South Houston Branch Library
The Beginning - An "Orphan Library"
The first library station in South Houston opened in October 1922 at the request of the local Parents and Teachers Association. A collection of 100 books was placed in the local post office, and residents could visit to borrow books every Saturday afternoon from 2 - 5 p.m.
In 1924, the community moved the library into the school. However, the library was closed in September and October of that year when the community was quarantining due to an outbreak of "hoof and mouth disease" in South Houston, Webster, and Genoa.
The collection moved between multiple locations in South Houston during its first decade, with many different unpaid custodians. In 1927, librarian Margaret Black began moving the collection into City Hall during the summer so the community could access it while school was out. The books moved back into the school each fall.
Seen here is the South Houston City Hall, the permanent home of the library starting in 1930. The library was housed in a large space where City Council held its meetings. City Hall also housed the jail, which was next to the library. Prisoners were regularly escorted through the building, past the library, and through the door that led to the jail.
In 1934, the community raised the money needed to construct a dedicated room in the post office for the library. The construction work was completed by residents of the South Houston Transient Home. The community held a reception to celebrate the new home for the library.
When the oil boom hit in 1935, South Houston experienced a population boom as people moved in and needed additional service. The space at the post office was reallocated to house a new drug store, and the library was moved into the storeroom of the local railway station. The move was only temporary, as the railway did not want to be liable for any accidents to library patrons on the premises.
The school no longer had the space for the collection. A "frantic" search began for a new home, and an idea started to circulate about the library having its own building. County Librarian Elnora Edgar approached the South Houston City Council about funding the construction of a new library building. At a council meeting on July 30, 1935, City Council approved $250 to build a library on the same block as City Hall.
Construction began immediately (seen here).
The new building opened on Friday, October 25, 1935. The library was 320 square feet and equipped with lights, water, and a gas utility line.
Local individuals presented the library with gifts of furniture, including an oak desk, four oak chairs, a swivel chair, a table, and a children's bench.
The new library was open on Monday and Thursday afternoons. Librarian Margaret Black began receiving a salary of about $10 a month. Around 1938, Siena Dodd took over for Margaret Black Dodd, who had recently married into her family.
As part of the National Youth Administration (N.Y.A.) Work Experience Project, a training school, was opened in South Houston in February 1941. The school prepared young men for defense industry jobs. HCPL arranged a small collection of technical books and books for pleasure reading at the location. However, the school closed in 1942.
Siena Dodd remained the librarian until 1945, at which time her sister Barbara Dodd took over for a few years. Maggie Pearl Witt became the librarian in 1948. At that time, she was receiving a salary of $0.50 an hour.
Circulation numbers swung widely during the 1940s. There were 10,530 books checked out at the branch in 1940, but the numbers dropped down to a low of 3,280 in 1944. By the end of the decade, circulation had somewhat stabilized, with 6,152 books checked out in 1949.
The circulation numbers continued to improve, and by 1952 the branch was open for additional hours each week.
In 1954, the branch was completely remodeled. A new front porch was added, and the interior and exterior were repainted. The building received new shelving and blinds to protect the books from the sun. Some of these changes can be seen in this photograph of the branch in 1955.
The community responded well to the improvements, with circulation hitting 11,798 volumes in 1955.
The Garden Villas branch (seen here) was only 6 miles away from the library in South Houston, and the two communities supported each other. The Rotary Club of South Houston donated funds to the Garden Villas branch in 1952 when the original building was torn down and replaced. The Garden Villas branch closed in the early 1970s after a review of the system revealed the two branches overlapped in service, despite being the only two branches serving south Harris County.
In 1959, the library moved into the Community Building on State Street. The new location offered air conditioning and central heat. The county purchased new shelving and a magazine rack for the branch. The Community Building was located behind South Houston City Hall and also housed welfare staff and a clinic.
South Houston's Mayor during the 1960s was George Washington Christy. Christy operated a circus for a decade and had moved to South Houston in the 1920s. His elephants helped build Spencer Highway. Christy would oversee the next critical phase of the library.
The City and County formalized their partnership in supporting the community's library in 1965. The City of South Houston was responsible for securing a facility and paying utilities, and the County would pay for staff and books. South Houston City Council applied for a grant from the Texas State Library to construct a new building later that year. The TSL requested an opinion from County Librarian Mary Owensby on the project, which she supported. However, the funding was denied.
In 1967, the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company donated an 80-foot long red brick building to the City. The building, formerly a barracks at Ellington Field, would be a substantial upgrade for the library after minor renovations. Mayor Christy would only need to pay $1 to transfer the deed to the City.
The project hit some bumps due to political in-fighting, with Christy going on record as saying, "I don't think a whole lot of people use the library anyway. I need a count as to how many do use the library because I don't want to spend a lot of money [renovating the building] for just a few people."
However, Christy relented, and the building was purchased and moved to Dallas Street. After renovations, it opened on January 7, 1968, as the George Washington Christy Library. The building was divided into two: half library, half community meeting space. The library could hold approximately 3,000 books.
While the building was named for Mayor Christy as a credit to his attendance at the Governor's Conference on Libraries in Austin in 1966, the community rarely used the name.
By 1970 the branch added one part-time staff member, Dorothy Smith, to help Librarian Pearl Witt. The City of South Houston decided to turn the library's meeting room space into a municipal courtroom.
