Arts & Culture News

Dallas Libraries Strive to Survive in a Digital World

In a bright, open space inside Dallas' downtown library, about 50 women and men stand alert at a table with their hands tied behind their backs. "3-2-1, go!" someone counts down, and they begin to change diapers on children's dolls. Their hands bound, the competitors fumble with the stand-in babies. A few onlookers hover over the cupcake table, sipping coffee. Three women are visibly pregnant, clutching colorful bags filled with small gifts — pacifiers and bath books and other things that could be tucked away into the larger bags holding the rest of their belongings. It was an odd scene for a public library, but there they were, staffers, volunteers and homeless people celebrating the impending arrival of new life.

This was a special edition of Coffee and Conversations, an ongoing event created to foster a relationship between the J. Erik Jonsson Central Library and its most loyal customers, the homeless.

For years, users — those with homes, anyway — complained that the central library was a thorny, unwelcoming place. Just blocks from The Stewpot, where the broke and hungry line up for meals, and in the heart of the mass of homeless who congregate on downtown's south side, the library offered air conditioning in summer, heat in winter and year-round water, toilets and comfortable places to sit or nap. Occasionally, it was also a place for them to have sex among the stacks or do worse, as we reported in a 2003 cover story ("Make Yourself at Home" by Charles Siderius). The story chronicled physical and sexual assaults, thefts and a sort of open-air porn market flashing from public computer screens. Homeless people bathed in the restrooms. The friendly, musty smell of books loved by library fans carried a strong undercurrent of body odor and piss. Not a week went by without a phone call made to the police, and those were just the cases librarians couldn't handle themselves. It took years to figure out what the library might do to fix the problems, and two years ago the Dallas Public Library, itself in dire straits, created the Homeless Engagement Initiative [HEI] and adopted a novel approach for dealing with these customers: Talk to them.

"When the recession hit in 2008, libraries were the first thing cut," says Jasmine Africawala, who has managed HEI from the beginning. "It forced us to rethink what we had to offer and what our true value is. If we're continuing to fight a digital world, it's a fight we're going to lose. We had to think about what we stand for."

“From the jump street, from the start, the intent was to help give the homeless a voice,” says Dickerson about the podcast.

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Africawala is not the stereotypical librarian. Trained in community services from time in AmeriCorps, she holds a degree in public library management from Texas Woman's University and is young enough to be an idealist and old enough to appreciate unyielding honesty. When she sees a problem, she tackles it head first, which has been her approach to issues of homelessness and inequity in the libraries.

She's also representative of the challenge facing Dallas' library system, which was losing on all fronts as the city slashed budgets across the board. The money's drying up couldn't have hit at a worse time. The digital revolution, which helped send the Borders bookstore chain to its grave and has left the sales floors of Barnes & Noble looking like the computer tablet section at Best Buy, didn't spare even the free books at libraries. Smart phones and e-readers ate into their bread and butter: serving as central repositories of information. With a digital library open in your pocket 24-7, who needs the analog version? What happens to libraries when books are no longer enough?

For Africawala, a baby shower is just a small piece of the larger answer: "Adapt or die."

In recent years, Dallas City Hall's relationship with the libraries has been an on-again off-again affair (mostly off). In 2008, the recession sent tax revenues into the tank, and the city hacked 40 percent from the library system's budget, leading to the loss of half its staff. Kate Park, executive director of Friends of the Dallas Public Library, describes the last seven years as a survival period. Branch hours were cut to just 40 hours per week and money for buying new books, investing in new technology and creative programming essentially disappeared. The latter two were particularly hurtful, since new technology and new programs are vital to libraries' survival.

Even today, Dallas' spending on its libraries is an iffy proposition. Until last year, Dallas bore the shame of having the most poorly funded library system in America among similar-sized cities. As the economy improved, so did our investment in libraries — thanks to a $3.8 million budget increase in 2015, Dallas can proudly say it has the second most poorly funded library system. At $20.79 per capita, we've squeaked past Houston and its $18.16 per resident, according to a report issued by the FoDPL in March. Compare this with Tulsa-City County library, a union between the Oklahoma city and the county, which spends $45.92 per resident.

