Founded by a group of local women in 1914, the public library in Mission, Texas, is one of the oldest in the Rio Grande Valley. The library was a modest institution in its early years. Its collection was small, and its location moved from place to place, going wherever there was a room available free of charge. Its principal function was making books available to the community.

The library has dramatically expanded its mission and services in the time since. Today, Mission's Speer Memorial Library does far more than circulate books. It has over one hundred computers for public use, offers free WiFi, and through its website, provides a vast number of online informational resources for public use. The library holds special programs for children and teens and hosts ESL classes in partnership with Education Service Center One. It even has a "Library of Things," where patrons can check out umbrellas, baking kits, and tools such as hedge shears, shovels, and lawn mowers. In 2023, the library received the Achievement of Library Excellence Award from the Texas Municipal Library Directors Association (TMLDA,) for its outstanding service to the Mission community.

Nearly all Texas libraries can tell a similar story. As Tracie D. Hall, former director of the American Library Association, writes, "Libraries have proven themselves to be among the most adaptable of public and community-serving institutions," especially in the wake of the pandemic. Certainly Humanities Texas could not fulfill our organizational mission without supporting and partnering with libraries across the state. We recently announced a renewed partnership with Uvalde's El Progreso Memorial Library, as well as our annual donation to several small community libraries that received the proceeds of our annual Holiday Book Fair. Libraries are some of the biggest supporters of our traveling exhibitions program, with library rentals accounting for almost 20 percent of all rentals, and in the last five years, eighty-seven Humanities Texas grants totaling $500,000 went to projects held and run by public libraries. Texas Storytime, our bilingual family reading and engagement program, regularly takes place in public libraries, with past sites including branches in Austin, Lufkin, Midland, and San Antonio.

In honor of National Library Week, which runs from April 7–13, we spoke with four Texas libraries—Alpine Public Library, Denton Public Library, Southlake Public Library, and Victoria Public Library—about the diverse array of programs and services they provide to their respective communities.

Alpine Public Library

Recipient of four Humanities Texas grants between 2005 and 2015

Alpine Public Library (APL), the first in the Big Bend area, opened in 1947 as part of an initiative by the local El Progresso Club with just three hundred books. Since then, part of the library's mission has been not only to expand its collection but also to connect geographically remote communities to resources and information. In 2013, APL was named one of the top three small libraries in America.

As a member of the Far West Adult Education Consortium, Alpine Public Library offers programs like ESL classes, citizenship services, and high school equivalency courses. Recently, the library also became a certified testing center for Pearson VUE, which offers certification exams for certain professions as well as the GED (General Educational Development) test. "People can come here and get their GED," said Alpine Public Library Director Don Wetterauer. "They can come and take the test right here without having to drive to El Paso or Midland."

APL is working with the libraries in Jeff Davis County and Presidio County to support students across the region through this adult education program.

In addition to collaborating with the Jeff Davis County Library on adult education services, the two libraries, in coordination with the local radio station, are working on student-led STEM podcasts to play locally on the radio.

Other local Alpine Public Library partners include the Family Crisis Center of the Big Bend and the Sunshine House, a local senior citizen center and Meals on Wheels provider.

"We're a nonprofit organization, so we like to collaborate with the other nonprofits in the area and help each other out how we can," Wetterauer said.

Denton Public Library

Recipient of nine Humanities Texas grants between 2006 and 2020; twenty exhibition rentals between 2004 and 2023

Denton Public Library (DPL) serves a population of just over 141,000. With three different library locations, DPL accommodates a growing population through services that include a makerspace and digital preservation lab.

The library began offering their most popular loan item—mobile hotspots—during COVID. DPL received a grant to expand their WiFi into the parking lot, and shortly thereafter, rolled out the mobile hotspots. These devices allow people without reliable internet access to the web—which is, of course, increasingly necessary as so many basic services transition online.

"We're now up to forty-five hotspots," said Jennifer Bekker, DPL director of libraries. "Those were our number one circulating item in 2023."

Another popular loan item DPL offers are Tonies, screen-free listening devices for children. Using characters from popular children's media, Tonies entertain children with audio-only content, stories, and songs.

"It's a way to get children to engage with stories and listening to stories without screen-time," Bekker said. "We've got a few as a pilot program, and they all have hold lists so long, so we've been adding to those."

"They are not cheap," Bekker continued, "and that is a barrier. So it's nice to offer something that all kids can access, no matter what their situation is."

The library's digital preservation lab offers services very similar to Humanities Texas's own History Harvest program. There, library patrons can digitize personal materials, such as cassette tapes, eight-millimeter film video, VHS tapes, slides, negatives, and more.

