Clear Lake City-County Freeman Branch Library
When the Clear Lake area was selected as the site of the new Manned Spacecraft Center (modern-day Johnson Space Center) in 1961, the population in the region exploded. New neighborhoods were built to accommodate the influx of astronauts, scientists, engineers, and their families.
The new transplants to the area found that the nearest County Library was in La Porte. Clear Lake City resident Betty Ulrich petitioned the County to provide a bookmobile station for the community in early 1964.
However, Ulrich and other community leaders wanted to open a permanent library. Ulrich began collecting and cataloging books at her home. By October 1964, Ulrich had secured a small space at the Clear Lake Recreation Center for a library.
On Sunday, November 1, 1964, the Clear Lake Public Library officially opened. The library housed 1,000 books, primarily donations from the community. Ulrich, seen here at the desk, was appointed the temporary librarian. The new library provided service to residents of southern Harris County, including Webster, Clear Lake City, El Lago, Nassau Bay, and Seabrook. County Librarian Mary Owenby attended the opening, as the community had begun petitioning for the library to join the HCPL system.
The night before the library's grand opening, Astronaut Theodore Freeman died in a crash at Ellington Field when a bird was sucked into his plane's engine. Captain Freeman was the first fatality in the space program. He had been selected the previous year as one of the 14 Apollo astronauts who were in training to reach the moon. Freeman left behind his wife, Faith Freeman, and young daughter, Faith.
Freeman's death deeply impacted the community. In early December, a local minister suggested the library be renamed in Freeman's honor. Faith Freeman approved the plan, and the library was renamed the Theodore Freeman Memorial Library. Faith Freeman and her daughter Faith are seen here presenting a portrait of Captain Freeman to the library.
In early December, Harris County Commissioners voted to allow the library to join the HCPL system. As a branch library at HCPL, the Freeman Library received new reference, nonfiction, and fiction books to supplement the collection.
By 1965, the library had a board of trustees and an annual budget of $10,200. Betty Ulrich was appointed the permanent librarian. Read a wonderful profile of Ulrich from 1965, detailing her experience as a librarian at the New York City Library and her many accomplishments before she moved to Clear Lake City.
The library was open for 16 hours each week, mainly in the afternoon. Adults could check out as many as eight books at a time (or "16 books for holders of 'Mr. and Mrs.' cards"), and children were allowed six books at a time.
Ulrich and the new board of trustees put together multiple fundraisers to benefit the library, including a performance by the Allegro Ballet of Houston and a vaudeville show featuring performances by employees of the Manned Spacecraft Center.
In the fall of 1965, the library moved into a former sales office on loan from the Friendswood Development Company to provide more space for books, customers, and staff. The new area was more than eight times larger, at 2,884 square feet. There was now space for storytime, a reading room, and a staff workspace. Customers were no longer bothered by the sounds of basketball just outside the library doors. The Clear Creek High School Key Club members volunteered to help move the books into the new space, which opened in late September.
On November 1, 1965, the branch ceased to be a member of the HCPL system. Trustees of the Freeman Library wanted to serve the Clear Creek School District, which is split between Harris and Galveston counties. Neither county would agree to pay for services for residents of another county, so the trustees decided to withdraw from HCPL. The Freeman Library returned 1,300 books to Harris County, leaving the library with 3,000 volumes.
That same month, Faith Freeman donated furniture and shelving to the library.
On February 6, 1966, Astronaut Charles Bassett II represented NASA at the dedication of the new Theodore C. Freeman Memorial Library. Bassett (left) is seen here presenting a book from the Astronauts to the Freeman Library.
"There are many things required to fulfill the needs of a growing and dynamic community. A library certainly is one of them. A universal characteristic of aware people is curiosity and search for knowledge...[A library] is a giant brain that remembers all that scientists, historians, philosophers have thought and learned. It is a meeting place for all those people, who throughout the ages, have influenced the world. It is often the place where the ideas of the past meet the needs of the present."
Unfortunately, Bassett died in an airplane accident just a few weeks after the dedication.
Storytime at the Library in July 1966.
The library continued to rely on community donations and the Board of Trustees ran multiple fundraising campaigns each year. In addition to regular book sales, the Trustees used their connections to host a series of high-profile events. In the spring of 1966, the Clear Lake Theatre opened with an appearance by movie star Chuck Connors. All opening night proceeds went to the Freeman Memorial Library.
