San Antonio Library system gets set to celebrate its centennial

Judge Roy Bean made a name for himself as the Law West of the Pecos River. But the man who once fined a corpse $40 for carrying a concealed weapon lived at 407 E. Glenn Ave. in San Antonio before he moved west in 1882.

Buck Taylor called Bill Sutton a horse thief sometime in 1868. Bill killed Buck, and John Wesley Hardin killed

Steve Mayer, who lives near the Landa branch library, reads a book on the former mansion's second floor mezzanine. Mayer often comes to the library to relax and escape the South Texas heat. Photo by Mark Greenberg
Bill. So began the famous Sutton-Taylor Feud in DeWitt County that eventually claimed 58 lives.

Bob Augustine was a troublemaker who shot people if they stood in the way of his twisted pursuit of a good time. One day he rode his horse into the stands of the famous West Side chili queens and disrupted their commerce. Authorities hauled him into court, where he threatened to harm the judge. He was released. Angry citizens had enough of his bullying, and they hanged him from a tree near the San Fernando Cathedral.

Longtime Bexar County District Clerk Elton Cude wrote a book, The Free and Wild Dukedom of Bexar, and recorded the stories of people who made names for themselves in South Texas. Copies of his book are available to the public via San Antonio's library system, an institution that many citizens might take for granted. That would be easy to do, since a public library is not an everyday high priority in the daily lives of local citizens. But, as Library director Laura Isenstein points out, "The San Antonio Public Library system is part of your life from the day you are born to the day you're carried to the grave."

The first 100 years of the city's public libraries have seen both hard financial times and days of milk and honey. Next month marks the centennial of the San Antonio Public Library system; events include a $200-per-ticket gala celebration and unveiling of a Dale Chihuly sculpture on June 7.

Library staffers and Leah Carter Johnston chronicled the history of the library in the book, San Antonio, St. Anthony's Town. It was formally established in 1903 when Andrew Carnegie gave the city $50,000 to build one, and Caroline Kampmann donated a property along the San Antonio River. George W. Brackenridge gave the city $5,000 for books, and other organizations donated their collections, and the library was born in what is the present-day Hertzberg Circus Building on Market Street.

Baby boomers will remember the new Main Library that was built at the corner of Market and St. Mary's streets in 1964. Five new library branches also were included in the $1.77 million bond issue, which also paid for a new bookmobile service.

The Main Library is now part of San Antonio's history. The enchilada-red Central Library was erected in the 1990s at the old Sears store where Soledad meets Main Street, and it has become the flagship of the city's library system.

Put the library's history in reverse once again, and one would find books have always been shared through the efforts of volunteers. "Ask about the beginning of the public library in any town or city of the United States and you will almost always have the same reply," Leah Johnston wrote. "A club, or a church, or perhaps only a civic-minded individual got together a few books, loaned them out to anyone who wished to read them, and eventually the people demanded a publicly supported library."

Some in San Antonio did more than volunteer. Edward Dixon Westfall was a local farmer who donated his 1,000-acre farm to the city for use as a public library site. Today, the Westfall Branch bears his name in honor of his generosity. Hannah and Harry Landa sold their New Braunfels estate and moved into their new home on four acres at the corner of Bushnell and Shook in San Antonio. Years later, Harry donated the elegant two-story home to the city, with the stipulation that it be used as a public library and children's playground. The city converted the home into a library, but the children's playground did not appear until 50 years later.

Next month's celebration will put the city's library system back into the public's radar for a couple of days, but much planning and work has been underway to improve its services. The city issued bonds in 1999, and four new branches are either under construction or in the planning stages. The cost of each new branch is between $2.6 to $3 million, and funding is still short of the goal, but the plan is to issue certificates of obligation - a way to circumvent a bond issue - to complete the projects. (Although the longer the projects are delayed, the higher the improvement costs.) The San Pedro Branch, the oldest in the city, recently got a new roof, and the Hannah Landa Branch underwent an extensive renovation in 2000.

"We're definitely improving," Director Laura Isenstein said recently. "The challenge is to continue to get the operating dollars. The budget deficit will affect the library system, but we will not find out how until late June."

The library system's annual budget is $18.9 million. San Antonio ranks low in comparison to other cities with a $2.16 per capita expense for library materials. Portland, Oregon spends $9.28 per capita for books and materials, and Abilene and Houston spend more than $3 per capita. Purchase of materials in San Antonio comprises 16.4 percent of the budget.

"Most libraries are adequate if you spend 15 percent, outstanding if you are at 20 percent. We're doing all right, but we could do better," Isenstein explained. "San Antonio has 1.4 books per person. We're low, but we need more money to build those collections."

The cost of stocking a single new library branch with materials is $800,000, twice the cost of bringing the Dallas Cowboys training camp to town for the summer. But which is the better long-term benefit for San Antonio?

Library staff recently conducted a random telephone poll and various focus groups to identify library patrons as well as those who don't use the library. "We talked to children, educators, the elderly, business members, and the general community," Isenstein said. "We reviewed and revised our mission and created a vision of where we are headed and expect to be in five years."

Although there are 19 branch libraries in nearly every corner of the city, Isenstein said part of the library system's strategy is to be more visible in the community. "We need to get out to people. We're doing better, but we have a way to go."

An upgrade in the system's online catalog, is in the works, which could streamline the look of the Web site when it is accessed at the library or from a home computer, and make the catalog easier to use. Library staffers are also tracking usage of library collections, to improve the book selection and availability.

Some residents have criticized the library for its small Latino collection, which is another improvement on the horizon. "With a large majority of Latinos in the city, we want to provide access to cultural and historical material about México, and the migration of Mexicans to the Texas region. One of our goals is to create a library within the library. We want to build a signature resource collection on Latino resource and information books, film, magazines that are focused on Latinos," Isenstein said.

The library system is ambitious as it heads into next 100 years, but city's budget priorities are streets, drainage, police, and fire protection. Libraries stand on the second rung of the ladder of city government, and groups such as the Friends of the Library and the San Antonio Library Foundation have stepped in to fill in where the city leaves off.

Yet, support also must come from library patrons. The quality of San Antonio's public library system depends on the community's appreciation of the knowledge it contains. With San Antonio's high illiteracy rate, the library's nexus as a place to develop a love of reading can't be overstated; its success depends on city leaders' willingness to shore up a short-funded - yet vital - resource. •


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