HOUSTON CHRONICLE: Houston Public Library Launches a Mobile Technology Lab


The Houston Public Library’s newest tool is a decked-out, $325,000 modified RV complete with computers, televisions and a 3-D printer. The “library on wheels” is called the Mobile Express.

“It allows us to extend beyond our static location,” said My’Tesha Tates, who leads the community engagement team that will deploy the RV. “We’re able to take this vehicle to places that people eat, sleep, work and play to provide services that are vital to the community.”

The high-tech vehicle is hardly an old-fashioned library. During a recent demo, a 3-D printer manufactured little red frogs. Laptops and tablets were strewn across tables that sat below widescreen TVs.

One thing not on board: books. Tates said those make most trips on a different bus or van.

Library and city officials gathered this month to unveil the new vehicle, which will replace a much older and now antiquated predecessor. When parked, the Mobile Express can also expand its walls to accommodate more people, Tates said. The new vehicle doubled capacity from 12 to 24.

The Mobile Express was funded by $325,000 in individual donations and private grants from organizations like the Brown Foundation, the John P. McGovern Foundation and the Powell Foundation. The fundraising drive focused on an effort to bridge the service gaps created by Hurricane Harvey.

Of the eight library locations severely damaged by Hurricane Harvey, only one has been fully repaired. The remaining seven are still under repair or awaiting relocation or reconstruction, officials said.

Councilwoman Karla Cisneros, who was at the demonstration, said she hopes the Mobile Express is used to address that service gap.

“I have one of the libraries in my district that is still out of commission because of Harvey,” Cisneros said. “So I know this is going to be one of the locations that this will be serving as we get back on our feet over there.”

Nicole Robinson, deputy director of the Houston Public Library, said transportation and mobility still pose challenges for library services, particularly in underserved communities. That’s where the Mobile Express comes in, she said.

“We will continue to drive positive change,” Robinson said, making a steering motion with her hands, “by going to those who truly need us and meeting them where they are.”

Tates pointed to a recurring program the library is currently offering for the Kendall neighborhood, whose library branch has remained closed, Tates said. They’re able to circulate books and provide technology services outreach there, and they plan to offer similarly targeted programming with the new RV.

“In many cases, it’s the only resource that people have,” she said.

The library offers a catalog of 50 classes aboard the bus, from generic GED and ESL lessons to more specialized courses in coding or circuits and electricity. Anyone, anywhere can request the RV on the library’s website, and response is usually on a first-come, first-served basis, Tates said.

They often do as many as seven events or trips per day.

For many kids and even adults who utilize the mobile library, Tates said they’re experiencing things they’ve never seen before. The look on a kid’s face when he or she watches a 3-D printer for the first time, Tates said, is one of the reasons she comes to work every day.

“They haven’t had access to it before,” she said. “So we are truly changing the lives of the people we service. That’s what makes it worthwhile.”

Article written by: dylan.mcguinness@chron.com