Why Does Harris County Have Multiple Library Systems?

Real talk time – Seriously!  As much as it pains me to say this, The Harris County Public Library is not the only game in town.  (Gasp!) Not only are we not the only library system in the county, but we are just one of six public library systems, all located within the boundaries of Harris County.  Of course, after the largest two library systems (of which HCPL is one), there is a substantial drop off in size, but we’ll get to all of that.  I know this can be confusing to library patrons, especially if you are new to Harris County.  So much so, that whenever I help someone get a new library card I give them a little spiel about not to get us confused with other systems.  But knowing that there are multiple library systems is not the same as knowing "why" - so let's get into this!

Which was Harris County's first library system? 

The Houston Public Library traces its roots back to 1854, but it didn't officially become a “Public” library until 1895.  This was great for Houston - the city, but keep in mind that Houston didn’t have the same footprint in Harris County as it does now.  As you can see by the approximated map below, the City of Houston used to fit almost entirely inside what is now the 610 Loop.

This brings us to library system number two, and to explain its origins we’ll need to back up to around the year 1920 when the entire population of Harris County was just over 186,000 (compared to over 4.78 million today).  As you can imagine, life was a lot different then.  Air-conditioned buildings wouldn’t be here for quite a few more years and if you were lucky enough to own a car, you didn't have the extensive and advanced system of roadways we enjoy today. (ahem)  Thus, traveling to your closest neighborhood library might not be that easy depending on where you lived.  

(For some great history on the Houston Public Library, check out  Diana J. Kleiner’s article for the Texas State Historical Association’s website.)

What about the rest of Harris County? 

Keep in mind that our county is a big place, bigger than the entire State of Rhode Island.  In 1920, if you happened to live in Humble or La Porte or anywhere else in Harris County outside of the Houston city limits,  getting books or library services could be very difficult.  This is where the story of the Harris County Public Library begins.  Fortunately for us, the HCPL Digital Archive has lots of primary source information on the history of HCPL.  But to summarize, the City of Houston couldn't afford to finance library services outside of the city limits, and the County couldn't afford to build roads and libraries - that is until a few things happened at the state and federal level.

 As stated in the HCPL Digital Archive - 

"Road improvements and library resources were both beyond the budget of County government. Public resources were focused on the urban areas where most people resided. Assistance from the state would not come until the Texas legislature gained the power to provide public library services for Texas counties in 1919. The success of the Harris County Public Library system in overcoming these obstacles can be traced back to three nationwide social and political movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: The Progressive Movement, the Country Life Movement, and the Good Roads Movement."

And so began The Harris County Public Library System.  There was an initial county investment, roughly equal to $100,000 today and that would double in size the next year.  Lucy Fuller was hired as the first County Librarian and because the need for library services was so great,  twenty-six library stations were opened in the first year. Thus, the second major library system in Harris County was created.

But what about now since the city of Houston is bigger?

The city limits of Houston have indeed ballooned to include almost everything inside of Beltway 8 and the large land swaths of Lake Houston and the George Bush International Airport.  The answer to this may be a little harder to explain as it speaks to the nature of the residents of Harris County and perhaps all Texans.

The people of Harris County love their libraries as much as they love their right to self-govern.  They want their libraries close to where they live and they want them to serve their community's needs.  For the same reasons that there are over twenty different incorporated cities in Harris County, we have multiple library systems.  The autonomy of each system lets them make more focused choices regarding their services.  For example, the needs of Baytown might be quite different than the needs of Bellaire so through their own initiative, they created a unique system that serves their community.    But I don't want to give the impression that any of the libraries in Harris County are lonely, isolated islands.  The volume and scope of partnerships and cooperation between library systems could make your head spin.  The library systems work together when it benefits their patrons - and because of their independence, they have the autonomy to make those decisions about when and how to form a partnership.  Ultimately, the system works.  And it comes with some extra perks as you'll see later.

How many libraries are there in Harris County?

Not counting the dozens of college and university libraries, or the hundreds of public and private (k-12) school libraries, Harris County has six public Library systems, and three of those systems have multiple branches.  Here they are listed in descending order by the number of service locations.  Keep in mind that not all of these facilities are stand-alone libraries, but they are locations where patrons can access services or pick up books.

Houston Public Library - 38 Service Locations

Harris County Public Library - 28 Service Locations

Pasadena Public Library - 2 Service Locations

Deer Park - 1 Service Location

Baytown - 1 Service Location

Bellaire - 1 Service Location

Are there any other differences between the library systems?

While there are similarities in each system, there are differences.  I'm sure they will all have multiple copies of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, but the programs and services available can vary greatly from library to library.   And at a system level, the requirements to get a library card is different.  

The Houston Public Library cards are free for residents of the State of Texas, but there is a $40 charge for out-of-state residents.  You can apply online for immediate access to their digital collection but need to go to a location with a valid photo ID to check out physical items.

Harris County Public Library has several different library cards, but all of them are free of charge. The card you choose depends on your needs.

  • The Knowledge Card - gives you total access to HCPL and also works at some other library systems
  • The Enhanced+ Card - Has the same benefits as the Knowledge card, but is an additional option for library users who might benefit from another photo ID
  • The iKnow Digital Access Card - You can apply for this online and it gives you access to all of our digital services (ebooks, videos, music, etc.)
  • HCPL also has Military, Visitor, and Texshare cards available to serve your needs.

Pasadena, Deer Park, and Bellaire library cards are free to any Texas resident with a photo ID.

And at the Baytown Library, you just need a government-issued picture ID that includes your date of birth to get a card.

And Finally - How does this benefit me?

In a lot of ways actually!  For starters - Location! Location!  Location!  If you are in Harris County, chances are you have a neighborhood library close by, AND that library is doing its best to meet the specific needs of your community.

And since you're probably eligible for multiple library cards depending on where you live in Harris County, you can list all of those cards on your Libby account.  This increases the speed and chances your eBook or eAudiobook will be available.  Librarians aren't usually the competitive type, but I have seen some real jealousy when it comes to who has the most library cards on their Libby account.  (I'm currently at three and I'm still kicking myself for blowing a chance for four!)

So there you have it.  I hope this helped clear up the confusion, but I would like to leave you with this parting thought.   Talking about the importance of libraries, or how much everyone loves libraries will never run out of fashion, but appreciating the institution as a shining example of democracy at its best could stand a little more attention.  It's true that the first recognized library, the Library of Ashurbanipal dating from the 7th century B.C.E. actually predates the birth of democracy by 200 years, but the modern public library embodies democracy's core values of openness and equity. The way Harris County does community-focused libraries is truly democratic.  Perhaps the saying should be, "Don't Mess with Texas - Libraries!"