Our libraries’ humble beginnings are legendary, told word of mouth from one generation to the next. It is a story that is populated with characters who believed in the necessity of a library for civilized living, who had a vision that grew along with the size of the community, and who saw no obstacle as insurmountable. It is also a testament to what the collective effort and indomitable spirit of a community can achieve.
It was the spring of 1983 when Doris Walcutt asked her neighbor, “Don’t you think we need a library out here? Wouldn’t it be nice?” Eleanor Drake agreed: “How could an area like Eanes NOT have one?” The two envisioned a cozy little library, maybe with a couple of rocking chairs for when they were older.
“I had lived out here for 35 years,” Doris Walcutt later recounted. “I KNEW we could do anything we put our minds to… This area is like a small town, and you need a community center.” An ad was placed in the local Westlake Picayune inviting anyone who loved libraries to come to a meeting at the Presbyterian Church, and the 65 people who turned up created a library committee.
Requests for donations to start a library went out. Barrels for books were set out at shopping centers and schools. Within five months, 20,000 donated books were being sorted by area school librarians, and excess books were being sold at one-day events in shopping center parking lots. Cash donations totaling $10,000 rolled in. Then in June, the Texas Commerce Bank offered 1,200 square feet of space in their new building at no cost for two years (which they later graciously extended for three more). The Westbank Community Library had its first home.
Beth Fox, later hired as Director, remembers Doris as the driving force in those early days. “Doris was one of those people who believed absolutely. She would look at people and say, you need to do this. And people would say, okay!” As Doris found people to help, Eleanor would put them to work, coordinating efforts to cover books, type catalog cards, build shelves, and find thousands of boxes for books.
Grant funding from the Lola B. Wright Foundation, assistance from County Line Barbecue (Doris’s son) and Calcasieu Lumber (Eleanor’s nephew), and continued donations from the community resulted in an opening collection of about 5,000 items, including a core collection of reference materials.
On March, 1984, less than one year since the meeting at the church and with only some of the cataloging finished, the intrepid founders of Westbank Library decided to have an opening preview party. They expected 50 people; 400 came! The library started checking out books on March 5th.
Doris and Eleanor continued their involvement with the library for many more years, through the planning and building of our first permanent home. Today, you will still find rocking chairs in our library with Doris’s and Eleanor’s names on them.
The path that took the library from its first borrowed location at the bank to two beautiful permanent facilities, and from year-round fundraising as a nonprofit to dedicated sales tax funding as a library district, took the efforts of the entire community.
Close to 3000 volunteers have given over 400,000 hours of their time to the library in its three decades of existence. The community has donated more than $2.5 million to the library, not including land donations, free rent, or other in-kind donations. There were thousands upon thousands more who contributed at fundraising events.
Our libraries would not exist except for the dedication of so many, and it is a mark of the character of this community that so many of our very early volunteers are still volunteering over 30 years later. Throughout the years there have been SO MANY notable contributions:
- finding land for our two libraries
- helping with four building projects
- soliciting donations for building campaigns through the Westbank 500, phone bank pledges, and endowments
- writing grants and keeping the books
- building, painting, packing, and moving
- gardening, mowing, weeding, and planting
- running the book sale room, overseen by Jeanne Ferrin for over 30 years
- coordinating volunteer activities, managed by Flo Macklin for over 25 years
- participating in our Friends of the Library group, who have donated so much to the library, including our Mark Twain statue
- creating and spreading PR
- creating quilts and painting murals
- serving on our governing board
- keeping records and scrapbooks
- donating tens of thousands of books each year
- donating over 10,000 hours each year to help run circulation, technical processing, programs, and book sales
- planning and participating in a jillion fundraising events,
- raising over $200,000 per year by the mid-90s: the wedding dress tea, annual fun runs, a roast of the High school coaches, a murder mystery dinner, tile painting, an Evening with Laura Bush at the Governor’s Mansion, book sales, bake sales, craft sales, garage sales, carnivals, and concerts
- packaging and selling the plans for the murder mystery dinner to hundreds of other libraries
- working on petition drives and get-out-the vote drives to create a library district
- getting library district legislation passed – and that is a story all its own!
This community created our libraries from thin air. It was a labor of love, with equal emphasis on the words labor and love! They have created a legacy that will serve many generations to come.
While dedicated sales tax funding has meant the end to year-round fundraising, our volunteer force remains central to our operations. About 400 people donate close to 15,000 hours each year in technical processing, programs, book sales, the Friends, the Board, and especially running the checkout desk. Besides providing the labor of about seven full-time staff members, our volunteers provide a vital connection to the community that is often missing in day-to-day life. They are and always will be the heart of library.
