“Everybody wants everyone else to succeed” in America’s third most populous county

When Fairbanks Branch Library Assistant Branch Manager Melinda Brinkle  says “everybody wants everyone else to succeed” in Harris County she refers both to 1) everybody within the Harris County Library System and 2) everybody within Harris County itself.

Melinda used the following example to illustrate how this process works: She engages regularly with other librarians throughout her system in an online group chat: “we post information that anyone on the channel can look at.” Melinda said that a large discussion had been on StoryWalk initiatives.

At the same time, Melinda also engages regularly with her partners. One of her partners – from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Baby Brain Development – recently sent Melinda information about free demonstration classes they were offering. Melinda said she “felt really comfortable promoting it in” her online community of librarians “because it’s free, and it’s a really great program to help parents understand the importance of working with their child and the impacts of that long term.”

Melinda said she has no trouble sharing resources both internally and externally because “it’s all informal, and everybody’s nice. Everybody wants everyone else to succeed.”

This case study explores how the library system based in America’s third most populous county created pathways for this resource sharing, as well as how those pathways have led to everything from fruit forests to skateboarding classes.

Given the size and complexity of this library system, this case study is organized around a few individuals who have made a big difference in this community.

This case study is part of HEAL (Healthy Eating and Active Living) at the Library, funded by the U.S. Institute of Museum & Library Services (# RE-246336-OLS-20)

Learn more about heal at the library >

Key Take-Aways:

– Engage regularly with other librarians in your system
– Engage regularly with community partners
– Genuinely want everyone to succeed

Background / Setting Up the Case Study:

Key lessons from this case study:

  • Focus on empowering library staff at all levels to engage in designing and delivering new services, often within community partners.
  • Library staff are key ‘engineers’ in discovering, recommending, testing, and implementing service innovations throughout the library system.
  • Shift from ‘coping with change’ to ‘leveraging change opportunities’ as they emerge

Harris County Libraries is a 29-branch system that encompasses Houston; it is one of the largest urban counties in the U.S. The library also includes a full-time Programs, Partnerships, and Outreach (PPO) Division that staffs outreach vehicles throughout the county. In 2001 the library leadership what they called HCPL 2.0, focused on empowering library staff at all levels to engage in designing and delivering new services, often with community partners. Catherine S. Park, library director from 19779-2006, wrote that “Many of our staff, leaders in whatever positions they occupy, are taking ownership for … becoming the key ‘engineers’ in discovering, recommending, testing and implementing service innovations throughout the library system. They are beginning to move from ‘coping with change’ to ‘leveraging change opportunities.”

That tradition of supporting leadership at all levels continues under the leadership of Edward Melton. Celeste Plew has worked in libraries since high school, not stopping to get a college degree. Melton encouraged Plew to continue her education, and with the library’s encouragement she not only earned her bachelor’s degree, but her Master’s in Library & Information Science as well.
“He’s been probably the sole reason why I have been encouraged to finish my bachelor’s degree and then go on to library school,” said Celeste Plew.
Even with hundreds of staff members, Melton always takes the time to encourage her and everyone else who works for the library. This personal touch is a key part of this library’s process of encouraging growth, innovation, and relationships.

Melinda added that that same model of leadership is “the model of the leadership within each branch.”

  • Location: Harris County, TX
  • Population: 4,780,913
  • Service Area: 2,150,870
  • Demographics: 69% White, 21% African American, 1% American Indian, 8% Asian American, 45% Hispanic or Latinx population
  • Staff Size: 364
  • Operating Budget: $33,321,844
  • Annual Library Visits: 3,464,764
  • Annual Programs: 28,527
  • Annual Program Audience: 472,184

How Section: Planting the seeds of change

Milagros Tanega is branch manager of the Evelyn Meador Library, Harris County Public Library. Her story illustrates one of the central findings of this project – namely that innovation comes from library workers/leaders and community partners coming together to work together.

When she moved to Texas she wanted to bring new ideas about sustainability to her library. She thought that the library’s greenspace would be ideal for hosting a community garden. She also knew that such an initiative is not something she could do on her own.

She “planted the seed” by telling the community she wanted to be part of efforts to support sustainability in her community and specifically that she’d love to bring a community garden to her library.

Through the simple act of sharing her idea, Milagros got connected to the collaborators she needed to get the idea off the ground. At a Rotary meeting, Milagros shared her garden idea and in the audience with the City Manager.

Shortly thereafter, the city manager was approached by a non-profit interested in started a community garden. The city manager connected the non-profit with Milagros and they started work together.