An Autumn Tea Benefit in September 1966 featured a fashion show with designs modeled by nine Astronaut wives, and a door prize gifted by First Lady Lady Bird Johnson. Around 600 people showed up for the benefit, including Evelyn Meador, who would donate the land needed for a library branch in Seabrook just twenty years later.
The library received new landscaping courtesy of the Clear Lake City Garden Club in January 1967.
Astronaut Charles "Pete" Conrad headed up the fundraising drive that year. The library needed $35,000 to continue operation. The library existed solely through community donations, as it could not collect funds through local taxes or endowments.
Harris County contributed $7,500 to the fund since it was serving Harris County residents. However, the Freeman Memorial Library remained an independent, free library for Harris County and Galveston County residents.
Betty Ulrich stepped down as the librarian in August 1967. After years of managing the library and constant fundraising and public relations, Ulrich was ready to spend more time with people and books. She wanted to return to being a school librarian. Cynthia Collins of Nassau Bay was hired as the new librarian.
Astronaut Michael Collins carried a "Freeman Memorial--Follow Me To The Library" sticker on the Apollo 11 orbit around the moon in July 1969. The sticker was later presented to Faith Freeman.
In September 1970, the Friends of the Freeman Memorial Library hosted a concert by the Houston Symphony Orchestra. The 1,500 tickets for the event were priced at $2.50 each.
The constant need to petition the community for money took its toll on the Board of Trustees and the library staff. In November 1971, Fred Joy and William Schumate, former and current Chairmen of the Board of Trustees for the Library, wrote a report to Commissioner’s Court regarding the situation. They hoped to re-affiliate with Harris County, as they did not have the funding to keep running the Library privately. They noted in their report that since 1967, a third of the library finances were covered by contributions from Harris County, and community donations covered the remaining budget.
A recently commissioned review of the HCPL system on its 50 anniversary had concluded the Clear Lake City region needed additional County library services. Both sides were ready to commit to a new partnership.
On January 1, 1972, the Library officially came back under the County and was a part of the HCPL system.
During the next few years, the Freeman branch's high circulation numbers placed it as the fourth most popular branch in the system. The 1971 circulation topped at 112,000 items checked out. Discussion began in April 1972 about the need for a large library building. When the library moved into the space donated by the Friendswood Development Company in 1966, the area had seemed spacious. However, the building was only designed for temporary use. In addition to being too small to house the now large book collection, the building was also beginning to leak.
Commissioner's Court approved funds for a new 10,000 square foot building in February 1973. The County decided to build a multi-purpose building that would also house a Justice of the Peace courtroom, Sheriff's Department, Tax Office, Commissioner's office, and lockup facilities. To assuage community concerns, the library would have a separate entrance from the County portion of the building.
In June 1974, the Precinct 8 Judge said that the library could use the courtroom as a meeting room space.
Architects from Haywood Jordan and McCowan, Inc. won the contract to design the building. The firm was one of few Black architectural firms in Texas and had designed the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in downtown Houston. A scale model of the new structure was placed on display at the library.
On February 6, 1975, the groundbreaking ceremony for the new building took place.
The building under construction.
The building was completed in June 1976. The library closed for about three weeks while staff moved the collection into the new building.
On July 14, 1976, the new 11,000 square foot building at 16602 Diana Lane was dedicated. Captain Freeman's widow, Faith Freeman, cut the ribbon on the new building. Founder and first librarian Betty Ulrich also attended and gave a speech at the event.
The new building had two floors. The children's area was on the first floor with adult fiction, and adult nonfiction and reference were shelved on the second floor.
The new building held 20,000 books, an audiovisual room with projectors and cassette and record players, and a Xerox machine for public use.
One of the most popular events at the Freeman Library was Graffiti Day each spring. The library parking lot was blocked off and children could "do their thing" with tempera paint in the lot. The artwork would last until the next time it rained. This image from Graffiti Day in 1978 featured the message, "When is Dr. Suess gonna write a book for 12 [year] olds!"
Given its proximity to NASA, Freeman often holds special programs featuring astronauts. Colonel Gordon Fullerton visited the branch in November 1983 to show recent film clips from space as speak about his missions.
Seen here, from left to right: Colonel Fullerton, Freeman Librarian Carol Hurd, and author Tony Osman.