The space donated to the community by the Texas Commerce Bank in 1984 was tiny. Displays spilled out into the hallway, and an empty room behind the library space was commandeered for a used book sale room. The library was not on the ground floor, which meant volunteers had to navigate two flights of stairs with armloads of books each day. Storytime was held on the front lawn. The library needed a bigger home.
And once it got a bigger home, it still needed a bigger home. And once it got that…
The original Westbank Library
Building a library with no money was the next challenge for our founders. Fortunately, Eanes ISD Board member Valerie Bristol saw the usefulness of a permanent library to support education in the community, and she was instrumental in securing a lease agreement for a triangle of school district land at 1309 Westlake High Drive for 99 years at $1 per year. Shortly after, the name of the road was changed (because of confusion with nearby Westlake Drive) to Westbank Drive.
Land in hand, Doris Walcutt and team went to work applying for grants, getting a contractor to work for cost and an architect to all but donate his services. Building materials and furnishings were again subsidized by Calcasieu Lumber Company. The new 4600 square foot limestone building with the green roof opened November 12, 1989.
The library had a large central checkout desk near the entrance, with a book sale room and a workroom. A peaked ceiling feature is still evident in the current, twice-renovated building. The children’s room at one end was dominated by a large puzzle table that was cut down from a fabric store pattern book table. The collection grew to 22,000 items, including VHS tapes. Young adult literature was in its infancy and comprised one shelf.
Over the next 10 years, 750,000 visitors would pass through the small library’s doors. The community needed a larger collection, more places to sit, a meeting room and more work space for staff.
The library adds 10,000 square feet
Board members knew from the moment we moved in to the 1989 building that it was too small. In 2000, with new funding available from sales tax revenues, the building committee, led by Allen Jacoby, tripled the size of the library by adding a new two-story section designed by Tim Aynesworth.
The original library became the adult wing with a quiet reading room and computer area.
A large castle-themed children’s area was added, as well as administrative offices, a large workroom and staff kitchen, meeting rooms, a balcony, a larger book sale room, and plenty of storage. Over time, the back yard was developed with an arbor and play area, and a community garden was eventually added in 2012.
More library of course meant more use. As the collection grew to about 65,000 items, including movies and audios, annual circulations grew past 500,000. The library adopted a 7-day schedule and staffing grew to 12 full-time equivalent employees. The number of programs grew and attendance surged past 10,000, regularly overflowing our meeting room and our parking lot. Between 2000 and 2009, 1.8 million people passed through the doors – more than twice the number that had visited the smaller library in the same amount of time. In 2009, visitation hit 300,000 from a population of 25,000.
Laura Bush Community Library reaches the west end of district
Out of room once again, the Board created committees to find land and start fundraising for a branch. Texas Research International (TRI) founder J. Scott Thornton came to the rescue with the donation of a 10-acre spot high on a hill. Studio 8 Architects designed a building to take advantage of the amazing views. The $4.5M building was paid for with a mix of savings, fundraising, and a loan. Laura’s Library opened July 19, 2009.
Laura’s Library, named for Texas’ most famous librarian and longtime friend of our library, boasts an enclosed family center and a large meeting room. There is a Veterans Courtyard with flagpole in front, and down below the library a hiking trail snakes through a canyon full of madrone trees.
Westbank gets a renovation
By 2015, Westbank had seen about 4 million visitors since its original opening. It had been 15 years since the addition, and use and time had taken a toll. Besides needing a general refresh and the reconfiguration of some spaces, safety concerns were raised by the fire inspector.
The ensuing renovation, paid for with $2.2M that had been saved for this purpose, resulted in the installation of a fire sprinkler system. New ceilings with a higher acoustical rating were installed as well as LED lighting. The children’s room was enclosed to create a discovery space and allow for the joyous noises of storytime to be contained within. An additional meeting room was created, staff spaces were reconfigured, and bathrooms and kitchen were all renovated. Flooring was replaced, walls were painted inside and out, and the landscaping was refreshed.
Rooms in the renovated library were dedicated to recently retired Director Beth Fox (Family Center), Jeanne Ferrin (Book Store), and Flo Macklin (Collaboration Room) for their extensive contributions to the library over three decades.
As a stand-alone government agency, a library district must pay for the maintenance of its facilities. With careful budgeting, we can save for future capital projects to eliminate the need for additional fundraising.
Passing library district legislation
By the mid-90s, everyone knew the library needed a permanent source of funding if it was going to continue to grow, and once again community members came to the rescue. Newly elected State Representative Susan Combs, who had served as our Chair of the Endowment Campaign, began research on potential legislative solutions for the library. Board members Jann Phenix Brown and Will Richardson co-chaired the effort on our behalf to get the library district legislation passed in 1997. Jann co-opted her husband, lobbyist and future Board member Dick Brown, to write the legislation.
