Small-town libraries see long-term benefits in Texas Book Festival grants

Karen Ellis, the library director in Taylor, searches the kids' science collection for new titles the library bought on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
Karen Ellis, the library director in Taylor, searches the kids' science collection for new titles the library bought on Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Readers and writers are descending on the state capital this weekend to celebrate literature at the Texas Book Festival.

More than 250 authors — including Gretchen Carlson, Kinky Friedman and Tom Hanks — will host book signings and panel discussions in and around the capitol building, according to the festival. Street closures started around the area Thursday and are scheduled through the two-day event.

The impact extends beyond a few blocks in downtown Austin; across the state, hundreds of libraries benefited from funds the festival raises and gives as grants to buy books. This year, two Williamson County libraries are on the grant list and used the money to beef up their nonfiction collections.

The Hutto Public Library bought 165 books with the grant. The library is a small building, a couple blocks north of U.S. 79, that serves 15,000 people in the city. Thursday, 3-year-old Caylin and her mom, Kristin Casey, sat on the carpet inside eating ice cream after preschool story time.

“We try and come every week if we can,” Casey said, helping her daughter measure out more reasonable bites of her snack. Libraries have long been places for kids to discover and explore, and in a small town like Hutto, “it’s a place to gather, a place to socialize and meet new people,” Casey said.

Just down the road, the Taylor Public Library got a grant from the TBF this year, too. Like Hutto, library director Karen Ellis spent the money on nonfiction — 123 kids’ science books to replace outdated materials.

“We realized we were doing a disservice to the nonfiction collections,” Ellis said, pulling from the shelves books about dinosaurs, robots and bees.

The grant is not a huge chunk of money — about $2,500 — but Ellis said it still makes a big difference. Libraries like hers also pay for computers, study spaces and, of course, for fresh bestsellers. “I could spend all my budget on just what comes out new every year,” she said.

Those expenses are important, too. “They got a wide range of knowledge of anything you ask for,” Dyrell Mcfarlin said of the staff in Taylor, “from computers to books to whatever you need help with.”

Mcfarlin was at the library Thursday converting his resume into a PDF file and searching the Texas Workforce Commission website for jobs that fit his skills. The ability to stay on top of what people need, especially in small, rural areas with limited access to high-speed internet, has helped keep libraries relevant to the communities they serve.

“So, as I’m spending money on these other things that have more attention,” Ellis said, “this [grant] allows me to go back to base,” meaning actual books — made of paper, which still exist — that help promote literacy and exploration for kids.

The grants, specifically designed for buying books and other collection materials, go to libraries big and small all over Texas. The festival says it’s given out nearly $3 million to more than 600 libraries in the last 21 years.

“This is one of those core values in a small town,” Ellis said.

Casey places her own value on the access to information she gets at the Hutto library. “It’s a free resource,” she said, and it’s one the Texas Book Festival doesn’t want to see erased.

 

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