Patrons use computers at the Texas County Library's Houston location. (File photo)

Back in 1947, Americans didn’t have access to nearly as many forms of media and entertainment as they do now, especially in rural locations.

So when the Texas County Library opened for business that year in a small building on Walnut Street in Houston, it was a pretty big deal.

Things are drastically different some 65 years later, but the county’s library system has kept up remarkably well since its humble beginnings, and it’s still a popular source of information and recreation for thousands of county residents.

As director Audrey Barnhart loves to point out, it’s all available at no charge.

“We try hard to keep up with technology,” Barnhart said. “Our oldest computers are from 2010, and we have a large number of services available to people, and they can use all of them absolutely and totally free.”

The library now has locations in four communities around Texas County, including the original location and current headquarters in Houston, as well as satellite locations on Walnut Avenue in Cabool, on Main Street in Licking and on the square in Summersville.

Barnhart, a Plato High School graduate and retired certified public accountant who ran a business in Houston from the early 80s until about six years ago, took the helm of the county library system in November 2008. Library operations are overseen by a five-member board (appointed by the Texas County commission), which currently includes president Gwen Ross, vice president Sally Smith, secretary Linda Roberts, treasurer Janet Fraley, and board member Florence Cartwright, and funding is split about 50-50 between various federal and state grants, and a 10-cent tax levy.

“The library has been managed very frugally over the years,” Barnhart said. “The board has done very well with what they’ve had been to work with.”

The county’s library system currently employs 10 people — two full-time and eight part-time — with two stationed at each satellite location and four in Houston. Its website offers users many opportunities, including browsing book and movie inventory by category, viewing new additions and even putting holds on books.

“We’re trying to make it easy for patrons to use and to give them a lot of good information,” Barnhart said. “And it’s all free.”

Statistics for the end of 2011 are still being tabulated, but at the conclusion of 2010, Texas County Library inventory included 59,737 volumes of written material and 5,174 movies and audio recordings.

“It’s quite a job to keep it all straight,” Barnhart said.

At the end of 2010, the library’s total of registered borrowers was 9,512. Circulation numbers (how many times people checked out materials, or logged on or off computers) totaled 183,436, with adults accounting for 137,232 and 46,204.

Library computer users amassed 35,559 sessions in 2010.

“And that’s growing,” Barnhart said. “We have more computers, better computers, and we have a new software that allows people to just walk in and log in with their library card number — they no longer have to stop at the front desk.

“Even though we’re in kind of an economically disadvantaged area, our technology is right up there with Springfield. I hope people appreciate that, because I believe it’s important for the community to have an opportunity to use current technology. And it’s free.”

About half of the printed material offered by the library is gathered through donations from the public. The other half is purchased.

“We get a lot of excellent donations, but I do a lot of shopping,” Barnhart said. “I don’t have standing orders — I generally won’t buy a book unless it’s on sale. Most of the books we buy are current best-sellers that are in demand or have been requested by a patron. By shopping, I can basically double the amount we get for the price we pay.

“Under my administration, we have spent from 15-to-18 thousand dollars a year on printed materials, books, movies and everything. The previous director spent about 30-to-33 thousand, and we’ve done twice as much.”

Barnhart buys books from several sources, including the Springfield Friends of the Library book sale, and other similar sales.

“Our budget is limited, and it’s going down,” Barnhart said. “We have to pay close attention to how we spend our money.”

People have the option to request that the library obtain books that are currently not in stock. When requests are made, Barnhart decides whether to buy a given book based on whether it’s one other people will also want to read.

“If we don’t have it, we’ll consider it,” Barnhart said, “and I’ll get it if it makes sense. But we don’t just get any book; it does have to make sense.”

There is also a free inter-library loan service that makes available to local patrons countless items at other libraries within the group Texas County is a member of.

“That’s a great service to our community,” Barnhart said. “If someone wants an obscure book that we don’t feel we can buy, we can usually borrow it for them.”

Best-seller books, movies, and audio recordings can be checked out for two-weeks at a time, while other books can go out for three weeks. Registered borrowers can join a best-sellers club that assures they’ll be contacted when the library obtains a new book by a number of favorite authors.

“We put the books on hold as they come in and contact the people,” Barnhart said. “As people finish, we move on down the list to the next person. Some of the more popular authors might have as many as 50 names on the list. In that situation, I’ll usually buy more of the books, because we don’t want people having to wait for a year to read something new by their favorite author.”

Many local residents may recall the bookmobile that brought information and entertainment right to the people for decades after the library first opened by running a designated route around the county. In an age when school libraries weren’t stocked the way they are now, the vehicle provided students reading opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise have had by stopping at schools around the county.

Fraley and Barnhart both remember anticipating the bookmobile’s arrival as they grew up, and even flagging it down so they could browse what it had to offer.

“Kids knew the route it traveled, so they would be there to greet it,” Fraley said. “It was such a neat thing and we all looked forward to it.”

“I remember it coming right to our family’s farm,” Barnhart said. “That was pretty special.”

Much of the history of the Texas County Library has been preserved in a collection of photos and clippings put together by local resident Rose Impey. The collection includes pictures of different bookmobiles, the library building in Houston in its early stages, and even board members in the 40s, 50s and 60s.

“We’re very thankful that she has provided that to us,” Barnhart said. “If she hadn’t saved all of that information, a lot of it would have just been lost to time.”

While improvements and additions are a yearly occurrence within the county library system, a proposed expansion of the Houston location was shot down a few years ago when access to federal stimulus money was denied. But growth is in the works at another location; thanks in large part to Community Development Block Grant from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, administered by Missouri Department of Economic Development, Summersville’s tiny facility will soon be replaced by a much larger one, which Barnhart hopes will open in the fall of this year.

“It’s going to about double the size,” she said. “And that’s good because they badly need the space there.”

Other improvements that have taken place during Barnhart’s watch include the installation of new oak cabinetry and procurement of new chairs at the Houston location, and the addition of several new computers and computer stations.

Technological advancement has always been a priority in the county’s library system, and making the Internet available is among its more notable accomplishments over the years. Library board members were instrumental in starting T.R.A.I.N. (the Texas County Rural Area Information Network) in the mid 1990s, which gave many county residents their first access to dial-up service.

The now independent entity is still actively improving Internet access in rural parts of the county, and has recently helped bring high-speed to some remote locations that previously only had dial-up.

Kids are an important focus of the library, and several youth programs are offered, including “Story Time” Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m., when volunteers read to youngsters for about an hour. There are also early-literacy computers for kids, which include games and information, but no Internet connection.

Barnhart said the range of people who utilize the library’s free service is about as great as the range of people who live in Texas County.

“There’s a wide variety,” she said. “We see people of all ages and all socio-economic backgrounds. Our computer use is mostly people who don’t have one at home, but our books and other media includes all types.”

But despite the fact that a significant number and variety of people take advantage of Texas County’s free library system, Barnhart believes there are others who are missing out.

“I feel like there are a lot of people in the county who don’t even realize all that’s available to them at the library,” she said. “There’s a lot. We have so many things for children — and it’s all free, except for making a trip to the library.

“Really, it’s really quite amazing for being in a small town in rural Missouri. It’s a pretty good library.”

We’re trying to make it easy for patrons to use and to give thema lot of good information, and it’s all free.”

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