On May 9, 2023, Humanities Texas celebrated our fiftieth anniversary with a reception at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth. Last month, our newsletter featured the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society and the North Fort Worth Historical Society, two of the three organizations we spoke with while there. This month, we're highlighting Benbrook Public Library to share stories of their work in the community.
Benbrook Public Library, located just outside of Fort Worth in the city of Benbrook, began renting and displaying Humanities Texas traveling exhibitions in 2008. Since then, they have hosted fifteen exhibitions over ten years and received one mini-grant to support costs associated with the display of A President's Vision.
The library was founded in the late 1980s when Benbrook community members held a petition drive to create a special purpose library district. At the time, the local government wanted Benbrook residents to use the Fort Worth Public Library, but residents insisted on establishing a library in their own community. The residents ultimately succeeded in their petition, and Benbrook Public Library opened its doors in 1988 in a building purchased from the City of Benbrook. In 2022, Benbrook Public Library was one of seventy-three Texas public libraries to win the Achievement of Excellence in Libraries Award from the Texas Municipal Library Directors Association.
As a special purpose library district, Benbrook operates differently—often with more flexibility—than other public libraries. They're able to assist the community more directly, from buying a van and hiring a driver for a courier service to lending material to residents outside of Benbrook's city limits. Today, there are only fifteen of these special purpose district libraries, which operate independent of the city, in the state of Texas.
Stacy Fuller, a volunteer and patron of the library who has also served as a faculty member at several Humanities Texas teacher workshops, commends the organization's service to its community. "It's a really good example of a place that doesn't generate programs and then put them out to the community and hope the community likes it. They actually get to know the people in their community, and then they develop programs around the needs of the people."
"They are very small in physical size, but their staff—they do programs for infants, all the way to seniors—have a huge impact and they are so personable and friendly," Fuller added.
Humanities Texas exhibitions, for instance, are one such example. Rented exhibitions are placed in the middle of the main area of the library building—a position of prominence. "We often time their display to spread awareness of and stimulate interest in specific events and observances," said Cullen Dansby, Adult Services Manager at Benbrook. "For example, we have displayed Shakespeare during Poetry Month, Bonfire of Liberties during Banned Book Week, Vaquero: Genesis of the Texas Cowboy during the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo,
A President’s Vision during a presidential election, and Signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence during the month of Texas Independence Day. Library patrons of all ages have taken interest in the exhibitions and enjoyed learning from them."
When COVID hit, Benbrook Public Library was closed for only six weeks before they began opening in different capacities. "During that first week, we were able to set up [a system] where patrons can email us their address and then we give them library cards for all our digital resources," Richardson said. "I think we gave out two hundred cards during that [time]."
The library's eBook downloads doubled during the pandemic, and they've since sustained those numbers. "I'd rather put more money towards [resources] people are using versus having this database that nobody's going to touch," Richardson continued. "And so that's been my mentality—whatever is being used, let's put money towards that, whether it's traditionally acceptable or not."
Funding for the library is dependent on half a percent of sales tax in Benbrook, and although being a special purpose district library offers unique flexibility, there's no infrastructure for large projects, such as a new library building. To construct a new building, which Benbrook Library Director Erica Richardson aims to do, the library must fundraise independently. Just as the initial founding of Benbrook Public Library was community-driven, so must their new building project be.
"That core foundation, that's what I want to help build the new library," Richardson said. "That's why it's vital for me to be in the community, creating that network and those relationships to help serve how we can so that, in the end game, we can do more than what we already do."
Stacy Fuller agrees that the library already does so much for their community, which is exactly why they need a new building. "They are tapped out in terms of [space]. They sometimes have to turn people away for popular programs simply because of lack of space," Fuller said. "They maxed their capacity probably over two years ago, but they've made it work by adding additional times for children’s programs and developing a reservation system for adult programs. "
Richardson wants to think about traditional library spaces for the new building as well as non-traditional options. "Is there a nonprofit in the area that needs some space that might be willing to partner with us? And work with us [in] exchange for space? Those kinds of things."
In February 2023 alone, Benbrook held sixty programs with an attendance of more than 1,500. For reference, Benbrook's population is just over 24,600. The library hosts a wide array of events, including trivia nights, crafting workshops, a mindfulness series, and adult 101 classes. They also have a Library of Things where patrons can check out crochet kits, Dungeons and Dragons kits, gardening kits, telescope kits, a PlayStation console, and more. Additionally, the library boasts an outdoor pantry, as well as a seed library. "That's one of the things I learned from Steve Clegg, my predecessor," Richardson said. "We have a poster printer for work. But he was like, 'Why is it [back] here? Why can't we put it in the public? If we need it, that means the public needs it too.' It's the mentality—if the staff needs it, somebody else in our community needs it as well, and so we're going to make that available."
To learn more about Benbrook Public Library and their current programs and projects, visit www.benbrooklibrary.org.