Dallas library palaceStinky homeless men staring at porn on library computers. Unzipped flies. Threats against female patrons. A slew of thefts. 117 police calls in 12 months. That’s life at Dallas’s downtown library palace, if you go by an article in the Dallas Observer. If the story is accurate, library bureaucrats have tolerated this mess far more than they should. At the same time the ‘crats have tried to impress the library world with a Declaration of Independence exhibit, a Shakespearean one and ambitions to create “a highly respected research library” amid the chaos.

Don’t children and the public at large suffer, though, when bureaucrats and politicians fixate on downtown library palaces at the expense of neighborhood branches within walking distance of many students? And might an additional emphasis on e-books and other electronic items be part of the solution, especially for the homeless? Before making up your mind, read Billy Barron’s observations below from the Dallas area. Most are not about electronic libraries directly. But they are rather relevant since e-books must be considered in the context of the here and now, the paper world. Billy compares several Texas library systems and essentially concludes that except in small towns, libraries are most effective with a strong emphasis on the branch approach. I’ll have more to say at the end of this TeleBlog item. But first, abridged, here are Billy’s thoughts on library systems in Dallas, Garland, Richardson and Plano.

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DALLAS: Population 1.2M, spread out, centralized palace library with neighborhood branches

Dallas built its library palace in the downtown area. Downtown Dallas is a dirty place where nobody feels safe at night. Parking is terrible during the day. On top of that, homeless people from what I have read invade the library during the day because they have nowhere else to go to get out of the heat. Martha Brown, a principal of a charter school in Dallas, is scared of going alone to the central library to check out the materials there. According to the Dallas Observer:

Brown says she is familiar with the homeless at the library from many years of working downtown and is wary of the building because of them. She says she will not go to the downtown library alone and wouldn’t bring children there either. She’d take children to a neighborhood library instead, she says.

“That was one of the things that steered me away,” Brown says. “I didn’t feel like dealing with that.”

People in Dallas hope that better facilities for the homeless will help. But the homeless are not the only problem. The central library has drained away resources that could go to neighborhood branches that families could visit without all the fuss of going downtown. In Dallas the branch libraries are small, poorly stocked, and mostly useless. You’re much better off going to Barnes and Noble if you are trying to research a paper for school. Do I expect this to change? No, the powers that be want to revitalize downtown Dallas, whereas everybody else just never wants to go there.

Very, very interesting food for though especially with regard to TeleRead. A good online library system would enable even little neighborhood branches to offer a wide variety of books, which could be read either there or at home.

GARLAND: Population 200,000, spread out, centralized non-palace library with neighborhood branches

Garland is smaller than Dallas, the downtown is relatively safe, parking is easy and there are no homeless in the centralized library. The Garland branches, to one of which I used to bike as a teenaged resident, are even smaller than the ones in Dallas. Still, this system is a step up from Dallas’s.

RICHARDSON: Population less than 100,000, relatively compact, centralized library at the geographic center of town with no branches

Richardson, whose school district I was in, has a single semi-nice library–not a palace. Probably a wise choice since anyone in town can get to it within 10-15 minutes.

PLANO: Population 250,000, spread out, peer library system

I like Plano’s approach. There are five branches, and no main branch, and each one has around the same number of books as the other, and, I think, has the same hours. Each branch does usually has a special area of strength such as business research, but that is a reasonable thing. The Plano system has also done an excellent job of making it easy online to get a book transferred from one branch to another–the next day if an item is in stock.

“On top of this, Plano’s system is completely integrated with that of Allen, the small town next door, so patrons from both cities can use both library systems. They share the computer system with the community college district so you can see the catalog over there as well. You need a different library card to use it, but any citizen of the county can get one.

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That’s the end of Billy’s informal note to me. So what are the lessons here?

1. No, we shouldn’t immediately sell off large central libraries. I can see their usefulness for museum-style displays, for example, and for collections of city history. Too, central libraries could be good for meetings of large civic groups.

What’s more, e-books aren’t going to replace p-books overnight. But in planning for buildings that will be in use for decades, it’s sheer folly for library administrators to act as if the status quo will last forever–not when e-book technology keeps improving. Libraries should embrace it, not fear it, and think less about palaces and more about neighborhood branches, which, through the new technology, could offer a wider selection the palaces do.

2. Behavior rules–whether affecting the homeless or anyone else–should be helpful and well enforced. Needless to say, this is much harder to do in a library palace than in a branch library. In Dallas, at least, the library palace apparently has become the equivalent of a large urban high school, a library version of the Blackboard Jungle.

3. E-books and other electronic holdings could be especially valuable to the homeless, since these items could be offered at homeless shelters for 24/7 access. That would be better for both the homeless and library users as a whole. Why mix children and the most menacing of the homeless? Just what kind of political correctness has allowed library administrators to allow for this outrageous situation? I’m against library filtering and the stupid laws that Washington has inflicted on local libraries. But is it really the constitutional right of the homeless to plop down next to a child and gawk at explicit porn? Let them do so in the homeless shelter. And guess who at times should be on the scene at the shelters to offer help in person to augment the electronic variety? Librarians! Meanwhile, yes, I realize that the problems at Dallas are not the librarians’ entire doing. But they should be more aggressive in resisting the urge of some to let libraries serve as homeless shelters. More money for the real McCoy, please. And make certain, too, that the shelters are located where they will do some good. That might be problematic in Dallas.