In March 1985, the library celebrated its 20th anniversary. Betty Ulrich, who continued to volunteer with the library for many years, attended the event and shared her memories of the early days of the library. Of the library's first location next to a basketball court, she remarked: "It was the noisest library that has ever been built."
In January 1986, HCPL librarians provided NASA the lyrics for "God Bless America" as NASA prepared a memorial service for those lost in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
By the spring of 1986, the 38,000 books in the library's collection had been entered into a new "computerized book circulation system" - the Automated Library Information System (ALIS) - that allowed staff to check out books to customers more quickly. "Enjoy the books, but say good-bye to the old hand stamp system."
As HCPL faced budget cuts during the late 1980s, the Freeman Library held several fine free weeks. Staff encouraged customers to return 225 long-overdue items worth about $5,000. The Friends of the Library tried to offset the cuts by raising $18,000 through book sales and donations in 1988.
On November 1, 1989, the branch celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Harris County Commissioner's Court recognized the event by issuing a resolution that November 1, 1989, be proclaimed Elizabeth "Betty" Ulrich Appreciation Day.
Freeman Library staff at an Earth Day celebration at the Challenger Seven Memorial Park in April 1990.
In May 1992, the Friends of Freeman Library hosted the "Ride to Read Ramble" bike ride to raise funds for the branch. The event was held on a full-moon evening, with more than 600 riders showing up on a rainy evening on the shores of Clear Lake.
The event was a success, and another early morning bike ride was held in 1993 and 1994. By 1994, the event moved from 2 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. and included three different routes encircling the University of Houston-Clear Lake.
In 1995, the City of Houston announced they would build a new branch of the Houston Public Library in Clear Lake. The facility would have been only 2 miles away from the Freeman Library. At the same time, the County drew up plans to renovate and expand the current Freeman Library.
The City of Houston's plans were put on hold for several years because a bond election that paid for the design work did not cover construction expenses. While the project was on hold, Harris County and the City of Houston negotiated a shared-use building. The plan stalled due to the City's requirement of an annual fee of $40 for non-city residents to use the library; the Couty refused to agree to charge its customers to use the library.
It took a few years, but by the end of 1999, the two entities had agreed to jointly fund a 40,000 square foot new building opposite the current Freeman Library. The City had recently abolished the $40 annual fee for non-city residents. "This is a win-win for the taxpayers of Houston and Harris Couty, and one library in place of two to serve the same area deserves the unanimous support of City Council and Commissioners Court," said County Commissioner Jim Fonteno.
The new library was designed by Gant-Barnard Architects. Construction was underway by 2003.
The Freeman Library closed in April 2004, so the County could move the books over to the new building. With the larger facility, the staff size doubled from 24 to 50.
On Tuesday, June 8, 2004, the newly renamed Clear Lake City-County Freeman Branch Library opened. The new building held 160,000 books, double the previous collection size. The new space boasted multiple study rooms, meeting rooms, and lots of computers and laptops for customers to borrow. Adult books all moved upstairs to the second floor, along with the Teen Zone and movie room.
The children's area on the first floor was named "Betty's Place" in honor of Betty Ulrich, who continued to volunteer each week at the library. The room includes multiple reading areas for children to sit and read as well as a children's activity room for programming.
In the fall of 2005, a mural by local artists Pat Rawlings and Faisal Ali was installed outside the children's area. "Flights" depicted scenes from popular children's stories and reflected the Clear Lake community. Many members of the library staff and Friends of Freeman Library were represented in the piece, including Branch Librarian Karen Akkerman, HCPL Director Cathy Park, HCPL Deputy Director Rhoda Goldberg.
A documentary about the piece is available to view on the branch's Facebook page.
As befitting a branch that serves many customers who work at or are affiliated with NASA, the branch's decor includes many nods to space, including planet-inspired signage, astronaut restrooms signs, and spacecraft models.
The new building had more than enough space for the library to host regular exhibits and large programs. The Bay Area Genealogical Society had a show at the branch in 2005 and 2006. The Internet Café regularly displayed works by local artists.
The Books Alive! Carnival was held in the parking lot of the branch in March 2006. The event featured train rides, bouncy houses, face painting, and magic and puppet shows. The proceeds of the event went to purchasing books and programming materials for the library.