Milagros then “nurtured the seedlings” by setting up a structure to move the idea towards reality. Library staff met regularly with the non-profit to go over all the details and logistics involved with starting a community garden, developed a business plan, and successfully applied for a small grant. As a county employee, Milagros navigated a lot of legal requirements while the non-profit took lead on the actual installation work. They started small with an herb garden so they wouldn’t get too overwhelmed with the work. With that success in hand, they expanded to a raised bed garden. And with that success in hand, they expanded to a fruit forest. And they didn’t stop there. They now have a lending library of garden supplies and even a StoryWalk (pictured here), along the way expanding their web of partnerships to include schools and many more

The expansion of the effort over time is a product of how Milagros and her partners “harvested their bounty.” They created videos and shared updates on the Friends of the Library webpage, got the attention of local media, and took full advantage of social media.

The same channels that Milagros used to plant the seed of the community garden she know used to harvest, or celebrate, her bounty.

Throughout the course of this saga, Milagros took time to “rest the garden and prepare” for next steps. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. They didn’t start expanding until they got a grant, and through the structure of their regular meetings Milagros and her non-profit partner created space to debrief, share, and take stock of where they were and where they wanted to get to.

Where will it lead?

Skateboard story

Mixing art and sport, children gathered to design, build and skate at the North Houston Skate Park.

The park partnered with the Harris County Public Library and skateboard shop Clouds and Tricks for the weeklong skateboard building workshop from July 17-21.

The goal: Give local kids the opportunity to learn about, design, and build their own skateboard. Introduce them to the library, the skate park and other kids in the area and to give them a safe comfortable means to exercise.

The backstory: I work at the Aldine Public Library in Houston. This is an area of the city known as Greenspoint, with a large population of low-income families with a need for programs or activities for kids, including recreational opportunities and access to library services.   We try to meet these needs by providing a fun, safe environment and keeping our programs engaging and interactive in hopes to give kids something to look forward to. *(This section has been revised as per the request of one of the participating sponsors).*

The beginning: When I started in May, there was a skeletal beginning to a program by my predecessor, Ruby Robinson. She had been in touch with an organization called the Greater Greenspoint Redevelopment Authority and they offered to provide the funds for kids to be given brand new high-end skateboards, helmets, and training to use at the North Houston Skate Park which just happens to be in our part of town.

The players: Greater Greenspoint Redevelopment Authority: Sponsor, Trenna Dockery: Manager of North Houston Skate Park, John, and Michelle Mayes: Owners of Clouds and Tricks Skate Shop, ordered/delivered materials, taught building boards and skating, Myself: Youth Services Librarian at Aldine Branch Library in the Harris County Library System pulling all of the strings together.

The early attempts: We ran the program twice in the summer. Both were successful in that we served the number of kids that we hoped to, ten in the first session, twelve in the second but the catch was that we weren’t serving the kids in our neighborhood. The two-pronged obstacle that we were facing was that most of our participants found out about the program from the skatepark or from the internet, but most of our patrons don’t have access to the internet at home and most couldn’t get a ride to the skatepark to participate.

Highlight: When the transportation component was secure I was able to go up to one of our regular kids (who I’ll call James) who was hanging with his friends. He had wanted to be in the program since it began but never could because he couldn’t get to the skate park.

Me: “Hey, do you guys know anyone interested in the skate program?”

Kids: “Yeah, James wants to.”

James: “No way to get there,” arms crossed, slides further down in seat.

Me: “We have a bus this time…”

James: shoots up to his feet, “How do I sign up?”

Throwing hope into the air: Thanks to a colleague I was connected with the local YMCAof Greater Houston. They were more than willing to provide transportation and extra assistance at the skate park which meant that some of the kids whose only obstacle to attending could now safely and efficiently attend the program. I also posted a public plea on Facebook to see if anyone could suggest a fairly priced T-shirt company with quality work. That is when Ann Brooks and her Black Swan Screen Printing company joined us and improved our program tenfold.

Black Swan Screen Printing: Ann Brooks is a highly respected Houston businesswoman. She has been an essential figure in the art and music industries. She saw my plea and messaged me offering to meet to discuss our needs for the program and see what she could do to help us provide not only the current students but the past students with a commemorative shirt. She found an incredible designer, Huls Design and he made an original design for us. She then created a video of each shirt being hand pulled on a silkscreen in her workshop. Ann also introduced me to artist Jake Eshelman who owns the company Side Project Skateboards.

