In a time of climate disasters, libraries merge high-tech and very low-tech methods for supporting their communities.
When the new Frisco Public Library opened its doors in March 2023, there were lines around the block. “More than 12,000 people came during that first week,” says Maureen Arndt, AIA, a founding principal at 720 Design. The numbers were high but not surprising. The library, transformed by Gensler with 720 Design from a former rocket factory into an airy, welcoming community hub, has plenty to attract visitors. The blank concrete walls at the former loading dock have been replaced by the glass walls of an interior breezeway. Inside, visitors are greeted by a full-scale dinosaur skeleton named Rexy. Sculptural nooks provide engaging spaces for acrobatic readers, and flexible private and public areas make room for all kinds of community activities, from story time and meetings to CNC milling. Community buy-in was also a factor in those numbers, thanks to a design process that sought out and incorporated input from neighbors and users.
Then summer came. The number of visitors went up — and up, and up. In July, the library had 110,000 visitors. “That’s half the population of Frisco,” says Arndt. “I got an email from Shelley Holley, the library director, saying they’d broken all attendance records.” With daily temperatures stuck above 100 degrees, the library wasn’t just a destination; for a lot of people, it was a lifesaver.
The extreme heat of 2023 is part of a pattern related to the shifting climate that is increasingly reshaping public life in Texas. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maintains a list of weather/climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each, and in a state-by-state count, Texas tops the list. Between 1980 and 2023 (as of October 10, 2023), NOAA lists 169 confirmed billion-dollar loss events, including 19 droughts, nine floods, one freeze, 109 severe storms, 14 tropical cyclones, seven wildfires, and 10 winter storms. And most of these events were concentrated in the most recent five years, which suggests that while our weather might be getting weird, weird weather is the new normal.
As the climate shifts, communities are moving from a kind of whack-a-mole approach to addressing weather emergencies to something a little more preplanned. For example, Austin has designated specific buildings as resilience hubs, which the city’s website defines as “neighborhood centers that are designed to coordinate culturally sensitive, multilingual services to better meet the needs of diverse groups of community members.” That’s pretty vague until it comes to times of crisis: “In addition to the day-to-day benefits,” notes the website, “hubs can provide a safe place for temporary relief during days of extreme weather or operate as centers for distributing necessities such as food and multilingual information after disaster events such as floods.” Year-round, the sites can offer “space and programming for community-building efforts that increase resilience when emergencies occur.” As “third places,” libraries have long been hubs for information sharing and community building. But for post-pandemic, weather-battered Texas communities, libraries are evolving from knowledge centers still mostly about books into flexible, richly networked hubs that support community resilience through means both hi-tech and no tech at all.
Libraries in Texas have always been defined by individual and collective determination. In the emerging state of Texas in the 19th century, reading material was in short supply — not to mention buildings and librarians. In his book “A Journey Through Texas: Or, A Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier,” published in 1857, Frederick Law Olmsted noted that “in the whole journey through Eastern Texas, we did not see one of the inhabitants look into a newspaper or a book.” The first known public library in Texas was assembled in 1870 in Galveston, where the Chamber of Commerce, with the mission “to establish and foster a mercantile library and reading room in this city for the use of all persons subscribing thereto” gathered books from local merchants. A two-dollar fee limited the usage of the library to a select few. (Among the reading options was likely a copy of the “Texas Almanac for 1870, and Emigrant’s Guide to Texas,” which covered topics including “the vast area, climate and fertility of the soil, [and] the mild temperature, neither so hot nor so cold as in the northern states.”) Without a dedicated building or dedicated source of funding, the collection moved from the Casino Hall to the Masonic Temple, to storage, until local philanthropist and book-lover Henry Rosenberg funded the construction of a permanent facility. The Rosenberg Library, designed by noted Texas architect Nicholas Clayton, opened its doors in 1904, as part of the rebuilding of Galveston after the Great Storm of 1900. Clayton also designed the city’s Rosenberg Library Colored Branch, believed to be the first public library for Black people in the southern United States.
Between 1898 and 1917, the Carnegie Corporation funded the construction of 32 libraries in Texas. Here, again, buildings were only part of the equation: According to the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), a 1916 report to the Carnegie Corporation stated that “Texas libraries were poorly stocked and badly run and suggested that funds might better have been used for both books and buildings, with a provision for competent librarians for the initial period.” But TSHA goes on to note: “Although the libraries were not successful in some small communities because of the lack of financial support, the building program was a worthy experiment. It stimulated interest in the public library movement and supplied the only means by which many library buildings could have been built.”
This is good news for community resilience. Today, there are almost 500 central libraries in Texas and as many branches, and — still thanks to community efforts, philanthropy, and some strong-willed individuals — there are more coming. Some communities, like Frisco, are moving their old libraries into new facilities. In January 2023, Round Rock moved its collection into an expansive new building designed by PGAL with 720 Design (Austin firm McKinney York will remodel the former library building into an arts and culture center). Others, like Anna, Texas, are getting a library for the first time (and including dedicated plugs for mobile generators as part of the design). And just as the first Galveston libraries responded to the demands of the community at the time, these new libraries are responding to our current demands — from climate change to Comic-Con.
When the Seguin Public Library hired 720 Design with PGAL to design a new facility for the library, the collective motivation was primarily demographic. Town leaders saw a library as an important part of an attractive community for young, educated people. “It hit Seguin at a really interesting time,” says Arndt. “They were trying to get their young people who were going off to college to come back. And one of the ways they saw to do that was to start being more in tune with environmental issues.” The library, which is LEED Gold certified, opened in 2016, and Seguin also started a city-wide recycling program. The library designers were beginning to explore the library as a multiuse space. “We were just starting to think about keeping buildings flexible,” says Arndt. “Beyond just looking at the structural grid and minimizing walls, we were thinking about how walls and shelving could be movable.” Rooms are separated with moveable glass partitions that can be opened to combine spaces, and about half of the collection is on casters. When Arndt talked to the library staff after the opening, they said they wished they’d put all the shelving on casters. The library hosts a team lock-in for Comic-Con, and moving the books out would let them expand that event into the rest of the library for an evening or a weekend. “That flexibility is really important in terms of the library’s ability to be an effective community space in the long term,” says Arndt.