In April 2009, Betty Ulrich passed away at the age of 92. The Freeman Branch hosted a reception in June 2009 after the memorial service. Ulrich had volunteered thousands of hours at the branch, continuing to support young readers through the community. "Betty's joy was teaching children to read and converting a non-reader into a reader."
Later that year, the library was reminded by residents of a time capsule buried near the library. The capsule, buried in 1966 at the opening of the CLear Lake Theather, was to be opened in 50 years. The contents were to be given to the Freeman Memorial Library. Some of the buried items included a copy of the 1966 speech by astronaut Charles Bassett at the library's dedication, a mock-up of a space rocket, and an earth-orbiting American flag donated by astronaut Charles Conrad.
The capsule would be opened in 2016.
The branch celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014. In addition to special programs and speakers, branch staff went through the many scrapbooks detailing the library's history. Some of the highlights of the branch's past were on display in this History Wall.
In February 2015, thanks to a generous bequest by Jocelyn H. Lee, the library opened the Jocelyn H. Lee Innovation Lab, the first HCPL Makerspace for people in the community. It featured 3D printers, music recording devices, digital camera and video equipment, drawing tablets, rotary tools, a laser cutter, drawing tablets, a green screen, a vinyl cutter, and Super-8 and VHS converters.
Inside the Jocelyn H. Lee Innovation Lab. Construction began on an expansion of the space in 2021.
A Hand for Katelyn
Katelyn is a five-year-old girl in Victoria, Texas, born with her left hand not completely formed. Her family contacted the Clear Lake City-County Freeman Branch Library for help 3D-printing a prosthetic hand. Staff and volunteers at the Innovation Lab worked with the family to produce a prosthetic sized just for her.
The team decided to use the Isabella Arm design from Team Unlimbited, part of the e-NABLE community of volunteer designers. Innovation Lab Trainer Patrick Ferrell delivered the pink and purple arm to Katelyn in July 2016. The arm fit, and Katelyn liked the design.
“We help patrons every day find books or this, that or the other,” Branch Manager Jim Johnson said. “And to some extent, we may get involved with them personally, just hearing their stories. But to really make a true difference in someone’s life, in this case, a little girl’s life is just incredibly satisfying.”
Photo Credit: Vincik Family
On April 20, 2016, 50 years to the day after it was buried, the time capsule in Clear Lake City was unearthed. It took nearly two hours for workers to cut through the two layers of concrete. Unfortunately, decades of groundwater had gotten into the vault, and the artifacts were completely soaked. With the care and expertise of the archivists at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, most of the contents were restored.
Several of the items are currently on display at the branch. The entire collection was digitized and is available at the University of Houston-Clear Lake's Institutional Repository in the 1966 Clear Lake Theatre Time Capsule collection.
The capsule is finally opened around the 29-minute mark in this video.
In 2019, an HCPL grant from the Barbara Bush Literacy Foundation and Phillips 66 to promote literacy, learning, and health for families provided professional development for staff, along with books and educational toys as part of the Family Place Libraries national initiative. The George and Barbara Bush Family Place at the Clear Lake City-County Freeman Branch Library opened in October 2019. The redesigned space provides a welcoming environment for young children to learn new skills, develop small motor skills, interact socially with others and read books as a family. The Family Place initiative also included workshops for parents and toddlers that promoted learning and development through play.
When the building closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Freeman branch staff continued to provide the best service possible, utilizing options such as curbside service and creating book bundles for customers. Several staff members offered virtual programming, including Puppy Tales storytimes, reading picture books out loud with their pet dogs.
Staff also utilized the tools in the Innovation Lab to create plastic headbands to donate to Memorial Hermann Hospital workers. "While we can't make or fix everything, this is something that we can do," Innovation Lab Specialist Rachel Reed told ABC 13.
On May 19, 2021, the branch reopened to the public for the first time since March 2020. Staff were overjoyed to welcome the community back into the building and begin the next chapter in the library's story.
A memorial to the late Captain Freeman in the entryway of the building. The framed biography on the left was provided by Freeman's second cousin Howard Short in 2012.
To learn more about Captain Freeman, check out the family-approved account of his life and career in the 2003 book Fallen astronauts: heroes who died reaching for the moon, by Colin Burgess and Kate Doolan. Place a hold on the physical book here, or check out the ebook from Overdrive here.