Adding an art component: For the first couple of sessions, our art component of the program was incredibly simplistic. We showed some pictures of what skateboards could look like and provided the kids with pens and simple paints. For the latest session, Jake came out and talked to the kids. He told his story of what skateboards and skateboarding mean to him, how art is infused in his life and how the two can be combined. His words of warmth and knowledge made a marked improvement in the kid’s creativity and confidence. He walked around from child to child giving tips, advice, and encouragement. We all agree that this session the boards were more vibrant, cohesive and inspired. Jake loved the concept and has agreed to become a regular partner to the program. He already has more ideas of how to introduce art to the kids and has offered to supply better paints and supplies.




The future: In this last session we were able to provide transportation to North America’s largest skateboard park, skateboards and helmets and the lessons to build them, T-shirts, art instruction, snacks every day, pizza the final day and an introduction to the library. We have plans to continue this event quarterly and would love to continue to expand and improve the event for all involved. Questions? Comments? Ideas? All are welcome.

Getting started in your community

But the support goes beyond kind words. Outreach Coordinator, Bryan Kratish, helped develop a mentorship program, allowing staff to build skills and grow as individuals.

Support is also provided for creating positive interactions among teams. Staff are enabled to share ideas across branches in regularly scheduled meetings and using their online intranet platform with different groups for each service area, such as youth programming. Staff share information “anytime someone comes across something that’s good, that they think other people could benefit from,” said Melinda and Suellen.

Staff are even supported in reaching beyond the library to find additional expertise in the community. Linda Stevens and her Programs, Partnerships, and Outreach (PPO) division take team building to the next level by connecting local branch staff with community partners, like a match-maker.

“I am glad right now, one of the things that we’ve had the it’s our directors finally agreed to strategic planning. And he likes the freedom that comes with not having things pinned down. But I think once we can identify these things as part of a system plan, then we can say, Make a plan, you need to individually make a plan to uphold this area, as your staff change. So even if their interests change a bit, what will fill this gap?” Linda Stevens


  • “So what has really helped me is that they have, they are leaders of a coalition, in our area called *Healthy Living matters. And the goal of that coalition is to reduce childhood obesity. So all of the people that they bring together from that, not only can I connect with all of these great resources in the health department, but I’m connecting with the *food bank, and I’m connecting with *the schools and, and all of these people in the room that are really supporting a lot of the same goals. So that has been a big a big, big us. I mean, and that’s where we started the Summer Meals is from working on that coalition.” Linda Stevens


  • “You have libraries, like the one I’m in that has a huge friends group with a huge bank account. Yeah. And then you have places that are lucky if they have one friend. Yeah. And so I really help out where the places who do not have that friends group, because the equity would be ridiculous if we didn’t step in and take care of it.” Linda Stevens


The support seen throughout the library system is paired with freedom for each branch and individual staff member to seek out ways to contribute that are meaningful to them.

On the branch level this means learning the needs of that local community and finding ways to meet them. “As library professionals as public servants, it is often our duty and our responsibility to find what the community needs, and meet that,” said Celeste Plew, noting the lack of programs in area schools devoted to emotional well being after traumatic events like hurricanes.

For individuals freedom means being allowed, and even encouraged, to follow personal passions in developing resources and programming that can be shared with both colleagues and community members. “Like with a lot of really wonderful programming, it comes from the passion of one person at a location and they make it happen,” said Linda Stevens, regarding yoga programs.


Serving the community is not just about programs and partnerships, but about being resourceful. Resourcefulness begins internally, understanding what skills, passions, and connections you bring to the table. Also knowing where you are lacking allows you to seek the appropriate partners to achieve success. “I knew that I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do by myself. So working with them was very helpful. Because they helped me. They make me look good. And I helped make them look good. Hopefully.” Josh Rodrigue

Coworkers are excellent resources to turn to for support. Fellow library staff can share their skills, knowledge, and community connections. “Linda Stevens actually, she’s mostly our port, the point person for all the branches when it comes to outreach and partnerships. They’re mostly county organizations, she’s been a system for many years, and they know to go to her.” Melinda and Suellen

Action Steps from Harris County Public Library:

Support Staff

– Build Your Reputation: join coalitions, PPO – equity

– Find Freedom Within the Organization

– Be Resourceful and Proactive

“As library professionals as public servants, it is often our duty and our responsibility to find what the community needs, and meet that.” – Celeste Plew

“We’re well known that the library shows up, we’re easy to work with, we deliver, and we deliver well.” – Bryan Kratish