Reimagining Libraries: Baytown Library Writes its Own Story

Reimagining Libraries: Baytown Library Writes its Own Story

In this series, guest columnists write about what’s working at their library, how they are adjusting to the digital age, and what their community expects from a library. Jamie Eustace, Director, Sterling Municipal Library, Baytown, TX, writes about creating surprise and delight in the library.


I’m sure every librarian is familiar with the scene.  You’re at a dinner party or family reunion.  Someone you just met or who you haven’t seen in years inquires about your line of work.  When you say with a smile, “I’m a librarian.” You are met with a raised eyebrow, tilt of the head, and those gut wrenching words, “People still go to the library?”  You steel yourself, take a deep breath, throw your shoulders back and begin, “Libraries are about more than borrowing books, you know?”  

Librarians have come to accept that their jobs include a little bit of defending and a great deal of explaining.  We explain how libraries have not gone away, how they are not going away any time soon, and how they are more relevant to vibrant community life than they have ever been.  Sometimes it is a tough sell, but skeptics don’t have to look far to see that libraries are indeed evolving themselves in communities all across the country.  We are still about books (in all their formats). We still pride ourselves in being trusted sources of information (even though we too use Google), and we still promote literacy (both print and digital).  The 21st Century has demanded that we still do all of these things, but has challenged us to go a step further.

The Digital Age is, after all, the age of customer experience.  As modern consumers we want to be entertained and we expect to be wowed.  Modern libraries and modern librarians are uniquely positioned to surprise and delight our users by creating unique experiences that are in keeping with our age-old mission of facilitating lifelong learning through information, education, and technology.

Sterling Municipal Library in Baytown, Texas found an opportunity to create a “surprise and delight” experience when we reorganized our service model to include a single service point, rather than separate desks for circulation and reference functions.  Having the chance to reimagine the front lobby space where the old service counter once loomed was a rare chance to create something entirely new.

In brainstorming potential uses for the space, staff felt strongly that its end-purpose should be an organic extension of what the library already does best–connecting people to information and stories. We also wanted to create something interactive with the potential to attract new users.  We wanted to create a destination attraction, something that would give people a reason to drop in even if they were not in the market for a book.  We wanted to build something that, just like a book, had the potential to spark curiosity and conversation.  Our answer was to build a Story Bar.

Sterling Library’s Story Bar is custom built in the footprint of the old circulation counter.  Constructed of warmly finished  wood and a black granite top, the Story Bar looks almost like a bar you would find in a restaurant, except that the front has built in bookcases that are home to decorative books sporting the favorite titles of patrons and staff.  There are other special touches, such as the letters on the soffit, which were designed and created by a staff member to look like old fashioned type writer keys, a leather-bound guest book where patrons jot down comments about their favorite stories, and the hand drawn menu board that tells which themes are on tap for the week.

On the top of the counter, there are several iPads loaded with multi-media story units centered on revolving themes. Staff curate the themes, handpicking relevant supporting material from a variety of media and sources including podcasts, newspaper articles, photos, poems, and videos.  Miniature clipboards next to each iPad display the menu for each curation.  These menus direct users to read, listen, or watch the pieces selected to illuminate the theme.  Visitors can pull up a bar stool, put on headphones and dive into a topic.  You can spend as little as five minutes or up to thirty minutes exploring each theme.

Since the Story Bar launched in May of 2017 over three dozen topics have been showcased on the iPads with a new topic being added every week.  The topics are incredibly diverse.  Sometimes the themes are very specific, centering on a single person or event.  Some favorites have been jazz singer Nina Simone, Alexander Hamilton: The Musical, and Bollywood.  Other themes are broader and weave together more loosely related material.  Some standouts include The Great Outdoors, Abandoned Amusement Parks, and Nurture vs. Nature.  Every librarian finds inspiration for his or her curation from different sources.  Usually the idea sparks from something heard in a podcast or read in a book.  Each creator has a different approach and visitors to Story Bar enjoy trying out the different styles.

To motivate visitors to keep coming back, library staff recently started hosting Story Bar Live events.  During Story Bar Live, librarians act as “Storytenders” and perform readings and speeches on their themes.  While Story Bar can be a little challenging to explain, patrons really have that “wow” moment when they sit down to experience it or have the chance to see the librarians bring their curations to life by sharing snippets aloud.  

To add to the customer experience, the Library has added a participatory element to the Story Bar Live events.  In January a cooking theme was featured and the audience was treated to a demonstration on making mocktails (nonalcoholic cocktails) and then got to sample a variety of drinks at the bar.  In February the library is hosting a Story Bar Live event “date night.”  The Storytenders will feature podcasts and books about relationships and audience members will be invited to stay and play miniature golf in a special course set up throughout he library stacks.

To make the Story bar experience accessible to those who cannot visit the library in person, a collection of archived curations can be found on the library’s website, www.baytownlibrary.org.  

We are confident that Story Bar will continue to grow and evolve. Though Story Bar itself is unique to Baytown, it really represents the heart of librarianship.  Promoting stories and connecting people with information is what we do best.  Whether it is an old fashioned book list, or a modern iPad, the idea is the same. We are inspiring people to think about things that they would not otherwise be thinking of.

From the Stone Age to the Digital Age, to whatever comes next, libraries and librarians will remain a place of ideas and inspiration.