Despite Governor Abbott’s “Open Texas” orders allowing public libraries to operate at 75 percent capacity, Fort Worth is the only major city in Texas with its libraries open for in-person business.
Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin, and El Paso currently only offer curbside service to their residents.
Public libraries are funded by local taxes and provide services to local residents including children’s programs, public computers, Wi-Fi access, meeting rooms, and of course, browsing for books to enjoy.
The Department of State Health Services has guidelines for libraries to operate safely, including requiring “all employees and customers [to] wear a face covering (over the nose and mouth) wherever it is not feasible to maintain six feet of social distancing from another individual not in the same household.”
Fort Worth began reopening some of its locations to limited in-person service on June 2. Currently, 8 of the city’s 15 locations are open for some in-person service including computer use. Patrons can visit the library for up to an hour and capacity is limited to 25 percent.
Councilman Cary Moon expressed concerns at a recent city council work session that the 25 percent capacity limiting is too restrictive and is under-serving the residents. “The private sector has figured it out,” he commented.
Mayor Betsy Price praised the library for the innovative online programming it has offered in place of in-person programs.
Dallas residents can not visit any of their city’s 29 branch locations in person. Curbside pickup service by appointment at all locations was instituted by the city on October 1 after closing on March 13.
Some online programming like children’s storytime, music lessons, and book and literature discussions is available to library patrons.
The library’s planned budget for 2021 included trimming 105 positions due to a reduction in hours of operation and social distancing requirements. The library receives about $32 million per year from the city and generally attracts 2.8 million visitors annually.
Houston closed its 17 library locations on March 16, and they remained closed to all customers through the end of May.
“With the COVID-19 outbreak still a community concern, we made the difficult decision to close our libraries to the public and cancel programs and events to take precaution against the spread of COVID-19 and protect staff and customers,” according to the library’s website.
On June 1, curbside pickup service by appointment began for online requests, but no in-person service has resumed. The Houston Public Library receives about $44 million per year in the city’s budget. Annually, it serves about 8.2 million visitors in-person and online.
San Antonio public libraries will move into phase 3 of the city’s re-opening plan on November 4. Customers will be able to request materials for contact-free pickup and make appointments for computer use at all 29 of the city’s locations.
Free Wi-Fi is available outside most of the library locations in San Antonio and some online programming is provided.
San Antonio’s library system’s budget is $42.2 million for 2021. It serves about 5,000,000 visitors annually.
On June 8, Austin began making curbside pickup service available at select locations of its public library system. The city has developed a five-phase plan for re-opening and is in Phase 3 presently. Phase 4 allows for opening with limited customer access, but the library’s website gives no anticipated date for opening.
“Austin Public Library will seek to balance the safety and health of our community with its commitment to serving our citizens,” the website states.
Meanwhile, Austin’s Library Commission in June issued a letter encouraging the city to promote more “equitable access” to its services by eliminating fines for late materials and expanding the user base by eliminating fees for non-resident cards.
“The non-resident fee is another barrier to access, which does not recognize that the community of Austin includes many people with addresses outside of Austin’s full purpose jurisdiction.”
Austin’s public library budget increased by 7.6 percent for 2021 to over $58 million. “The Library is funded through the City’s general fund, which comprises City property taxes, sales tax, transfers from Austin Energy and Austin Water as well as other fines, fees and charges. Property taxes paid to Travis County rather than the City of Austin do not cover Library services,” according to the library’s website.
The Austin Public Library currently has over 500,000 cardholders in a city with a population of just under one million.
The El Paso Public Library has limited its service to curbside pick-up of reserved materials twice a week at three of its locations and once a week at four others. It has made online original programming available for residents through its Facebook page.
In a recent letter urging the libraries to reopen, El Paso resident Eva Ross said, “The libraries of our city are as essential to me as the water tanks that signal the eastward expansion of El Paso. Having the libraries unavailable to every resident of El Paso intellectually is the equivalent of I-10 being totally flooded.”
Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated the timeline of San Antonio libraries’ reopening plans.
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Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.