The Cypress Creek Library - Its First Five Years

In the early 1960’s, the rural region in North Harris County known as Cypress Creek (or later as FM 1960 area) first began to feel the effects of a Houston, growing by leaps and bounds, spilling over into it’s sleepy confines. In 1960, 5,580 residents inhabited the area, which stretched from Interstate 45 to Highway 290, meandering through the watershed of Cypress Creek and along a two-lane, tree –lined “major thoroughfare” called Jack Rabbit Road. They watched with perhaps amazement the development of affluent subdivisions featuring golf courses and large brick homes complete with wet bars, game rooms and swimming pools. Those original inhabitants, many of them descended from families which immigrated from Germany in the last century, were primarily farmers and ranchers. Their new neighbors were, in large part, businessmen and executives from well-established communities in the north and northeast, transferred here by their companies to share in the lucrative opportunities to be found in the coming financial center of the southwest. These new Texans had a lot of adjustments to make. As the years went by, many who came into the area found that the lack of public library service, a nearby community college and a place for the performing arts were some things they couldn’t adjust to being without. By the early 1970’s, community leaders, such as Caroline Unick, Terry and Elizabeth Jones and Glen Wilkerson, had set out to build the kind of community in which they wanted their children to grow up. In these efforts they were joined by some “old timers” in the community: Jon Lindsay (who was eventually to become County Judge), County Commissioner Bob Eckels, school administrators Gene LaForge and Joseph Beneke and others.


Library service in the unincorporated areas of Harris County was and is the province of the Harris County Public Library. In the 1960’s the Harris County Public Library system was primarily a loose network of “one-room-one-woman” libraries scattered in communities surrounding Houston. The county librarian, Mary Owensby, was all too aware that major changes had to be made to meet the needs of outlying regions of the county, which by 1980 would scarcely be recognizable as the quiet, rural areas they were before the sixties and seventies. Toward that end Mrs. Owensby requested that a study of Harris County branch library physical needs be made by the Houston City Planning Department, which had done similar studies for the city in 1965 and 1969. That study, published in January, 1971, pointed out that the Cypress Creek area was so extensive and growing so rapidly that it would require several branch libraries to provide adequate service. The need for library service in the Cypress Creek area was thus established. Mrs. Owensby’s formidable task was to convince the County commissioners’ Court to come up with the money--lots of it--for a library site, a building, staff and books.


At the grass roots level, a number of organizations formed committees to investigate the possibilities of a library for the area. Working separately, committees of such groups as the Cypress Creek United Civic Association, the Houston North Association, the League of Women Voters and numerous PTA’s and PTO’s were not able to accomplish very much. It fell to the newly formed North Harris County Branch of the American Association of University Women to provide leadership and to consolidate all these efforts into one effective organization to lobby and work for in whatever ways possible a Cypress Creek Library. That organization, which officially came into being on November 1, 1973, was the Cypress Friends of the Library. Its first president was Caroline Unick. From the beginning there was close cooperation between the Friends organization, Mrs. Owensby and other Harris County Public Library administrators. From the outset, County Commissioner Bob Eckels was supportive of the proposed library. County Judge Bill Elliot was less cooperative. Tempers flared, and at times, the new library appeared to be squarely in the middle of heated political squabbles. Another citizens group in Spring Branch was also pressing the Harris County Commissioners’ Court for funds for an enlarged library facility.


It was with great relief--to say nothing of tremendous satisfaction--that the Friends of Cypress Creek Library learned the months of making phone calls, circulating petitions, and holding meetings had paid off. A Cypress Creek Library was to be included in the 1974 budget. $300,000.00 was allocated for the construction of a 10,000 square-foot building, its furnishings and collection. This figure was later augmented by an additional $70,000.00 to offset increased construction costs caused by inflation.