The South Houston community depended on its library, despite its relatively tiny size. County Librarian Mary Owensby commissioned a study in 1971 on the system's 50th anniversary. The study found that the South Houston branch had the highest item-to-circulation ratio in the entire system, with 34,323 checkouts from a collection of 2,866 (more than 11 checkouts per item). The report noted that the branch had limited space for programming, making the branch more or less a book station.
Pearl Witt retired in 1975 after 27 years as Librarian. Juan Garcia took over for her, to be replaced in 1976 by Janice Lucher.
The original South Houston Library building was turned into the South Houston Museum.
Interior of the South Houston Branch Library in the 1980s. The building, which was long and narrow, was packed with more than 8,000 books - every shelf was full.
View a listing of programs offered at the branch in May 1983, including a bookmark design contest and a puppet workshop.
Entrance to the branch, circa 1985.
In 1985, the Mayor of South Houston, Al Thiel, moved the police department to City Hall. The half of the building that had been a courtroom was turned over to the library.
Mayor Thiel of South Houston proclaimed 1986 the "Read-A-Texas-Book-A-Month" year as part of the Texas Sesquicentennial celebration. The act, sponsored by the South Houston Branch Library and the Texas State Library, asked each citizen to donate at least one Texas book to their favorite library.
In June 1987, the County Commissioner's office and City of South Houston officials tried to figure out the best location and budget plan for a new library building.
In January 1988, the Harris County Community Development Agency (HCCDA) accepted proposals for community improvements funded through the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG). Commissioner's Court requested $387,000 for a new South Houston branch building through the CDBG. U.S. Representative Ralph Wallace III sent a letter of recommendation for new facilities to the director of the HCCDA.
At the same time, County Librarian Cathy Park applied for a Library Services and Construction Act (LSCA) Title II grant from the Texas State Library for the South Houston Branch. Organizers planned to match the $387,000 grant funds from CDBG and the LSCA with $100,000 in County funds.
That May, the City of South Houston donated an acre of land to the County for a library. Unfortunately, the project only received $38,000 from the Texas State Library. While the County provided $490,000 for construction, the project was short $66,000. The City of South Houston agreed to cover the final expenses so the project could proceed.
The groundbreaking ceremony took place in early 1991, and construction soon commenced.
View the program for the groundbreaking.
The organizers purchased a fabulous cake to celebrate this big step for the community.
The grand opening and dedication for the new building took place on Sunday, June 30, 1991. The new building had enough shelving to hold 30,000 items - giving the branch much-needed space to grow.
The new 5,800 square foot library included a public meeting room, a VCR and monitor, a public copy machine, and a microfiche reader/printer.
There was lots of room for studying and reading in the new building.
Shortly after the new library opened, South Houston received a new historical marker due to the work of South Houston Branch Librarian Pat Lippold. Lippold, who joined South Houston in 1984, was very active in the community, serving on the Executive Board of the South Houston Chamber of Commerce. In her work with the Chamber of Commerce, she researched and co-authored a paper documenting South Houston as the site of the first airplane flight in Texas. The flight, which took place in February 1910, happened 12 days before the previously established first flight in San Antonio. Thanks to her work, the Texas Historical Commission placed a marker in South Houston to commemorate the event in October 1991.
Learn more about this moment in South Houston and Texas history in a Click2Houston article available here.
In 2000, the branch became a pilot location for the new printing debit card system, which would help library staff from continuously policing the printing stations and give customers more freedom and a quicker result.
The exterior of the building in 2006.
With Avenue A Park located next door, the library can offer lots of outdoor programming. The branch held a Las Posadas celebration at the park in December 2010.
During the summer of 2011, the branch held a Splash Party, complete with a water slide.
In the twenty years since the branch had opened, providing access to the Internet had become a considerable part of the library's daily business. By 2011, the branch needed more space to dedicate to computers and digital literacy programming. With the assistance of a Community Development Grant, the library underwent renovations and expansion beginning in the fall of 2011.
A new 1,100 square-foot computer lab was built onto the back of the building, seen here mid-construction.
The existing building was renovated and updated, with new carpet and new ceiling tiles (some with a star design). The work was completed by the summer of 2012.
By moving the computers into the new lab, the children's area had more space for quiet reading.
Kid Whiz computer class in the new computer lab in 2014.
South Houston branch staff celebrate Mardi Gras in March 2014.
Children's author Michael Dahl visited the branch in September 2014 to read from his works and meet his fans, both children and staff.
Houston Dynamos players held a Mini Soccer Camp at the South Houston Branch Library in June 2016. Sebastien Ibeagha is seen here with children at Avenue A Park setting up a practice drill.
In August 2017, more than 90% of the community was impacted by Hurricane Harvey. The library survived without any damage and opened as soon as it was safe to provide the community a place to rest, charge their devices, and reconnect. Food trucks sponsored by the Red Cross regularly stopped by to bring food to the community (seen here).
The branch received a new LED sign in October 2017.
South Houston Branch Library staff represented the branch at the National Night Out event at Avenue A Park in 2018.
The branch made the local news in 2019, when KTRK-TV (ABC 13) interviewed the branch's volunteer ESL (English-As-A-Second-Language) teacher and her students.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the South Houston staff transitioned to virtual and curbside services to continue offering exceptional customer service to the community. Staff are seen wearing their masks in May 2020.
In March 2021, the branch became a site for COVID-19 vaccinations. People lined up outside the building to get vaccinated.
On May 19, 2021, the branch reopened to the public for the first time since March 2020. Staff were overjoyed to welcome back the community and begin the next chapter in the story of the South Houston Branch Library.