Harris County Public Library (HCPL), along with libraries across the country, is observing National Library Week by celebrating achievements and renewing its commitment to provide equitable access to information and resources to better the lives of all residents of Harris County. But with Texans’ right to read under attack from small, but well-organized factions, National Library Week 2023 has taken on a different tone from the purely celebratory one of years past.
About National Library Week
National Library Week (April 23 - 29, 2023) is a time to celebrate our nation's libraries, library workers' contributions and promote library use and support. The theme for National Library Week 2023 is "There's More to the Story," illustrating the fact that in addition to the books in library collections, libraries offer so much more. Harris County Public Library, among other innovative programs and initiatives, offers passport services, citizenship and English language classes, seed and gardening tool libraries. Its Growing Readers early literacy project ensures that all children have the skills and tools they need to thrive in school. Its Innovation and Digital Media Labs provide creatives and entrepreneurs free access to state-of-the-art technology like laser cutters, 3D printers, and digital video equipment. On top of all this, HCPL remains a leader in digital collections ranking again in 2022 in the top ten public libraries worldwide in eBook circulation. HCPL patrons checked out over 5.4 million eBooks in 2022 and over 1.5 million in the first three months of 2023.
“Libraries have always been more than just repositories of books and information,” says HCPL Executive Director Edward Melton, “They are pillars of our communities, providing a safe and welcoming space for people of all ages and backgrounds to gather, learn, and connect. The theme of this year's National Library Week is a reminder that there is always more to discover, more to explore, and more to learn.”
National Library Week is comprised of individual celebration days including Right to Read Day, Library Outreach Day, and Library Workers Day. The latter celebrates all those who make libraries crucial community hubs. HCPL employs nearly 400 library and support staff at 26 branch locations and administration. Making sure the shelves are stocked with the latest bestsellers and research tools takes a lot of behind-the-scenes effort and coordination, but Melton sees frontline library workers who are committed to providing superb, personalized customer service as the key, "Branch staff is the backbone of our organization, and their dedication and commitment to our communities is truly inspiring. They have worked tirelessly to adapt to changing circumstances and to continue providing critical services and resources to our community, even in the midst of a global pandemic.”
HCPL goes Fine Free
In February of this year, Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved a proposal by HCPL to end library fines on books and DVDs that are returned late. The decision boiled down to matters of economics—both for the library and the communities it serves. Chief among them is the fact that late fees hit low-income households harder than others. Late fees—even relatively small amounts---can and do effectively block economically disadvantaged people from using the library. Of the move, Melton said, “We want to remove barriers and ensure that our collections and services are available equitably. A late fee should not keep someone from the information and resources that can change their lives for the better.”
HCPL Connected: Continuing to Bridge the Digital Divide
With a second round of funding from the federal government’s Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), HCPL and community partners put 15,000 Acer Chromebooks into the hands of Harris County residents who found themselves on the wrong side of the technology gap. The laptops with built-in internet connectivity distributed by the library were accompanied by a brief in-person orientation class designed to help first time users get the most out of the technology and to safely navigate the digital landscape. Additional resources to assist with more advanced skills were provided through free in-library and online classes and video tutorials on the library’s HCPL Connected webpage. The latest distribution brought the total number of laptops distributed by the library and its partners to 30,000.
Defending The Right to Read
Texas leads the country by a wide margin in the number of challenged books, that is books that have been targeted for reclassification or removal from public and school library shelves. While from a distance, these challenges may seem to be sincere efforts by concerned individuals, they are, in large part, fueled by small, but well-organized factions distributing much-publicized lists that primarily target books by and about people of color and other traditionally marginalized communities. It is a troubling development for anyone concerned about freedom of speech and open access to information.
HCPL is steadfastly committed to defending Harris County residents' right to read as they choose and to provide library collections that reflect the full range of human thought and experience. “The threat that measures like House Bill 900 and Senate Bill 13 pose to Texans’ ability to access information directly bearing on their health and well-being and to learn about cultures and communities that have long been marginalized or excluded entirely from mainstream discourse is very real,” said Melton. “The forces of censorship want public library shelves to present only a very narrow worldview. HCPL wants everyone who walks through our doors to see their own experience and heritage mirrored in our collections. We will continue to fight for that.”
The State of America’s Libraries Report 2023 | The American Library Association
In conjunction with National Library Week, each year, the American Library Association releases a list of the top most challenged books of the previous year. In 2022, they tracked 1,269 challenges to library, school, and university materials. Of the 2,571 unique titles that were challenged or banned in 2022, here are the top 13 most challenged.