First priority was to seek a site for the new library. On October 18, 1973, the Spring Independent School District Board--always supportive of the movement for a public library--voted to donate land adjacent to the administration building on Medberry Street, which was located near Interstate 45 just off FM 1960. Other sites were discussed: adjacent to the new North Harris County Community College campus, at Jones Road and FM 1960, and near Cypress Creek just off Stuebner Airline. A proposal for a multipurpose facility housing the library, a jail and other county offices was made by Judge Elliot. It met with such strong disapproval from the community that the idea was quickly abandoned. In February, 1974, Glenn Wilkerson negotiated with Wimbledon Venture, a development company, for a site for the Cypress Creek Christian Church, which was to function also as a community center. He convinced the company to donate ground for a library across the street from the proposed new church.


The Friends of the Library’s first preference was for the Medberry Street site, and, second, for the Cypress Creek site. County Engineer, Bill Loss, and the new country librarian, Katherine Skinner Brown, conducted surveys of the proposed sites. The Cypress Creek site was chosen because it was closer to present and projected concentration of the population. It was also more centrally located to all three school districts, making it more accessible to a greater number of students.


In April, 1974 the architectural firm of Clovis Heimsath Associates, Inc., was appointed to design the building. The general architect was Joseph W. Santamaria. The interior architect was Jim Gafney. Jerry Mendenhall also contributed to the architectural design of the building, as did interior designer Tom Jackson. Superior Contractors, Inc., won the contract to construct the 9,600 square-foot building.


The official ground breaking took place on Sunday, April 27, 1975. The first “spadeful” of ground (actually overturned by a power drill) was raised by Spring Independent School District representative Milton Cooper, County Commissioner Bob Eckels and the first president of the Cypress Creek Friends, Caroline Unick. A banquet emceed by Glenn Wilkerson was held following the ground breaking to celebrate the new facility, which was to have a capacity of 54,000 volumes and a meeting room adequate to accommodate 56 persons. The keynote speaker was the future County Judge Jon Lindsay.


As construction proceeded on the new building, the members of the Friends, warned that the county budget would not be sufficient to provide the quality of books needed to stock the new facility, continued to work, carrying on book drives and arranging fund-raising events. The Friends also sponsored story hours and other children’s programs at club houses in various subdivisions which were tremendously successful and well attended. Throughout the first five years of its existence, the Cypress Creek Friends of the Library have continued to provide substantial financial and moral support to the library.


The building, originally scheduled for completion in January, 1976 was finally finished in June of that year. Members of the Friends got a “sneak preview” on Friday night, June 18. The doors officially opened to the public the next day. There was an initial book stock of 15,000 volumes. The formal dedication did not take place until Saturday October 28, 1976. Among activities at that ceremony were a concert by a string trio from Symphony North, the presentation of an American flag from U. S. Representative Bill Archer, and the screening of ”Houston--and Then Some”, a film produced by County commissioner Bob Eckels and television personality Judd McIlvaine.


Although from the start, County Librarian Katherine Skinner Brown recognized the need for a staff of ten members at the Cypress Creek Library, she was quoted in the Woodlands Sun in February, 1975 as saying that there would probably be “no more than two employees provided by county funds due to limitations of the county budget”. The library actually opened with a staff of four. The first librarian was Richard Arduengo. The first children’s librarian was Ginny Martin. In the spring of 1977, Arduengo was replaced by a new librarian, Ann Kling Harris. The second children’s librarian, Rob Safely, joined the staff in June, 1977. He was made assistant branch librarian when a third professional position was created in the spring of 1978. Ann Harris left the staff in May, 1978, and it was several months before her replacement, Leela Krishnamurthy, a native of India, arrived. Connie Paulson was children’s librarian from August, 1978, until the spring of 1979, when she was appointed librarian of the Tomball Branch Library. Safely left in October, 1979, to join the staff of the Houston Public Library. Elizabeth Hulsey was appointed children’s librarian in mid-October, 1979, and promoted to assistant librarian in January, 1980. Upon Mrs. Krishnamurthy’s resignation at the end of January, 1980, Augusta (Guusje) Moore, a long time Harris County Public Library employee was named the new Cypress Creek Librarian.


