She was happy. That much was obvious. When she entered the library last week, she told workers she was pleased to see the location was open after months of wobbly hours.

Columnist Maggie Gordon

She needed a computer for a little while to work on her resume and apply to jobs. That, among other things, is a key service offered at Houston Public Library locations, which often serve a population that can’t afford items like computers and printers at home. 

When it came time to print something, she reached into her pocket for cash. Copies at Houston Public Library branches are $0.15 apiece for black and white, and $0.50 for color. She was prepared to pay with spare change. 

But as of June 1, Houston Public Library does not accept cash for copies — a policy change that has disenfranchised many library users who do not have access to bank accounts or credit cards, much to the dismay of library employees who feel their hands have been tied as they work to serve a vulnerable population.

The librarians told the woman she’d have to pay with a card. 

“I have a card,” the woman told them. “But I don’t have any money in the account.”

Workers saw her face fall. The flush of embarrassment as she told them she’d just have to go somewhere else. Find some other solution to take a shot at a better job that could bring a better life, and add some money to the empty bank account that was right now serving as its own barrier to entry. 

She left. Embarrassed.

“We’ll probably never see her again,” one of the library workers present told me. 

I can’t tell you the worker’s name, or the library branch where this happened. Because after weeks reporting on this story, I have yet to find a Houston Public Library employee who will speak to me on the record about the issues transpiring behind the scenes at the library. The handful of employees I’ve talked to all fear retribution for speaking out of turn after the library’s leaders stopped responding to my inquiries on this topic a little more than a week ago. 

Don’t worry. We got the full story anyway. And it all started with an email from a Houston Landing reader. 

In early June, after publishing a story about the high cost of parking at Houston hospitals, we asked readers to tell us about other unforeseen costs that can create barriers to accessing services in and around Houston. One reader answered: The Houston Public Library’s shift to a cashless system earlier that month “hurts many low-income Houstonians with little or no credit” who need to make photocopies or print from the library computers. Maybe the Houston Landing should look into that, the reader suggested. 

So we did. 

Between October 2022 and February of this year, several Houston Public Library branches reported at least 10 robberies, during which the alleged thieves targeted the roughly $30 to $100 rattling around in copy-machine cash boxes. That, quite obviously, raised safety concerns across the library system. 

So the library went cashless, effective on June 1, a move that Library Executive Director Rhea Lawson said in a July 5 email was “intentional and has been a positive experience.” 

But the push to cashless came with hiccups. In addition to requiring a credit or bank card for copies — a move that makes copies inaccessible for the 5.6 percent of Texans who are unbanked, according to the FDIC — each transaction also necessitates a 24-hour, $10 hold on the card. And while the cheapest copies only cost $0.15 a page, there is a $1 minimum. 

Both of these factors prevent additional Houstonians from being able to use library printers or copiers. 

I asked the city and the library what guardrails they had in place to help people like that woman who had to walk away from the pages she needed printed. 

“Free copies are provided for children and for library customers who do not have bank cards or credit cards,” Mayor Sylvester Turner’s spokeswoman Mary Benton told me in a June 30 email. 

Thing is, that’s contrary to what library leaders directed staff to do. Or at least it was until the Houston Landing started peppering the city and library with questions on the topic. 

“That was a complete lie,” a library worker told me this week, referring to the city’s official response. The worker said library employees were explicitly told when the cashless policy went into effect that they should not give copies away for free because “the system can’t afford it.”

Over the past couple weeks, as the library stopped answering my requests for comment on the topic, I’ve spent several hours on the phone with a handful of library workers. I’ve also spent time observing what goes on inside the library. 

Last Friday, I watched at another library branch as a worker helped a woman use the card reader at the printer. “What happens,” I asked, “when someone doesn’t have a card?”

The worker told me a story about an unhoused patron who needed to print a 64-page document a couple weeks earlier. The document looked official, like perhaps the patron needed it for government purposes, so when the patron didn’t have a card, the library worker put it on their own card. 

If staff is truly allowed to give copies away for free, why would an employee spend $10 of their own money to print for the patron? I emailed Lawson Friday, asking if she’s sure her staff was aware of the free-copy policy. 

I didn’t hear back. 

Nor did I hear back on another email sent Monday morning. 

But then on Monday afternoon, 296 of the library’s 400 or so employees received an email updating the policy. According to the July 10 note, obtained by the Houston Landing, “staff should release any print job using the staff software” and “should provide courtesy photocopies using the public print station override code” for library users who don’t have a bank card or are unable to pay. 

That’s cause for celebration. In the future, library goers will not have to give up on printing a job resume because their bank account is empty or nonexistent. Or at least they shouldn’t have to. 

But will all users know about this new, updated policy?

Probably not. 

“Even with this email, I was told, ‘We’re not advertising that,’” one worker told me on Tuesday. “We’re keeping it as a back pocket kind of thing. A ‘Well, let me see what I can do.’ That’s how we’re supposed to frame it.”

That’s not good enough. 

Without signage letting people know there are options to help them with copying costs, many who are met with a barrier will assume it cannot be surmounted. They’ll leave. 

A library that is truly serving people who need its services should not hide the ways it can help. It should shout it from the rooftops. It should make signs, and set them next to the copiers, alongside the fee lists I’ve observed at those stations. 

Something as simple as that could be the difference between a woman being too embarrassed to ask for help, and her finding a way to print a resume or cover letter that could change her life. 

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Maggie Gordon is a columnist who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund industry and education...