Young readers at the Midland County Library at the Plaza. Photo: Tom McCarthy Jr.

Last year, Forbes magazine published an article by economist Panos Mourdoukoutas arguing that Amazon stores should replace outdated libraries to save taxpayer money. Forbes later pulled the op-ed but it didn’t seem to matter as a number of libraries were already inspired to evolve faster than a shush from the circulation desk. In Texas, libraries are coming alive by implementing grand renovations that feature open floor plans full of light and casual meeting spaces; cutting-edge gadgets and makerspace technology; and connections with nature and the environment.

A leader of the renaissance is the new, $125 million Austin Public Library’s Central Library, completed in 2017. This LEED Platinum-certified building—meaning it’s “green”—is outfitted with a bicycle corral for 200, a “tech petting zoo” for visitors to interact with new technology like 3-D printers, an art gallery, a native-plants rooftop garden, and a farm-to-table café. In 2018, Time magazine included the library on its list of the World’s Greatest Places. Austin’s showpiece is representative of a golden age of library innovation across the state. Here are three more libraries boasting smart, beautiful changes.

Rising from the Ashes

The Sherman Public Library, built in 1972 and serving a population of almost 42,000, was in disrepair. Its clutter-filled ’80s addition had a floor that had sunk 4 inches. When the time for a renovation came, librarians hoped to keep half of the building open during construction. But in April 2017 an arsonist broke in and set four fires. Within a week and a half, an army of town volunteers boxed some of the collection and helped the library move to a temporary location two blocks away.

Renovation began in May 2017, and the nearly 16,000-square-foot library housing more than 53,000 books reopened in August 2018. The design features a smart mix of private nooks nestled into open spaces, such as diner booths with individual hanging lights that project intimacy. Lower shelving now allows more sunlight to filter through the large new windows, and high ceilings contribute to an airy atmosphere. Prominent television screens display library programming. And one central desk now anchors the reception area facing the entrance.

In Texas, libraries are coming alive by implementing grand renovations that feature open floor plans full of casual meeting spaces, cutting-edge gadgets, and connections with nature.

“It’s a really pretty building with a lot of curves and little alcoves,” Library Services Administrator Melissa Eason says. “We have a lot more people sitting and visiting or sitting and reading, and we’re getting great turnout for our programs.”

Young visitors greatly benefit from the changes. The new children’s library features a soft, rubber play floor with colorful flecks of red, blue, and green, and AWE Learning literacy-focused computers and Playaway tablets tune out the internet and turn children on to learning games.

The Sherman Art League has plans to turn the library into a gallery, with quarterly displays by various artists. Also, this fall, an empty 7,000-square-foot lot at the corner of Walnut and Mulberry streets will be converted into an outdoor pavilion with large interactive musical instruments and a butterfly garden.

421 N. Travis St., Sherman. 903-892-7240; ci.sherman.tx.us/283/library

A digital wall is an eye-catching feature of the Midland County Library at the Plaza. Photo: Tom McCarthy Jr.

Internet for All

Downtown Midland has seen a flurry of development in the past several years. Witnessing the revival, Midland County Public Library Director John Trischitti III realized the opportunity for a renovated library just one block south of the downtown plaza.

“We envisioned parking at the library, going to storytime with your kids, and then walking to the park one block away, where kids can play at the splash pad and get lunch at the food truck,” Trischitti says.

The revamped 58,000-square-foot Midland County Library at the Plaza opened to the public in May 2019. Visitors enter through a tunnel lined with monitors scrolling community bulletins and library activities. Inside, a brightly lit digital world awaits. In rural West Texas, the No. 1 internet access point for a middle-class home is often the library, and Trischitti says he wants his library to be the place to do school research, apply for financial aid, and look for a job.

In the “living room,” formerly the main entrance, there is a 40-inch-wide sculpture made of recycled books, steel, and resin by Lubbock artist Jonathan Whitfill. Guests can browse books and read on colorful, modular furniture while bathing in the stimulating light of a 42-foot-wide, 12-foot-tall LED-powered digital wall with original artwork. The flexible, open floor plan projects abundant natural light, and while the living room bustles with activity, there is a traditional quiet reading room with a crackling fireplace.

The children’s area has new computers, a freshwater aquarium, a kinetic sculpture by Jeffrey Zachmann, and a Lite Brite Everbright wall. Across the hall, the young-adult space has a video-gaming area with wall-mounted screens. The library will host gaming tournaments, hoping to encourage teens to improve interpersonal skills by gaming at the library rather than at home.

New nature-themed meeting rooms transport occupants with space, sky, and forest themes. “We’re in the desert, so we want to have scenes of water and mesquite trees,” Trischitti says.

“We want people to feel like they can leave Midland without leaving Midland.”

301 W. Missouri Ave., Midland. 432-688-4320; co.midland.tx.us/150/public-libraries

The Friendswood Public Library. Photo: Will van Overbeek

Friends of the Written Word

The family-oriented city of Friendswood, population roughly 40,000, was outgrowing its library. With many of its residents working at NASA and the city’s population booming, a facility assessment determined the library needed to grow. In 2013, Friendswood voters approved more than $2.5 million in improvements and expansion, which were completed in 2016.

The new 20,876-square-foot Friends-wood Public Library makes use of space efficiently, but also creatively. To the left of the front lobby is a wide hall lined with reading-themed art chairs and a hopscotch carpet, all leading into the children’s space. The children’s area has colorful, comfortable furniture and large, wraparound windows flooding the space with light. The wing also features a Lego table and a crafting room, as well as a Cricut smart-cutting machine to fashion intricate patterns into paper or vinyl. Adjacent to the children’s wing is a playground with large drums and xylophones.

The library’s 3-D printer is mobile and used both in the youth department (for high school science fairs) and in the adult reference area (for business and entrepreneurial needs). A green screen can be moved off-site to enhance community events such as Halloween in the Park, and an Oculus Rift headset is available for virtual-reality experiences. Reference and adult services are situated at the back of the library, near the café, computer, printing, copying, and magazine areas. The new meeting spaces have come in handy—in the past year, the library scheduled 3,564 meetings in its rooms.

The café is packed just about every night, with all 22 seats occupied by students and families, and on Wednesday evenings, the library hosts a chess club.

“It’s a very inviting and open space,” Library Director Matthew Riley says. “It provides the perfect setting for young minds to learn and explore.”

16 S. Friendswood Drive, Friendswood. 281-482-7135; friendswood.lib.tx.us

From the September 2019 issue

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