Walking into the 123,000-square-foot McAllen Public Library in the Rio Grande Valley on a sizzling summer day is akin to stumbling upon a lush oasis after traversing the blazing South Texas desert. With temperatures reaching 115 degrees by late August, the sleek, blissfully cool athenaeum is inviting to all who stroll through its doors. The massive 20-foot ceilings and breezy vestibule greets visitors with “bienvenidos” written across the main lobby wall, assuring patrons they have found a community center full of resources dedicated to service.
“People get out of the library what they put into it,” says Elizabeth Tanguma, a librarian who works in the children’s department. “Is it a place for learning? Is it a place for social interaction? Is it a respite from the heat? It is whatever you need it to be, and that is the beauty of it.” McAllen’s library first opened its doors in 1932 as a one-room study club inside the Chamber of Commerce and has continued to grow since. In 1950, the first official location opened on the corner of Main Street and Fir near downtown, where it functioned as the main branch of the library for more than 50 years. In 2007, the decision was made to expand, and the city began renovations.
The current location opened in 2011 and houses a collection of more than 335,000 books, DVDs, video games, newspapers, and magazines. It also contains a large computer lab with around one hundred computers, two youth areas, a quiet reading room, and a 180-seat auditorium frequently rented out for business presentations or family movie parties.
The immense building engulfs almost three city blocks on the corner of Nolana and 23rd Street, just down the road from the also impressive International Museum of Art and Science. The building was previously a Walmart until the big-box store moved down the street in 2010 and was transformed into the largest single floor library in the country. The design was overseen by Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle Ltd. who won the International Interior Design Award in 2012 at the Library Interior Design Competition, as well as the Honor Award for Interior Architecture in 2013, the highest award given for interior design by the American Institute of Architects.
The interior is awash with nature and geometric symbolism. There is a recurring Fibonacci sequence motif throughout the building, on tables, walls, and mosaics in the butterfly garden which signify infinite growth. Then there is the enormous laser-cut panel on the high ceiling of the main floor in the shape of a mesquite tree—an apt metaphor for learning. The early native Texans referred to the mesquite as the “Tree of Life” due to its ability to offer life-giving sustenance amid the harsh environment of South Texas.
“It’s apropos for the young ones,” says Library Director Kate Horan, who has been working with MPL since 2006. “They start out with the picture books; they graduate to the beautiful books their parents or guardians read to them; then to chapter books. It’s not only the growth of the child but also the growth of their knowledge base. We hope to inspire [reading] to be a lifetime habit.”
It is not only books and knowledge MPL offers young people; there are designated spaces for them. The first is a children’s department which itself is as big as the previous library and a space specifically for teenagers 11-17 where they can relax, do homework, or play games. There are also countless daily activities for the youth in the library, from story time for the smallest children to video-game tournaments for the teens. Then there are the free lunches offered to those 18 and younger four days a week with MPL’s summer lunch program.
On top of the programs specifically for kids, there are dozens of resources and services for adults. The library regularly hosts GED and ESL classes as well as computer instruction classes for adults eager to adapt to the modern world. Any adult with a good standing library card can check out a “job interview in a bag” which includes a laptop, a hotspot, and charger to help those looking for work. Folks can also reserve one of 14 private study rooms spread throughout the main floor.
It takes a lot to maintain the day-to-day workings of such a massive facility. And while many of the monetary needs are provided by the City of McAllen, MPL hosts several community-led fundraisers throughout the year. In the front lobby, there’s a bookstore run entirely by volunteers that sells donated books, mostly for around a dollar each, which helps support the library. There are also book sales several times a year and a casino night fundraiser to help facilitate the annual book fair, allowing MPL to bring in authors from around the country for readings and book signings.
The themes of change and growth are constant throughout the ethos of the library and staff, but progress has never been seen as a hindrance. “I’m extremely proud of the staff,” says Horan. “We went from being a small country library, to now we are in this huge building, and we’ve all had to adapt to serving a much larger audience. There’s no longer a preconceived notion of what a library is, rather a library is what you need it to be.”