” library. For a gallery of photographs click here.
McAllen, TX is the state’s 20th largest city in terms of population. It is home to 133,742 people but it serves many more. For instance, my family lives in Harlingen, TX – about 40 minutes southeast of McAllen, but we regularly drive to McAllen for its dining and shopping options (and the closest Barnes and Nobles!). McAllen, by nature of its location on the American/Mexico border down by the tip of the state, also is a town that sees much interaction with those who may prefer to be invisible, the undocumented immigrant.
On Nolana, one of McAlllen’s main streets, is the main branch of the McAllen Public Library, surrounded by a new Wal-Mart, fast food places, an optometrist, and a pest control shop. Having taken over a spot once chosen by Wal-Mart, the library has been able to assure that it is in the center of the town and accessible by public transportation.
The previous library building was constructed in the 1950s, a time before computers became a daily part of our lives, before teen and children services were separate entities from their adult counterpart. These thoughts and others were taken into account when the municipality decided that it needed a bigger space for its library.
According to current library director, Kathleen Horan, the city was looking at its options to purchase land for a new building when the former Wal-Mart building became available “already built and sturdily built.” A decision was made to keep the current structure, demolishing only the auto care center, and its refurbishment was financed by city bonds.
The new library structure has 123,000 feet compared to the old building which only had 40,000 square feet according the library’s website. And the entire building revolves around the theme of movement.

“Everything in this building is supposed to reflect the characteristics of this community,” states Ms. Horan, and being located in a major migratory path for animals (and humans in many respects), McAllen is a moving community. In fact, in April 2012, CNN named McAllen one of the fastest growing cities in the nation. The architects and design teams of MS&R took this into account. From a bird’s eye view the carpet of the McAllen library looks like the country layout one (including me, each school break) would see flying into the area, the Fibonacci sequence is built into the decorations in the children’s area and usability studies were employed to determine exactly how patrons would flow through the space.
In this day and age, a library is much more than a place to check out books. In fact, the McAllen Library’s mission statement omits the mention of “books” specially but views itself as “a dynamic civic resource that promotes the open exchange of ideas through free access to information and connects a culturally diverse population with the global community.” As a means of fulfilling this mission, the library houses meeting spaces that are available for rental by the community as well as an art gallery, a café, a teen room, a children’s room, a quiet study room, 14 reservable study rooms,  and a public computer lab with 64 computers.
“The way the public is using the library has changed drastically over the last 20 years, it has changed drastically in the last 10 years,” related Ms. Horan, and libraries all over the country have had to adapt to it. In addition to the public computer lab, the library houses a teen computer lab, a children’s lab, a genealogy lab and is filled with “fully data-dropped” tables that allow users to connect all their devices to the internet either via WiFi or Ethernet while leaving a large space to work without crowding up to the person next to you.
The atmosphere of the library, with its bright colors and modern furniture encourages patrons to embrace a new concept of the library as a more social environment. Patrons are allowed to bring in covered drinks and to converse in the main areas, even to talk on their cellphones as long as they are not extremely loud. For those who prefer the more traditional library atmosphere, the quiet study room has more conservative lighting and furniture is always available.
The teen space, in particular, is a good example of responding to the needs of the community. The library hosts many teen events, which I will discuss in more detail next week, but the space itself was designed specifically with teens in mind. It houses a social area with teen-friendly furniture and a TV as well as study tables. The whole section can be closed off to separate the area from the larger library if the noise level gets too loud.
One of the most intriguing features of the teen room is the reference desk. Probably not the first thing that pops into mind when one talks about exciting. However there are whole articles and studies in the library realm about reference interaction and one prevalent issue, especially among teens, is that the patrons need (and even want) help but do not know how to ask for it. The custom-built teen reference desk at the McAllen Public Library (seen here) allows teens to approach the desk in an innovative way.  A teen with a question can find a comfy seat around the reference desk which allows the reference staff to interact with them in a non-threatening way. If the teen does not wish to, he or she does not have to initiate the conversation, but it eliminates the “lurking” around the desk and allows the staff to easily pinpoint those who might need help.
One final geeky note about the building: although there are many more wonderful aspects of the library (I haven’t even mentioned the beautiful children’s section), outside the children’s areas are three wonderful mosaics donated by three families in memory of loved ones. The three mosaics portray area features but also tributes to those they are in memory of. One of three memorializes a community member who was also an avid Trekkie.  Can you spot the geeky remembrance in this memorial? (Hint: It’s in the upper left corner!)
Next Week: McAllen Public Library Part 2: People and Programs