At the beginning of 1980, the library reached a definite turning point. In spite of the not-inconsiderable talents of the first three librarians, no one appeared satisfied with the state of affairs at the Cypress Creek Library. Patron dissatisfaction was evident in a number of critical letters to the editor in area newspapers. Staff members were equally frustrated with the level of service they were providing. The reasons for this situation were many—and exceedingly complex. The Harris County Public Library system was no longer a “little old lady operation”. Throughout the 1970’s a competent, well-trained administrative staff was developed. Professional librarians--ones with Master’s degrees in Library science from accredited schools--were placed in most of the branches. It was obvious that the Harris County Public Library was on its way toward becoming a major library system. Cypress Creek Library, perhaps because of its remote location from the central office and other branches, perhaps because of other reasons, had failed to function as an integral part of that system. For the entire system to work smoothly, it was essential that Cypress Creek, one of the biggest branches, operate within that framework.


In the winter and spring months of 1980, a badly-needed reorganization took place in the library. The result was far better service to patrons. Cypress Creek’s fourth children’s librarian, Keddy Outlaw, was hired, and another professional position, that of reference librarian, was transferred to the branch. That position was held by Janet Cornell from April 1980, until January, 1981. As of January 1, 1981, the Cypress Creek Library staff consists of four professional librarians, five desk assistants (one a CETA position which will cease to exist in the fall of 1981), one janitor and one part-time shelver (also a CETA position, unfilled at this time.) Within a few days of the library’s opening in the summer of 1976, the shelves were virtually empty. This was an indication of things to come. The library’s monthly circulation has consistently outnumbered the total number of volumes in the collection. The demand for reference service has remained high. The reference collection and stock of back issues of periodicals, with the considerable financial support of the Friends, have become among the best in the Harris County Public Library system. More interlibrary loans were currently processed by the Cypress Creek Library than by any other branch in the system.


In the late summer of 1979, the card catalog was replaced by the microfiche union catalog for the Harris County Public Library system, providing patrons with information about all books owned by the system and not just those at the Cypress Creek Library. Cypress Creek Library was one of the first branches to be chosen to participate in the Houston Area Library System’s Dataphase automation system. In preparation for this computerized system, the library began issuing new library cards to all patrons in June, 1980. It was anticipated that by January, 1981, all “old” patrons would have been pre-registered. However, new cards are still being issued to as many as 115 borrowers on a Saturday, an indication of how the area continues to grow, and how demand for library service is keeping pace with that growth. From mid-1979, all books processed by the Harris County Public Library’s central cataloging division have anticipated that the rest of the Cypress Creek collection will be converted by the summer of 1981, and many of the clerical routines, such as charging in and out of library materials, computation of fines, sending of overdue notices, and tagging of requests will be taken over by the computer, freeing librarians and desk assistants for more creative tasks.


As the library approaches its fifth anniversary, it is obvious that the main challenges are the ones the library has faced since its inception. The population of the Cypress Creek area, predicted in the Houston City Planning Department’s branch library study in 1971 to rise from 5,580 in 1960 to 115,199 in 1990, actually exceeds 200,000 in1981. The Cypress Creek Library’s total book stock of approximately 26,000 volumes remains inadequate. The ideal library staff of ten members, envisioned by Katherine Skinner Brown in 1975, still falls short of that goal in 1981, regardless of increasing demands for service. Another consistent feature--more positive, however--is that support from the local community, especially from the Cypress Creek Friends of the Library, is as strong as ever. The 1979 membership drive resulted in excess of $20,000.00 for books, microfiche, periodicals, equipment and programming. Volunteers from that group also continue to provide badly needed man hours shelving books and assisting with other routines.


In 1981, the Cypress Creek community doesn’t resemble the community it was in the 1960’s. Jack Rabbit Road has long since been transformed into a fearsome five-lane obstacle course, lined with fast-food franchises and portable signs. It has also lost its charming name, and is now referred to merely as FM 1960. Farmers’ pastures have become subdivisions and strip shopping centers. Houston city fathers look hungrily to the north, seeing the FM 1960 area as a plum ripe for annexation. The trees and tranquility which brought people to North Harris County in the first place seem to be rapidly disappearing. But on the brighter side, many of the goals the “new settlers” set for themselves a decade and more ago have become realities. There is a North Harris County Community College; there is a place for Symphony North and Playhouse 1960 to perform, and perhaps most important of all, the people of Cypress Creek have a real library.

 

--Elizabeth Hulsey
January 21, 1981