Library district legislation, if passed, would allow communities in rural areas to create a library district (by election) that would be funded by a percentage of sales tax. Jann convinced Representative Terry Keel and Senator Gonzalo Barrientos to sponsor the legislation. Jann, Will, and Dick spent hundreds of hours at the Capitol meeting with legislators and aides, coordinating presentations at committee hearings, orchestrating contacts between librarians and their legislators, and writing press releases.
Beth remembers, “First the legislation had to be rewritten from a property tax bill to a sales tax bill; next the bill was held up by the House State Affairs Committee until a compromise could be found; then the bill stalled in the House Calendars Committee until the last possible day. As we sat in the balcony throughout the evening of the final day that the library bill could be heard, we knew that the bill would be dead unless it was heard by midnight. When the bill passed at 10 pm, we could scarcely believe that we had succeeded.” The day after it passed the House, it also passed the Senate.
The legislation would not have passed without the vigorous defense by Representative Keel on the floor of the House. In later sessions, Representative Keel also passed amendments to the original legislation in order to allow any county, regardless of size, to create a library district, to allow library districts to cancel uncontested elections, and to allow the use of sales tax revenue as collateral for improving library facilities. Fifteen communities now have libraries because Representative Keel and Senator Barrientos believed that the people of Texas should have the opportunity to learn, share, and grow.
Westbank becomes a library district
Legislation allowed the library to petition for an election to create a district. An area was defined that aligns with the Eanes School District except for those portions that had already been annexed by the city of Austin (and therefore had no sales tax available). In 1998, the community voted to create a district by a margin of 84% to 16%.
There are no manuals to follow for becoming a government agency. The Board, led by Jim Bannerot, had its work cut out learning all the legislation that applies to government agencies – everything from open meetings to public funds investment and Board elections. Library funds had to be transferred from the 501(c)3 to new district accounts. As sales tax revenue began trickling in, the new Board of Trustees could finally begin looking at increases in staffing and planning for an addition to the small library.
When Beth Wheeler Fox was hired to be the first librarian of Westbank in 1984, there was no hiring process, no application, no interview. “I’m pretty sure I’m the only one of the librarians who sorted books who didn’t have a job,” remembers Beth. “I did have some public library experience, which was unusual. Most of the other people did not.”
While she will tell you that she did not know what she was doing when she first started out, she soon found her footing with support from Doris Walcutt and Eleanor Drake. Comments about Doris’s persistence and vision were soon being attributed to Beth as well. Jann Phenix Brown laughs, “If you’d see her in the grocery store, you kind of ducked, because you didn’t want her to see you because she’d come up with some great idea for you to help. And you couldn’t turn it down, because it was such a great idea.” Over time, Beth became most known for the phrase, “Have I got an opportunity for you!”
Beth held to a vision of the library as a community space, created by the community for the community. In this, she was tireless in always pursuing the next step with the same enthusiasm as the one before it. She took the library from a tiny donated room on the third floor of the Texas Commerce Bank Building to its first 4600 square foot permanent home, then to its new and improved 15,000 square foot space, and finally to its second 15,000 square foot location. Originally serving 44 visitors a day, these two libraries currently see about 800 visitors a day and checkout about 500,000 items a year to our small community of about 25,000 people.
Finding funding sources for the library also fell to Beth and our hundreds of volunteers, and after years of relentless campaigns, she began the work of changing state law to permit rural libraries to become taxing authorities. Not only was Westbank able to become a library district with sales tax funding, but fourteen other communities utilized the same legislation to create their own libraries. Beth helped to coach those districts through the path to creation, and she founded the TLA Library District Discussion Group which still meets twice per year for the mutual support of library districts.
Beth, who received her library degree from the University of North Texas, comes from a family of librarians, so perhaps her talents were innate. She became a fundraiser, an architect, an author, an event organizer, and a computer expert. As ideas spawned even more ideas, Beth continually recruited the right people to bring them to fruition – ideas like custom library automation, public computing, a community garden, a hiking trail, and ebooks. TLA Executive Director Pat Smith described Beth as a “house of fire” for her ability to engage an entire community toward shared goals.
Beth’s contributions to librarianship extend well beyond our local libraries. She has written two books (The Dynamic Community Library and Behind the Scenes at the Dynamic Community Library) and numerous articles. She has given talks at many library conferences. Beth also helped found the TLA Small Community Library Round Table and actively supported the work of the Central Texas Library System. Under Beth’s leadership, Westbank Libraries twice won the John Cotton Dana Award for “exceptional public relations efforts at the grass root level.” In 2006, she was named Texas’ Librarian of the Year by the Texas Library Association, and in 2010 she received a similar honor from CTLS.
Since her retirement in 2012, Beth has stayed active in the library’s quilters’ and genealogy groups. She now serves on the Board of the Tocker Foundation.