With that increase, Dallas libraries added more than 170 employees and expanded operating hours at many branches to seven days per week.

"Think about it. The library has been neglected all this time," Park says. "We exist in this world now where you need to be plugged in and you need to be connected, and the library just did not exist in that world for a long time."

Even with the increase last year, the roughly $26 million the libraries received from the city's general fund is still well below its $32 million budget in 2007. It was promised an additional $3.8 million in the 2015-16 budget the council is now debating, but whether City Hall will deliver is uncertain. Dallas' streets are awful and getting worse, and when Mayor Mike Rawlings and City Council members asked City Manager A.C. Gonzalez to come up with extra money for street repair, the libraries were quickly back on the block, facing losing $2.4 million from the proposed budget.

But a sizable, vocal chunk of Dallas residents love the libraries, and when they came out to protest at City Council last week, council member Philip Kingston fired up a heated defense, accusing the city manager of using the libraries as a political pawn to protect other parts of the budget.

"There is no majority coalition [on the council] that backs breaking that promise to the library," Kingston said. "So the question remains: Why is that idea out there? It is because of a vile, political and anti-democratic tactic on the part of the manager to scare the crap out of well-meaning volunteer advocates, causing them to come down here on a workday to try to hold political leaders to a promise they made last year, which we have no intention of breaking."

That day, Park was about to hop on a plane to Venice, but she typed up a rallying cry of statistics and city promises and sent it to advocates on her way to the airport.

Friends of the Dallas Public Library is a 65-year-old nonprofit that provides volunteers plus financial and political support for the system. When Park joined the group in 2011, she knew the libraries needed something to brag about, something relevant that fit nicely on a spreadsheet to speak the language of city budgeters. Around that time, the Dallas Independent School District removed funding for the English as a Second Language and GED classes it was hosting at several libraries throughout Dallas. But people kept showing up, so the library shouldered the responsibility.

"The library went from being the classroom to the teacher," says Park, who led the Friends through the fundraising efforts for these programs, securing corporate donations from Atmos Energy and Moneygram. "It just makes sense when you look at how very little money it actually takes to run these programs because they are so volunteer driven."

Now, the library hosts ESL, early childhood literacy classes and GED classes at no cost, taught by volunteers or university students paid nominal fees by the Friends. In 2014, the central library became a certified GED testing center and the library offers scholarships for the $120 test to everyone who completes the prep class, either at the library or elsewhere in the community. There is even an online program through the library that allows students to prep for the test 24 hours per day. Last year, the library had its first graduating class of 42 students.

"The city of Dallas budget has always paid for what we call the three B's: books, buildings and bodies. The materials, the electricity and the staff," Park says. "But the things that make libraries so unique are the programming and that outreach."

What you see when you walk into a library varies at each of the system's 29 branches. Each location reflects its neighborhood or the interests of whoever runs the branch's Friends chapter. At the Lakewood Branch Library, a knitting group meets at 2 p.m. Tuesdays, and the library hosts an annual neighborhood art show. At Hampton-Illinois, you'll find kids gathered around the storytelling tree, or families tinkering with plastic blocks during Lego Club. But what you'll see at all of the branches any hour of the day is that nearly every computer is in use, and only the occasional book is being thumbed through. The role of the library is evolving, or at least it should be.

"Of course books are still playing a role, but it's really important that libraries provide access to a variety of information," says Courtney Young, the American Library Association's outgoing president. "As one of the few truly democratic components, there is tremendous opportunity to become the community destination where everyone can see themselves in the library."

This is the founding principle of the public library system, an institution that can be traced in most major American cities to Andrew Carnegie. At the turn of the 20th century, the robber baron donated a great deal of his steel fortune to create public libraries in emerging cities, including Dallas, where the first public library was erected in 1901 at the corner of Commerce and Harwood streets; the central library, which stands at Wood and Ervay streets today, was built in 1982. Before Carnegie put his fortune into building libraries, the wealthy families in Dallas opened up their massive private libraries to a small number of patrons for a fee.

