Houston Dialogue on Public Libraries


The Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries convened the Houston Dialogue on Public Libraries in partnership with the Houston Public Library on November 15-16, 2017 in Houston, Texas. The Houston Dialogue on Public Libraries was developed to identify strategic opportunities presented by the city’s public libraries to build greater organizational and community capacity and to strengthen initiatives focused on recovery, opportunity and sustainability in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

About Houston

Community Type: City | Population: 2,099,451 (2010 US Census) White 58.3%, Black or African American 22.8%, Asian 6.7%, Hispanic or Latino 44.3% (of any race), American Indian or Alaskan Native 0.8%, and Other 9.8% | Median Age: 33 | Household Income: $47,010 | Educational Attainment: 77.4% High School Graduates or Higher (persons aged 25 years +) | Poverty: 21.9% of individuals have incomes below the poverty level| Unemployment: 4.3%

Sources: 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About the Houston Public Library

Houston Public Library (HPL) is the 7th largest public library system in the United States and it is the central library system located in the city of Houston, serving the city’s more than 2 million residents. It comprises 44 public service units, including 31 Neighborhood Libraries, four Regional Libraries, three Special Collection Libraries and four Express Libraries, the HPL Mobile Express and a satellite library located at the Children’s Museum of Houston. HPL’s mission is linking people to the world. The library administers educational, recreational and cultural programs and services for community members. The Houston Public Library is led by Executive Director Rhea Lawson, Ph.D.  The library’s operating budget is provided by the City of Houston’s general fund with philanthropic donations and grants helping to support the programs, resources and services.

Houston Dialogue on Public Libraries Format

The Houston Dialogue on Public Libraries was originally planned in mid-September in Houston, Texas. Hurricane Harvey hit the week prior to the dialogue and the event had to be postponed. The Aspen Institute and HPL still decided to invite dialogue participants to meet for a two-hour “recovery session” on September 14, 2017. Over 20 high-level civic and business leaders gathered to discuss how their institutions were leveraging their own and other community resources to respond to the complex needs of the city in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Using the priorities and insights identified in September, the Houston Dialogue on Public Libraries built upon this work in the November meeting.

The November dialogue included an opening reception with remarks by Houston City Council Member Amanda Edwards, a panel presentation and a one-day moderated leadership roundtable.

Panel Presentation: The panel presentation took place on a Wednesday evening at the Houston Public Library and featured HPL staff and two dynamic library leaders: Nicole Robinson, assistant director Community Education, Outreach, & Cultural Initiatives Division, Houston Public Library; John Middleton, assistant director of Spaces & Communications Divisions, Houston Public Library; Tim Siegel, assistant manager, McGovern- Stella Link Neighborhood Library; and Helen Chou, administration manager, senior manager of International Services. Each shared information about specific programs and activities that HPL leads and how they are responding to the physical, economic and civic needs of the city of Houston. The purpose of the panel presentation was to showcase HPL’s work and impact and the innovative work being done by public libraries in Houston.

Leadership Roundtable: The following day, 30 library leaders, policymakers, business and civic partners met for the day-long leadership roundtable at the Houston Public Library. The agenda was structured around priorities and insights identified in the September meeting to explore in greater depth how to leverage the assets of the city’s libraries as the city, its public and private sector institutions, and its residents move forward after Hurricane Harvey.

The roundtable discussion addressed three key questions:

  • How do libraries help to foster equity and opportunity in the community?
  • What changes are needed to strengthen the role of libraries in building a more equitable and resilient Houston?
  • What can my networks and I do to help define and implement pathways for action and sustainable outcomes?

The first session explored building blocks of a healthy recovery and a more resilient community, and the role of the public library in fostering and ensuring access to these building blocks. Session two included smaller working groups where participants identified models that are working well, where the opportunities are for additional partnerships and collaborations to strengthen the building blocks of a healthy, resilient community in Houston, and what barriers may impede action and progress moving forward.  The conversation that followed explored these opportunities in connection to HPL’s priority service areas – Access, Connectivity and Education (ACE).

Break-out Sessions: The break-out groups focused on three sets of issues that were identified as priorities for Houston: Youth & Families, Economic & Workforce Development, and Civic Engagement & Design. Participants were asked to draw from the morning discussions and “to identify one or two opportunities to leverage the partnership potential of Houston libraries that aligns with one or more of the three priority service areas of HPL.” Each group was encouraged to develop proposals that would support the recovery and resilience of the city in the next 6-12 months with an eye toward sustaining success as part of the long-term recovery and resurgence. Participants were told to think about how these proposals could address the needs of vulnerable populations and reflect the principles of equity and complete communities. Each group was to answer the following questions:

  • What change is needed to make this happen in the short-term (0-6 months)? Consider what partnerships, relationships and assets already exist and how they may be strengthened or used in new ways.
  • Who needs to be involved to make it happen?
  • What key results would be achieved? How would you measure success?
  • What policies or practices need to be in place to ensure long-term success in sustaining successful results?

Participants in the Leadership Roundtable

Claudia Aguirre-Vasquez, Senior Vice President and Chief Program Officer, BakerRipley

Phyllis Bailey, Owner, 3B Resources Group Public Relations

Julie Baker Finck, President, Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation

Peter Beard, Senior Vice President, Regional Workforce Development, Greater Houston Partnership

Veronica Chapa Gorczynski, President, Greater East End Management District

Evelyn Dravis, Library Manager and FLIP Director, Children's Museum of Houston

Amanda Edwards, City Council Member at Large, Houston City Council

Melanie Fisk, Chief Executive Officer, Literacy Advance

Bill Fulton, Director, Kinder Institute for Urban Research, Rice University

Amy Garmer, Director of the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries, The Aspen Institute

Licia Green Ellis, Chair, Houston Public Library Foundation

Lynn Henson, Administration Manager, Planning & Development Department, City of Houston

Winell Herron, Vice President, H E B

Zachary Hodges, President, Houston Community College Northwest

Risha Jones, Deputy Director, Department of Health and Human Services, City of Houston

Sara Kellner, Director, Civic Art + Design, Houston Arts Alliance

Lester King, Research Scientist, School of Natural Sciences, Rice University, Shell Center for Sustainability

Mary Lawler, Executive Director, Avenue CDC

Rhea Lawson, Director, Houston Public Library

Elwyn C. Lee, Vice President for Neighborhood & Strategic Initiatives, University of Houston

Decrecia Limbrick, Assistant Director, Children and Family Services Division, City of Houston

Edward Melton, Director, Harris County Public Library

Laura Murillo, President & Chief Executive Officer, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

Jim Nicholas, Market President, Commercial Banking, Capital One Bank

Tonyel Simon, Program Officer, Houston Endowment

Rhonda Skillern – Jones, Member, Houston Independent School District Board

Mark Smith, Director and Librarian, Texas State Library and Archives Commission

Mike Temple, Executive Director, Workforce Solutions-Gulf Coast Workforce Board

Amanda Timm, Executive Director, Local Initiatives Support Corporation

Patrick Walsh, Director, Planning & Development Department, City of Houston

Houston Dialogue on Public Libraries Group Photo

comments powered by Disqus