"It started with our Special Collections department," said Bekker. "They were getting a lot of requests for referrals for how they could find someone to digitize their materials. We realized that we can provide that equipment. We provide all sorts of equipment."

Southlake Public Library

Recipient of one Humanities Texas grant in 2021; five exhibition rentals between 2015 and 2022

With over 40,000 physical items, around 450 programs annually, and access to over 250,000 digital items, Southlake Public Library (SPL) has much to offer its 31,000 residents.

Like the other libraries mentioned in this article, SPL collaborates with other local organizations to coordinate programming and services. They present film nights in partnership with the local Arts League, offer programs tailored specifically to seniors in conjunction with the Southlake Senior Activity Center, and work with the school district to curate an annual student art exhibition. Other frequent partners include the Southlake Historical Society, Southlake Sister Cities, and other city government departments like Public Works and the Fire Department.

When planning their programs, SPL focuses on data-driven decisions.

"We look at what the interests of our community are based on what they're interested in in their reading," said Cynthia Pfledderer, SPL deputy director of library services. "We don't look at what any individual is reading, but we do look at the trends of which books are most popular, which topics are most popular."

SPL regularly offers cooking classes with a local chef, and a few times a year they invite a nutritionist to teach a health-based cooking class.

"These classes specifically came out of the fact that cookbooks were our number one nonfiction area for adults in this community," Pfledderer said. "We have more children per household than the norm for the average in Texas. This is a popular school district community with a lot of children looking at parents saying what's for dinner tonight, and then we have a lot of interest in understanding how food affects health."

With over 250,000 digital items, SPL serves many patrons who might never even enter the building. In 2024, Southlake Public Library is looking forward to expanding that capacity by enhancing their digital presence. Staff seek to make it easier to access everything SPL offers, without, for instance, requiring multiple logins for different resources.

"Our focus is on making sure that we're delivering the best that we can," Pfledderer said, "and we're creating an environment where everyone feels not just welcomed but wanted."

Victoria Public Library

Recipient of five Humanities Texas grants between 2003 and 2021; eight exhibition rentals between 2003 and 2007

Though the Victoria Public Library traces its roots back to the Victoria Literary Society established circa 1855, the official public library started in 1899 with 515 volumes and a printed catalog. The library's current building opened to the public in October 1975. VPL holds around 350 programs a year for the Victoria community, which totals around 65,000 people.

While libraries such as VPL are working to expand their services to remote audiences, they continue to provide public spaces for people to work and come together. In 2021, for example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, VPL noted a need for more meeting space, both indoor and outdoor.

"We needed a space where people could do classes and Zoom meetings—remote work," said VPL Director Jessica Berger. "A lot of kids didn't have a place to go to school. They needed a quiet space to maybe meet with their teacher," Berger added.

VPL received a Humanities Texas Relief Grant to create additional meeting space. With the funds, they were able to create a new indoor meeting room available for reservation.

"It is one of our highest-used rooms. I think last year it was reserved 210 times," Berger said.

VPL also rendered designs for an outdoor meeting space and presented the plans to the city as a capital improvement project.

"[This project] will increase space options for a wider variety of programs by allowing for noisier activities, along with options for use of the space even when the library is closed," Katy Connally, grants administrator, wrote in the original Humanities Texas Relief Grant application.

As of now, VPL hopes to continue working with the city to update outdoor spaces within the next five to ten years.

In 2024, the city of Victoria is turning two hundred, so Berger says part of the library's focus will be on planning programs and events around that milestone anniversary. "We want to be part of the celebration too, so there's going to be some new, different things added that we haven't done before."

Humanities Texas traveling exhibitions and grants are available to libraries and organizations across Texas. Please reach out to either our grants or exhibitions teams for more information.

Speer Memorial Library in Mission.
El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde. Photo by Mario M. Rodriguez Jr.
Author Xelena González and illustrator Adriana Garcia show Garcia’s large-scale illustrations during a storytime featuring their book All Around Us at San Antonio’s Las Palmas Branch Library.
Alpine Public Library.
A child interacts with a pony at Alpine Public Library.
Emily Fowler Library in Denton.
Tonies, which are available for loan at the Denton Public Library.
Denton Public Library Legacy Lab.
Patrons participate in a film screening at Southlake Public Library.
Patrons participate in a cooking class at Southlake Public Library.
Patrons participate in a cooking class at Southlake Public Library.
Victoria Public Library.
Meeting Room A at Victoria Public Library.