My daughter knows the drill: Upon entering the library, we head straight for the children’s section. Now that she’s walking, she insisted on showing me the way Monday afternoon during a post-day care visit to Houston Public Library’s branch in the Heights. 

She blazed in the door, hips swiveling as she took off in her toddle that borders on a waddle, turning right. 

“Wait,” I whisper-shouted, scurrying to keep up with a single-minded 17-month-old. “Mommy wants to see something.”

I picked her up with the requisite, “Oof, big girl!” as I tucked her into my side and carried her to the computers to the left of the entrance. 

And there it was: New signage, freshly printed to update users about new workarounds for the Library’s recently launched cashless printing policy. 

I’d heard it was coming. Less than 12 hours after the Houston Landing published my column last week calling for signage that would inform Library users they could access free copies if they could not afford the cost of printing, Houston Public Library’s Chief Operating Officer Ricardo Peralez alerted staff he would implement three new actions. 

As of this Monday, staff can release free printing for users who would be financially burdened by the $10 hold placed on bank and credit cards for copies; the Library’s copy machine vendor reinstated the staff override function to allow for free print jobs; and the signage near printers has been amended to tell users they can ask a library worker for free copies if they are not able to pay themselves. 

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    These new changes come in addition to the policy update that was issued last Monday in response to the Landing’s reporting — allowing staff to release free copies for those who do not have access to the bank cards or credit cards necessary to initiate a print job in the new cashless system. And they will undoubtedly reduce barriers to an important service for the 5.6 percent of Texans who do not have access to a bank or credit card. Not to mention the many others who may not have $10 in their account to cover the hold placed for print jobs. 

    They are, quite simply, the right thing to do. 

    ‘Digital equity’

    In 2022, 66.6 percent of public librarians surveyed by the Public Library Association said digital equity is a top need that libraries must address for their communities. It was the second-most cited need in the national survey conducted by the association, behind literacy and educational achievement. 

    A new sign instructs patrons to ask staff for help with printing in the Central Library of the Houston Public Library in downtown Houston on Wednesday, July 19, 2023. (Annie Mulligan for Houston Landing)

    Many librarians here in Houston agree. The Houston Public Library has maintained that the organization has been providing free copies for users who cannot afford to pay since the cashless system was implemented on June 1. 

    “Sometimes, you know, things may be unclear to some staff. They don’t know exactly what to do,” Peralez told me this Monday. “And that’s part of the ongoing effort we’ve been doing with the messaging. And we’ll just continue to deliver that messaging multiple ways to ensure it reaches all the way down to the frontline staff, that we’re here to serve and we’re not going to deny service to anyone.”

    But librarians on the frontlines continue to contend this wasn’t actually the case — until last week. 

    A June 15 memo to library staff, obtained by the Houston Landing, highlighted the previous “best practices” for printing and copying set forth by the Library’s customer experience team. The memo included explicit instructions for dealing with patrons who say they do not have a credit or debit card to pay for printing: “Apologize and offer them information on nearby print services in the area,” the memo stated. The document offered absolutely no guidance for how a library worker would help someone print for free. 

    When I asked Peralez how to explain the difference between his statements — that librarians have received consistent messaging to help patrons — and the document, he said he was not aware of the memo in question.

    “I don’t know what memo you’re referencing, so I really can’t speak to it,” he said Monday. 

    So I emailed him a copy of the memo. I am still awaiting his response. 

    Broader context

    Houston Library isn’t navigating these new waters in a vacuum. While neither the Public Library Association nor its parent organization, the American Library Association, tracks how many libraries have made the shift to cashless in recent years, you don’t have to look far to see other systems who’ve tried to implement the change. 

    A few hundred miles from here, the city of Coppell, Texas — population 42,000 — transitioned to cashless facilities earlier this year to address concerns for safety and fraud risk, according to Amy Pittman-Hassett, the city’s assistant library director. 

    Cozby Library and Community Commons, a small single-branch library, announced it would go fully cashless on Jan. 3 of this year. But the decision was reversed a few days before implementation, “to ensure we could continue sustaining our full range of existing library services for our entire community,” Pittman-Hassett told me. 

    Closer to home, Harris County Public Library is also navigating through its first year as a cashless institution. There, employees have been instructed to help on a “case by case basis” for anyone who does not have the access to a credit or debit card, and needs help paying the $0.10 for a black-and-white page, according to Nancy Hu, the library system’s communications manager. 

    HCPL staffers are constantly monitoring the computer and printer stations to “look out for people who need to use those devices,” Hu said. 

    She added, “I hope that no one visiting the library would be embarrassed to ask for help,” if they needed copies for free. 

    They can look to Houston Public Library as a model: Add signage to let people know there are options for those who are not equipped to pay for a few sheets of paper. 

    A group of people walk towards the entrance to the Houston Public Library – Central Library, Tuesday, July 11, 2023, in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Houston Landing)

    Who a library serves

    After I snapped a photo of the new signs at the Heights Neighborhood Library Monday evening, I walked my daughter over to the book drop, propping her on a counter and showing her how to drop our book returns into the slot one by one. It was her first time helping return her picture books, and with each book she let drop into the hole, she giggled and clapped. Success!

    I love these moments with my daughter. Going to the library is one of the activities I treasure the most — especially as someone who grew up in a small town that didn’t have a library. I watch with appreciation as the visits become a little more routine. I see the way she remembers where they keep the bins stuffed with her favorite books. The way she races for the mini-sized rocking chairs she’s learning to climb aboard. How she made a new friend on Monday running through the stacks in the kids’ section.

    She is learning that the library is a safe place where she can have fun and learn. A resource that will help her access information that will broaden her horizon. Watching her learn this fills me with pride. 

    I’m glad the library is here to serve my daughter. But I’m even happier knowing it is taking key steps to serve all Houstonians.

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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...