Dallas City Council Briefed on Library Plans

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Dallas City Hall | Image by travelpixpro/Getty Images

During its regularly scheduled meeting on Wednesday, the Dallas City Council received a briefing on the Dallas Public Library Strategic + Facilities Plan, which was developed by a team of consultants over the past 14 months.

The plan’s design team included San Francisco-based Group 4 Architecture, the project’s lead consultant; buildingcommunityWORKSHOP, a community engagement and architecture collaborator; kent, a library strategy consulting firm; and Carson Block Consulting, Inc., a library technology firm.

“Our approximately year-long process began in early 2023,” Jill Eyres, associate principal at Group 4 Architecture, told council members at the briefing. “We heard loud and clear that there’s a growing need for ‘people’ places that are free and open to everyone.”

The team started the project with community outreach and data collection, using community surveys distributed across Dallas. The team assessed the services, facilities, and opportunities currently available, looking for strategies to upgrade and enhance the Dallas Public Library system. Meetings with stakeholders, community listening sessions, and focus groups were an important part of the collaborative process.

The team’s five-year strategic plan was presented to the Municipal Library Board in December. The board approved the plan and recommended it be forwarded to the city council. Wednesday’s briefing was an overview of the plan, which the city council will consider in more detail in May.

As the name implies, the Library Strategic + Facilities Plan is actually two-pronged, focusing not only on the library buildings and facilities themselves but also on the strategies for engaging the community. The strategic plan is designed to guide Dallas’ library services, operations, technology, and partnerships.

“Libraries are really centers for learning, but specifically, self-directed learning,” said Heather Lowe, one of the library system’s assistant directors. “We want the library to be the place to go when you don’t know where to ask the question. We’ve come up with eight strategic goals … and we did take a hard look at making sure our strategic plan is aligning with city goals.”

The eight strategic goals cited in the plan are:

  • Create opportunities for learning and discovery.
  • Provide customer-responsive technology.
  • Cultivate a vibrant materials collection.
  • Reduce barriers to use.
  • Provide inspiring and welcoming facilities.
  • Make community connections.
  • Communicate the library’s value.
  • Develop future-ready staff.

The 20-year facilities portion of the plan focused on the 30 libraries that make up the Dallas Public Library system and included a list of locations that need renovation, expansion, relocation, or ongoing maintenance. The team found that most library branches in the system are in generally good condition, but they recommended reinvestment in the Central Library to restore and modernize it.

The four goals listed for the library facilities to carry them into the future are:

  • Continue to add branch space.
  • Expand or replace smaller and older branches to extend service.
  • Explore partnerships that improve outcomes.
  • Continue to keep facilities fresh and well-maintained.

During the Q&A session following the briefing, the question of whether Dallas needs more or fewer libraries was raised.

“Do we need as many libraries as we have?” Cara Mendelsohn (District 12) asked. “When you start looking at circulation in the library … as well as participation in a planned event [at the same library] … how do those weigh into [whether we] need this library?”

She noted that as city officials enter a new budget season, some programs or services will have to be cut, suggesting the library system could be included in those cuts.

“We’re way far out in terms of the number of libraries per square mile [compared] to the larger cities in Texas,” Mendelsohn said. “Where’s the limit on how many more libraries there would be?”

Dallas, the third largest city in Texas, covers 384 square miles and operates 30 libraries. Houston, the largest city in Texas, spans 665 square miles and has 32 libraries. Austin, the fourth largest city in Texas, encompasses 319 square miles and operates 21 libraries. Dallas Public Library is No.41 on the list of the 100 largest library systems in the U.S. maintained by the American Library Association.

Mendelsohn and Jesse Moreno (D2) also expressed concerns about homeless people using libraries as shelters before and during operating hours.

“We are definitely a library and not a service provider,” Lowe said. “Again, we are a welcoming environment. We’re going to have unhoused individuals in our building. We do not provide services to any of our unhoused visitors. A library is a place that isn’t stigmatized like some of our service providers.”

Mendelsohn continued to press Lowe about whether the libraries are maximizing their reach so that each is being utilized to capacity. She cited the system’s $38 million budget, again mentioning that it could face a reduction in the coming year.

“We are a very efficient department, and there really is not a place to cut that’s not going to hurt,” Lowe responded.

“I didn’t ask if it would hurt, though. You’re faced with cutting 5-10%,” Mendelsohn said.

Lowe said that a budget cut of that size would force the closure of multiple library branches.

Two council members, Moreno and Adam Bazaldua (D7), illustrated appreciation for the library system’s current performance and its future goals.

“Thank you for what you do every single day,” Moreno said. There’s always something fun and exciting to do. It’s not just about picking up a book. There are arts and crafts. There are themes. The challenge is letting people know all the exciting things happening in our libraries.”

Bazaldua asked Deputy City Manager Kimberly Tolbert to prioritize the library system this budget year.

“I think that these goals are great, and I want to see as much investment and success in our library system.”

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