Branch manager Kjerstine Nielsen recalls when the roof at her library had major problems. She also remembers times when the air conditioning system has gone out.
In fact, having things go wrong at the Walnut Hill Branch Library is not all that rare. “It’s not every day,” she says. “But every couple weeks something in the original part of the building just gives out.”
That’s no big surprise. Opened in 1961, the Walnut Hill branch is the oldest in Dallas’ library system. It’s also one of the most crowded. “We’ve outgrown our neighborhood,” says Nielsen, who previously worked at the much newer branches of Preston Royal and East Dallas’ Skillman Southwestern. “There are days we don’t have a place for people to sit down. They either sit on the floor or stand.”
June Leftwich, chair of the municipal library board and bond campaign committee member, puts it more directly: “Walnut Hill is in terrible condition. It has to be fixed.”
And it will be – not fixed, but rebuilt, with an additional 6,000 square feet. Earlier this year, Dallas residents voted in favor of a $55.5 million bond proposal. Part of that money is slated for finding a new site and funding new construction for the Walnut Hill branch. In total, the money will go toward refurbishing the central library and adding and rebuilding several branches (at least four new ones and four replacements of current branches).
This, of course, brings smiles to the faces of Nielsen and those who use the Walnut Hill branch.
“I think they’re anxiously awaiting it,” she says of her library users. “I know our community knows there’s more we can do for them, but they understand at this point we just can’t.”
When the new branch will be built is not yet clear. Nielsen seems to think it’ll happen in the next two or three years. But even without a new building yet in the works, the bond approval gave those who care deeply about Dallas’ libraries a welcome bit of good news. Because the not-so-great news is that, for a number of years, city libraries have seen their hours cut, their program budgets cut, and their materials budgets stay the same. Additionally, a selective hiring freeze has endured for about two years now, and new budget cuts have already been proposed for next year.
“The budget situation is dire,” Leftwich says. “And that’s throughout the city.”
Still, it hasn’t been that long since city libraries faced a similar fiscal situation.
“I was here during the ‘80s when we had to do it before,” says Sheila Scullock, assistant director for resource management for the Dallas Public Library system. “No one feels good about making cuts, but we know the city has to operate within budget. We just try to look out for the long-term good of the organization.”
This optimism is typical of almost everyone associated with the libraries, even the straight-shooting Leftwich, who, like many, was heartened by the bond approval.
“There is a great deal of interest right now in the library,” she says. “It is a healthy institution in terms of the way people in Dallas feel about it. And we have good reps on the [city] council working for us. Most council members don’t want to see the library suffer.”
Those involved in the libraries’ daily upkeep, such as branch managers and their staff, remain hopeful that, just like before, the hard times will eventually pass.
“I think everything is cyclical,” Nielsen adds, “and it’s going to be good again at some point.”
In the meantime, neighborhood library branches try to do their best with what they have.
“We work as a team, and despite these losses and no raises, we work to keep each other’s morale up,” says Lynn Moore, branch manager of Preston Royal Branch Library, for whom the situation is better than at Walnut Hill. One reason is the branch’s Library Friends group, a fundraising group established in January 1996.
Most recently, Preston Royal’s Friends bought four new aluminum benches for outside the library, as well as planters. They’ve had the carpets cleaned, bought a table, three bookcase, stools for computer use, and purchased materials such as large-print books and books-on-tape. In addition, the group helps provide funding for programs such as Toddler Time, Pre-School Storytime, Preston Royal Book Discussion Group, and others.
Although Walnut Hill doesn’t have a Friends group, it does have regular patrons who help to keep up programs such as Pre-School Storytime, Creative Kids Club, Monday Matinee and other activities.
“And I have a very creative staff who can do a lot of things with little money,” Nielsen says.
Moore predicts that the budget situation and the hiring freeze will end soon. In the meantime, she and other librarians will just keep plugging away, doing their jobs because they love what they do.
“My main goal is to bring in more readers and new readers. To see children first discover the joy of reading is a true joy,” Moore says.
And, adds Leftwich, even in times of plenty, the situation “can always improve,” and that’s up to the public, she says.
“It is a community center. And the only really educational, cultural institution that’s open to anybody: boy, girl, man, woman, black, white.
“Support it. Vote for it. If there is a fundraising something, give to it. But more than that, use it and enjoy it and see what’s there for you. That’s really what a library should be.”
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