The Seguin library opened just before another major shift in library usage and programming. Prior to the pandemic, libraries were designed with banks of computers, according to library standards. But post-pandemic, libraries like Seguin started to see more people coming to the libraries with their own devices, looking not for a seat at a computer, but for internet service and a place to plug in. Increasingly, too, people were looking for privacy: Telemedicine was suddenly available and in high demand, creating the need for private areas where people could have sensitive conversations. A lot of libraries got grants for laptop vending machines so library users could check out a laptop or tablet with their library card. (Meanwhile, libraries are also working to mitigate the negative social effects of so much screen time: The Family Place Libraries program, which many Texas libraries participate in, promotes “a national model for transforming public libraries into welcoming, developmentally appropriate early learning environments for very young children, their parents, and caregivers,” including teaching families how to interact with each other without devices.) And because, post-pandemic, people are more accustomed to downloading books onto their own devices, there’s suddenly more space available for other programming. “The books are still the brand, but the size of the physical collection has changed,” says Arndt. “It’s an interesting discussion with the community. We’re looking at, how robust is your Wi-Fi? Can your community download e-books easily? And so can we use that space that would have been for a physical book for a study room or a maker space or a warming station?”
“People have this nostalgic view of libraries, like, I went there in third grade and checked out ‘Charlotte’s Web,”” says Dianne Connery, director of the Pottsboro Library. “And I love ‘Charlotte’s Web.’ But that’s not what’s happening here.” What’s happening in Pottsboro — a community of 2,600 or so, about a 90-minute drive north of Dallas on the Oklahoma border — is everything else (plus a book club). When the ice storm of 2021 hit, Pottsboro experienced the kind of cascading system failures that were hitting larger urban centers: no water, no electricity, limited communication. The library, housed in a small brick building near the center of town, became a kind of default operations center. “We don’t have a newspaper,” says Connery, “so the library Facebook page was already kind of a bulletin board for the community.” The library staff set up portable toilets. They contacted ranchers with working wells and organized those ranchers and their trucks to pump and deliver water to residents whose pipes had frozen. When FEMA offered a delivery of blankets, the agency didn’t know where to send them; the library stepped in to receive them and then signed up community members to receive intensive training from FEMA for disaster preparedness.
Connery is a fascinating figure in the Texas library landscape, in part because she didn’t set out to be involved with libraries at all, let alone to essentially reinvent the library model for rural Texas. “I came here to do nothing,” she said about retiring to Pottsboro with her husband 10 or so years ago. “I had raised my kids. I didn’t want to meet anybody or get involved with anything.” But the town’s library was in disrepair, with just 14 months of funding left before it closed its doors. There wasn’t much to it beyond some stacks of musty books, most of which hadn’t been checked out in years. Kids weren’t welcome. But there was still enough of a sense of the symbolic importance of a library that some community members were willing to fight to keep it open. Connery volunteered, thinking she’d stay on until either the library closed down or until they found funding to keep it open. “I figured we could just try anything, so we started looking around and applying for grants.” That was 10 years ago. She’s still volunteering. “I like it. It means nobody can tell me what to do.” Over the years, the library has grown to offer all manner of services, from after-school snacks to a Library of Things where you can rent everything from a pressure washer to a knee scooter, to punch bowls and chairs for a wedding.
With companies like Texas Industries setting up manufacturing plants near Pottsboro, there’s more attention given to the role that libraries play in workforce preparation. The $14 million that the United States Department of Agriculture has pledged to Pottsboro for a new library — a hefty chunk of the $100 million designated from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for libraries serving communities of 20,000 and less — acknowledges the importance of libraries like Pottsboro’s not just for local residents, but for the extended community. For instance, something that struck Connery was the lack of technological literacy in local kids. She asks, “How are they going to operate on a level playing field?” Internet access was an issue; the library solved that by installing a tower in the parking lot. Access to devices was another issue; the library now has devices and routers that can be checked out and brought home. From FEMA to AI, the library staff helps locals find their way. “Libraries have always been about information,” says Connery. “And information used to be primarily through books, but now so much information and participating in society is online.” But the real bridge over the digital divide is a human one. Among the many grants the Pottsboro library applied for and received, one was a Google grant for a digital navigator. That navigator, an actual person named Mark, is now on staff (the grant covers his salary for three years). Mark helps library users set up their phones or connect to the internet. He makes house calls. He contacts the person trying to scam a grandfather in a nursing home and tells them never to call again.
This hybrid approach to information sharing — providing both technological and just-plain-human resources to the community — is what makes libraries such a critical aspect of community resilience. Without a community hub, resources go undelivered or untapped. Without eye contact, people in need of something — a job, a snack, Narcan — go unserved. Arndt is careful with her definition of libraries as resilience hubs. “There is a line as to what a library can justifiably provide,” she says. “We’re not talking about a shelter. You can come to the library and get a case of water and a sandwich, but not a shower and laundry.” Meanwhile, in Pottsboro, Connery and some other locals recently completed a the nine-week FEMA course, and it seems that that line might get crossed. “I can now amputate your limb if you need me to,” says Connery. And check you out a copy of “Charlotte’s Web.”
Jessie Temple is an architect and writer in Austin.