Children play on the central library’s “front porch” during LibroFEST / Photo: Houston Public Library

Library culture in the city of Houston is undergoing an exciting shift as the Houston Public Library reconsiders its public role. Instead of thinking of its programming as needing to remain within the building’s four walls, recent efforts are pulling the activity into outdoor spaces. Building upon the momentum of other successful downtown projects, Director of Libraries, Dr. Rhea Brown Lawson, reached out to PPS to help them realize their new vision.

Earlier this year, PPS’s Cynthia Nikitin and Elena Madison traveled to Houston to train more than 150 people—library staff as well as community partners and stakeholders—on how libraries can maximize the role they are inherently equipped to fill. Libraries are natural hosts of community life. They are recognized as broadly accessible places, intentionally inclusive, and welcoming for everyone seeking knowledge and cultural enrichment. Throughout the workshops, participants explored the potential of libraries to be active centers of public life and creativity, not merely static warehouses for books.

Today, the staff at the Houston Public Library’s central branch is directing their attention toward the plaza out in front of the building. In little time, this space has been transformed from a barren expanse of concrete into a public stage par excellence. Taking the core Placemaking principles to heart, the library has begun implementing a Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper strategy to attract more people to the space through a variety of programming and design improvements. With an eye toward connecting the plaza to what already exists in the surrounding area, particularly the weekly Farmers’ Market that takes place in front of City Hall across the street. The Central Library plaza now provides seating to accommodate spillover from the market, hosts a library card sign-up at the farmers’ market, and organizes book sale events. Lunch-hour readings are also creating an inviting gathering spot for the community of surrounding office and business workers.

It is important to note that much of the new programming is being organized without great additional strain on the library’s resources. For an institution that habitually deals with limited funds and staff capacity, community partnerships have been key in helping to implement the vision for the plaza. The mix of activities that’s taking place in this exciting new downtown destination—from simple events like readings all the way up to major celebrations like the recent LibroFEST, organized with Arte Publico, the Society for the Performing Arts, and Writers in the Schools—directly serves the needs of the business and residential communities that had heretofore stayed off of the streets, preferring to frequent the shops in the climate controlled underground tunnels instead.

Getting ready to perform during LibroFEST / Photo: Houston Public Library

Madison and Nikitin agree that the project has benefited enormously from the fact that Houston has been a forward-thinking city in terms of combining institutions and city services with the aim of creating great places. Strong early partners included the Houston Arts Alliance and Green Houston, and the City of Houston’s sustainability department in charge of the farmers’ market. As the plaza’s transformation has begun, additional partners like the Houston Public Library Foundation, Friends of the Houston Public Library, and a mix of local cultural organizations have helped to generate public and political interest. Collaboration has, from day one, been a critical component of the plaza’s success.

By positioning the plaza as an open and flexible platform, the library is now able to mingle with and integrate itself into the daily rhythm of its corner of downtown. In the long term, this will help to build support for more capital-intensive plans for the plaza, including a resurfacing and the construction of a water wall, an amenity at the top of locals’ list to provide relief from Houston’s hot, muggy summers. And although the new activities taking in plaza have necessarily been focused on the audience of the central branch, the seeds for change have been planted across the city’s network of libraries. It is hoped in the near future that more branches will start building out their own “front porches.”

In the information age, it is important to remember that we gain knowledge not just from the page (digital or print), but also from our interactions with other people. By taking the lead in Houston, the staff of the central library has proven themselves to be indispensable advocates of community life. Their example is one that other libraries would be wise to follow!