4. Even with the advent of e-books and a well-stocked national digital library system, appropriate allocation of local resources among branches would go a long way. A branch in a low-income neighborhood deserves reference librarians familiar with the needs of the local jobless. Similarly a reference librarian in a neighborhood full of retired people should be familiar with such issues as financial planning. Libraries could help adapt electronic resources to serve the needs of neighborhood users. Can’t libraries learn from the chaos of centralized urban school systems? The neighborhood-oriented approach is best–for children and the rest of us. Don’t abolish headquarters libraries, even in the future; but, as the Dallas experience shows, there is need for more balance.

5. Library palaces should not be built with general downtown economic needs prevailing over library and educational needs. Might localities be better off selling or renting some downtown library assets and turning the revenue over to the branches? And what happens when e-books finally do displace the p-variety? Here’s one idea that could benefit both down libraries and branches. Why not grant free workspace and even residential space in the oversized buildings to gifted young writers, artists and musicians–and older ones, too–who would serve as human magnets to help draw people to central libraries. At the same time, as part of the deal, they would be required to visit the neighborhood branches and help mentor the kids there. Perhaps the best candidates could be screened through volunteer work to see if they were suitable. Such programs could start small and maybe even stay that way to avoid boondoogles.

Details: The Dallas library’s budget page shows no fiscal year later than 1999-2000. What’s going on? What’s more, the branch hours could be better. If I ran the Dallas Public Library, I’d worry less about fancy exhibits and more about keeping the neighborhood branches open for kids to do their homework. Needless to say, electronic libraries can be always open–a boon to children in an Internet era when even some schools are beginning to understand the need for e-books.

Update, 10:55 a.m., April 29: Billy has pointed me to the missing library budget info within the overall Dallas city budgets for FY03 and FY04.

“From looking at these,” Billy comments, “you will notice budget and head-count cuts. At one level, the city slashed budgets across the board so this is probably typically for a city department. The city budget is a big mess due to bad political decisions, but you’d have to read the past 10 years of the Dallas Observer to begin to understand that.

“This line is interesting, though: ‘241,952 citizens will benefit from library programs.’ Only about 1 in 5 or 6 citizens? I don’t know if that says something about the library system or the citizens themselves–probably both.

“‘Meanwhile, yes, I realize that the problems at Dallas are not the librarians’ entire doing.’ Absolutely, they are mostly City Hall’s fault. That’s a long, long, long discussion that is a tangent that I won’t go into.”

Significantly, of Dallas’s 1.2 million population, just 241,952 use the library. Plano, as Billy notes, “has about 170,000 patrons out of a population of 240,144. Part of this is that Plano’s population is mostly upper middle class with a Top 10 school district whereas Dallas is demographically diverse.

“Also, it is interesting that Dallas’ goal is to maintain turnover of 2.0 per item. Plano is sitting up in the 3.7 range.

“Each branch in Plano has a budget from $1.1 to $1.5 million so it is even distributed. Note: I didn’t include that Muncipal Reference Library–it is more of an internal reference library for city staff which though available to citizens is rarely used as such.”

Now–to return to the big picture. Isn’t it possible that stronger branch libraries and eventually e-books could help Dallas’s library usage rate be at least somewhat closer to Plano’s? No miracles promised. But if you force the poor to make the trek to the central library after a hard day as a cook or janitor, usage obviously will be lower than if generous supplies of books matching their interests were closer to them–ideally within their own homes. That’s what TeleRead is all about! What’s more, far from replacing neighborhood libraries, TeleRead would make use of them as support centers–in both the tech and library senses. Branches help hold neighborhoods together. How sad that Dallas is so oblivious to the need to support them fully and would rather go the edifice complex route.


  1. Interesting points. Seattle built itself a similar ‘library palace’ at enormous expense. It’s now on the ‘must see’ list for tourists, but it’s easy to suspect that the money might have been better spent elsewhere. For most Seattle residents, the trip downtown and the parking is too much hassle. And interestingly, I asked one of the librarians there why the rest rooms there were painted such a horrid green that they left me feeling like I was in a bottle of mint mouthwash. She said that was deliberate as a way to keep people from loitering in them.

    There’s another point that needs consideration. In Seattle libraries, the hold section for books and DVDs brought in from other branches keeps growing as people discover how easy it is to go online and request precisely the book they want rather than look for something at random on the shelves. Large cities might be better served by warehousing much of their collection somewhere the cost is cheap and distributing most books from there. Neighborhood libraries seem to be becoming places to read or pick up books, not places to find them. They could hire high school and college students (perhaps on skates) to pull and replace the books. Then most books would go from one location to many rather than the current and inefficient many to many.

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