In Dallas, this private book museum system worked just fine for many city leaders, until news hit in 1899 that Carnegie was gifting Fort Worth a library with a build date of 1901. The idea that Dallas might fall behind its neighbor stirred civic pride. A woman named May Dickson Exall and her Dallas Federation of Women's Clubs were already interested in raising funds for a public library, and with the rivalry giving her momentum, she pushed to open in the same year as Fort Worth. In her remarks at the opening on October 30, 1901, just 13 days after Fort Worth, she said something still relevant: "In past centuries, a library was a storehouse for the conservation of books, rather than for the diffusion of knowledge."

Before Google, librarians were flesh-and-blood search engines navigating the Dewey Decimal System to answer questions about anything from the end date of the Civil War (1865) to how to get rid of flies (apple cider vinegar trap). For people who don't have access to computers or Wi-Fi, the 29 brick buildings spread throughout Dallas still serve as an entry point into the world of information. The intention of the library has always been to remove barriers to knowledge, particularly socioeconomic ones, whether that means providing access to the Internet, periodicals and books, or boosting the arts.

Of course, removal of barriers is the sort of thing that leads to the homeless and the homed rubbing shoulders, and dealing with the friction is another challenge for libraries, certainly for Dallas' central library.

On the third floor of the downtown library, four serigraphs by Robert Rauschenberg wrap a corner directly across from a colorful mural created by the children of the North Oak Cliff library branch. A number of other artistic treasures are tucked throughout the eight-story building, which is also home to a theater, several performance and rehearsal spaces, practice rooms and a gallery. For years, all of them have been underused.

The spurt of recent hires includes a manager of fine arts, Heather Lowe, who works with a gallery assistant to book exhibitions and events in the space. She says the library hasn't even begun to tap into the resources and possibilities available to guarantee its relevance. In her first few months at the library, she's begun to map out plans to turn a room currently used for vinyl record storage into a makerspace, offering tools and studio space to artists.

"There's so much potential for what a library can be," says Lowe. "I'd love to see the arts community find a place to work — a home here."

Town hall meetings or free midday summer movie screenings make use of open spaces at the city's branches, along with the occasional theater troupe, but more often than not it's a company aimed at a demographic already using the library. You'll see the Latino-focused Cara Mia Theatre perform at libraries in Oak Cliff, for example. But Lowe wants to see the central library become an arts hub, a place useful to the local painters and dancers, and where they want to spend time.

This idea of community pervades conversations with library staffers, which might seem odd to the average visitor who can find a trip to the central library isolating or even off-putting. Those who visit by car aren't encouraged to linger; only the first 15 minutes of parking in the garage are free. After that, it's 75 cents an hour. On a hot summer day, the shady north entrance can feel like an obstacle course of harassment. Any urban streetsman unwilling to store his belongings somewhere before entering the library will be outside, perched on one of the planters.

Whether or not this is a problem depends on whom you ask and their role in the library. When quizzed on a warm July day, most visitors describe it as "gross," "annoying," or the more gracious answer, "frustrating." One recalled a panhandler going from begging to unleashing a derisive rant about privilege. The anger might be off-putting, but in a way the encounter is part of the library's mission. Like it or not, the haves and have-nots gain a little information about each other. That point isn't as flip as it sounds. Since their beginnings, public libraries have been a shelter and point of service for the poor. Carnegie's entire philanthropic model, which he laid out in his manifesto, Wealth, was to "give those who desire to rise the aids by which they may rise; to assist, but rarely or never to do all." Perhaps the supportive gesture of a baby shower with small, educational gifts isn't as far removed from the original library after all.

One of the American Library Association's fundamental principles is "Library Services to the Poor," which mandates that libraries remain a bastion of democratic society. In Park's eyes, this is a crucial defense of the library.

"The library is within two blocks of The Stewpot, and a mile and some change from The Bridge [homeless center], and the Dallas Life Ministries is across the highway," Park says. "The central library is also home to the largest genealogical collection in the South. You have a genealogical researcher carrying decades of research and a homeless man carrying his belongings; they'll be in the same elevator together. This is the 180 degrees of society right here."

