Student Snippets A Window Into The Daily Life & Thoughts of SLIS Students

McAllen Public Library Part Two: People and Programs

Last week I had the pleasure of sharing with you some insights from my visit to McAllen Public Library, winner of the 2012 ALA Award for Interior Design. To read the first part of this two part series that talks about the physical building click here.
A library, of course, is not just about the building. The building itself might be marvelous, but if the library is not consistently offering services and resources that its patrons desire it will not remain praiseworthy for long. Fortunately, the director of the McAllen Public Library, Kathleen Horan, is not one to forget this. She is not content to let the library rest on its laurels.
“Because of our culture and the way the news, the fads and trends come at us, everything comes and goes so we can’t afford to sit back and say ‘ok we can rest easy now because  we won this design award,’ because we constantly have to stay valuable,” states Ms. Horan. In her eyes, although the national and international press is welcome, the more valuable praise is that which comes from her local community. Hearing from the patrons themselves about the value of the library is an endorsement of the library’s purpose. “Unless we push that message out and it’s getting to the people and getting to our stakeholders…and they understand how valuable we are, we won’t succeed,” she remarks. After all, they are the ones who write the checks. Ms. Horan stresses that “You can’t wait for a crisis. You can’t wait and then say I’ll post on Facebook: ‘Like and re-post this if… ‘ That’s pretty much too late, you must be constant in proving the library’s worth.”
One of the ways that libraries are making themselves valuable to the community today is through technology, something that is sometimes very difficult to keep on top of as the innovations appear at a dizzying rate. The library is automating as many services as possible which allows the librarians to devote more time to those services, such as customer interaction, that cannot and should not be automated. This includes an automated car-side book return that not only talks to the patrons as they drop off their books but sorts them into bins for fiction, non-fiction and children’s.

Patrons have also become more and more used to using the library for technological purposes and the McAllen Public Library provides many public computers and connections for personal devices. When planning the building itself, technology was in the fore-front of many design factors. “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” relates Horan.  “You have to anticipate not only how your users are using your internet services right now but what’s it going to be like in 5 years…10 years.” There is no judgment in the McAllen Library. Ms. Horan recalls that once libraries were seen as simply being places for academic research but her librarians are not going to say  “oh you are just playing video games…You can only do serious research here.”
The same goes for people who are self-employed and use the library as an office. The library has moved to accommodate them as much as possible without encroaching on the experience of others. As long as one has his or her own device, there is no time limit on the Wifi and covered drinks can be brought in. There are also 14 rentable study rooms that are ideal for small meetings.
Technology also comes into play in the way the library interacts with its patrons offsite. McAllen Public Library makes use of Twitter, Facebook and its own website to promote programs. The Teens have their own separate Facebook page as well. The library’s marketing department takes care of these social media sites and infuses them with the sort of branding the library has adopted for itself. These tools allow the library to show its patrons its mission and Ms. Horan believes “it has to reflect exactly who you are, what you want to project” about the community and library.
Another aspect of librarianship that has changed in the last few decades is the advent of separate teen and children’s services. Many libraries have children’s programming such as story hour that encourages young children and their parents to visit the library. More rare, but increasingly becoming more of a priority, is teen services. How does one make the library “cool” for middle-school and high-school age kids?
The McAllen Public Library started off with a great teen-friendly room design that we talked about last week but on top of that is a myriad of engaging programming. A glance at the month calendar reveals Yu-gi-oh battles, a Cosplay party, Anime Night, Book Club, movies and more. Almost every night there is something for the teens to do. A lot of thought and input for these events are provided by the Teen Council, made up of Teen patrons themselves and overseen by a Teen Services Librarian.
“It’s amazing to see how many teens are in there…and they are reading too, not just playing games, watching TV,” says Ms. Horan.
For me personally, it’s the little details that make this library a joy to visit. Thought was put into so many aspects of the design and the programs. The children’s room books are provided in bins that make it easy for little children to flip through. There is an outdoor patio off the children’s room for those who need to run off a little steam. There are motorized scooters provided for those who need them to traverse the large amount of space, and different areas set up for different sound levels and activities.
These programs and the attention to the needs of the community has greatly enhanced the usage of the library. When the new building opened its doors, projections were set for the amount of usage it would receive in the first five years. After one year, those numbers have already been surpassed. It is estimated that 65,000 people pass through the library’s doors each month. One consequence of this being that the lobby carpet, only a little over a year old is soon going to have to be replaced by tile because of wear.
But that’s a good problem to have.