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New Library Flourished Where Old Walmart Failed

July 9, 2012

McAllen, Texas is a moderately sized city of about 130,000 people, near the Texas-Mexico border. It used to have a Walmart where its public library located, and the conversion from a big-box store to a library has a lot of people excited. When the old Walmart moved out, the city was left with an empty big-box store about the size of two and a half football fields.

The city took advantage of the empty big-box and relocated its cramped library there. The new McAllen Library won the  2012 Library Interior Design Competition, sponsored by the International Interior Design Association. It features meeting space, a computer area, and color-coded sections for children, teens, and adults. Its design is open and features a decent amount of ambient light.

The change seems to be working. Since the library opened last December, usage is up–23% in the first month alone. In a time when library budgets and staffs are shrinking, the McAllen Library is a possible model for making a library a more relevant part of  the community.

A few years ago when I was in upstate New York, I had to find a place with wifi to work for the day. Panera limits you at lunchtime, so I went to the library in downtown Saratoga. It’s not nearly as big as the McAllen library, but it features a very nice coffee shop that competes with Starbucks for ambiance and menu–though I don’t remember if the coffee was strong and bitter like Starbucks. If not for its chronic parking problems–the parking lot could be three times bigger and still be filled. Its good coffee shop makes it a place to go, and not just to check out books.

 It’s got plenty of electrical outlets–at Barnes and Noble you have to queue up so when the person currently using the outlet leaves, you’re next. All and all, if I lived near downtown, it would be a great place to go to write.

If libraries are to continue to flourish, they will need to find a solution specific to their locations. The McAllen model wouldn’t work in Hillsborough County (where I live now) because we have a unified library system in an enormously large county. Even the nicest library in Tampa wouldn’t be attractive to someone who lives in the far reaches of the county.

But with e-books on the increase and publishers continually concerned about granting e-books to libraries, evolution is required for them to remain a vital part of their communities.

  1. July 9, 2012 10:40 am

    Thanks for this. I used to teach in Kingsville TX and from time to time we’d drive down to McAllen to eat TX-Mex, shop and pick up a dozen or so RubyRed Grapefruit. That’s the heart of the citrus groves of Texas.

    Ah, nostalgia. And it sounds like someone in McA is thinking ahead!

  2. July 9, 2012 10:50 am

    In 2009, Hopkins county library here in Madisonville, KY, a rural town of twenty-thousand, moved from its original location, downtown, to an out-parcel mall, rent-free. The original building’s foundation started crumbling from water-related issues and needs $2 million for rennovations. It will take several phases to complete this and will not happen anytime soon. (Those damn county budget cuts.) The ultimate goal is to move back downtown.

    A few months ago, it moved to another rent-free, interior space in the same mall. It’s smaller and cleaner, and with a few coats of paint, comfy leather furniture and several terminals for digital exploration and work, it is my new “go-to” place when I need a break from my office.

    Many of the stacks are filled with out-dated information, a new a/c unit is needed, some services had to be eliminated and there is no coffee shop attached to or near the library. But…we have a digital library with free books (yippie).

    I’m thrilled to have this little library and grateful that the mall developers offered this space.
    It’s a sign in the right direction. (Yep, I’m a hopeless romantic.) I have a quiet space to read and perhaps find a few scribblers as well. And who doesn’t love all those books, the smell, the feel, the history, whether they’re outdated or not?

    Here’s a link to more info about the library in my corner of the world.


  3. July 9, 2012 6:41 pm

    Public libraries are great places in small towns. However, in larger cities they become a loitering place for transients pretending to read.

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