Researchers aside, the library still faces an uphill climb when it comes to demonstrating its value to future generations, especially those who will be in the position to fund the library. An entire generation of American middle-class kids, loaded up with smartphones and tablet computers, no longer plop in front of the Nancy Drew novels, debating which mystery to take home (or more likely, which Katniss Everdeen book comes next). They'll never stick their noses into a book for a whiff of that sweet, musty smell of ink and paper and wonder why page 21 is so sticky. They'll never know what it feels like to be hushed by a librarian for giggling too loud with a classmate when they find the adult romance novels for the first time. And they won't have memories of long afternoons slipping into evenings lost in their first Jane Austen novel, or reading Hatchet for the first time.

That they won't have these memories is key to Park, who says she worries that future generations won't, in turn, understand the value of the library. Interest in the library is becoming stratified. On one end of the spectrum are well-heeled donors interested in the do-good potential of the library. On the other are the people who actually use and need it. It's the middle ground, the potential volunteers, the mid-level donors, whose connection to the library is getting thinner.

To make up for lost time, the library has joined the herd of cultural institutions that have taken to social media to "capture" public interest. Now, Facebook posts and Instagram photos remind followers of the library's vital role in the city. You'll see posts of pictures from the archives, which are one of the few historical records of Dallas. There, you'll find everything from decades of costume design at The Dallas Opera to photographs of Elm Street when downtown had "Film Row." In the last few years, the library also started a podcast, part of the Homeless Engagement Initiative, hosted by Rashad Dickerson, a homeless library customer who showed up at one of the first Coffee and Conversations interested in learning more about the place he spent most afternoons.

The first thing you notice about Dickerson is his toothy smile. A 28-year-old, willowy black man who arrived in Dallas by way of New Orleans, he's got a grin that takes up most of his face. The next thing you'll notice is that Dickerson is a sweet-talker — he adopts pet names for people right away. Within minutes of meeting him, you're his "buddy" or his "sweetie." He's also incredibly self-aware, making him the perfect host for a podcast. Before the audio engineer hits record in the basement conference room where they work, Dickerson reminisces about previous guests on the show, many of whom are social services providers for the homeless. Although Dickerson serves as the leader of the podcast, alongside Africawala and another HEI employee, Antoinette Carey-Spriggs, he's the first to acknowledge its effect on his own life.

"From the jump street, from the start, the intent was to help give the homeless a voice," says Dickerson about the podcast. "[The library has] side-by-side walked with me ... We've kept a relationship that's been very beautiful."

For Dickerson that relationship provided stability that he says helped him on his journey to being housed, and he wants to use the podcast as an outlet to help others in his situation, and to tell their stories. In its first year, the podcast aimed at educating the library's homeless customers on available services in the neighborhood. These homeless listeners, of whom Africawala says there are far too few, access it through a blog site connected to, but separate from, the library's home page. Next season, Dickerson hopes to bring some of the homeless library customers on the airwaves to tell their stories.

"I think I'm a great advocate for those guys ... I want ultimate perspectives, I want others impacted by what's going on," says Dickerson. "I've seen the library open up, I've seen all the beautiful art around the library."

The library now gets phone calls from libraries across the country interested in the podcast and replicating Coffee and Conversations, the monthly event that encourages homeless customers to sit down with library staff and express their concerns and needs. Some of the interested cities include New York, Boston and New Orleans, places with libraries that are landmarks and tourist attractions, yet when it comes to engaging their most active community, the homeless, they look to Dallas.

"We get phone calls on a regular basis from other libraries interested in what we're doing for the homeless in Dallas," says Africawala. "We've done webinars with librarians in a whole list of cities from New York to New Orleans."

Dallas, a city with an implacable aspiration to resemble other cities, consistently fails its cultural institutions. For more than a century, the library has been the most beloved civic institution in most major American cities, but in Dallas our city officials are constantly abusing it.

Perhaps city leaders need to be reminded of the words in a Dallas Morning News editorial written in 1899: "The public institutions of a city are an index to the character of its citizenship, and a thoroughly appointed and well patronized public library is considered significant to the culture and intellectual standing of the people." As the library evolves into a building that's equal parts book museum and social services provider, it remains the physical manifestation of how the city treats information and knowledge. In Dallas, sometimes we seem not to care much about either one.

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Lauren Smart
Contact: Lauren Smart