To those that think the Houston Public Library has a dearth of innovation, think again.
"If people don't think libraries are relevant, they just need to visit one," says Sally Swanson, executive director of the Houston Public Library Foundation. "The 21st century library really is a technology hub.
"The libraries here in Houston have been around over a hundred years, but regardless of what decade it was in, it has always kept up with the needs of the community, therefore it always has to be innovative."
In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, seven libraries across Houston were forced to close due to extreme flood damage. To mitigate the loss, the HPL decided to modernize its Mobile Express Unit, a custom-built technology lab and library on wheels designed to bring access to technology and programs to high-need neighborhoods.
"Even though the hurricane was two years ago, the damage in Houston was so extensive, that only one of those seven locations has reopened," says Swanson. "The other ones are still in need, so having the Mobile Express now will bridge that gap until the city is able to reconstruct or reopen those closed locations.
"Thanks to the renovated Mobile Express, we'll be able to go to community centers, to schools and to other events. Basically, we're bringing the library to the people."
With the help of The Brown Foundation Inc., John P. McGovern Foundation, The Powell Foundation, corporate partner Crown Castle and thousands of donations from generous Houstonians, the HPL will use the $325,000 vehicle outfitted with advanced programmatic features to expand services to a growing waiting list of neighborhoods in need.
"We couldn't have done this without the generosity of the Houston community," says Swanson. "The vehicle itself was $325,000 and there was another $30,000 added in for technology. I would really like to thank our significant donors that made this vehicle possible. Thanks to that outpouring of support, this is now our reality."
The Mobile Express Unit, which will begin venturing out and serving the community in early February, has three touchscreen monitors, one desktop tower, 12 student Apple MacBook laptops and 10 iPads in a training room, eight tech lab workstations and a 3D printer.
"Even though we've had the public debut, it hasn't started accepting appointments yet," says Swanson. "The Mobile Express is operated through the Houston Public Library's Community Engagement division. They will have the online schedule and they have a driver and a program team that will go out and bring activities to people. The beauty of this is that it's free to the public."
As a fun way to get the word out, the HPL is sponsoring a contest for kids to name the Mobile Express Unit's robot mascot. Kids that enter the vehicle will be able to use the mascot to learn robotics and whoever wins the naming contest will receive that same robot, with five runners up receiving five slightly smaller versions of the robot.
"The beauty of the Mobile Express is its versatility," says Swanson. "There is a need for getting kids engaged in STEM activities and while some kids are very computer proficient, there are others that don't have access to the equipment. There will be learning at every stage and kids will be able to go on the vehicle, experiment with the different platforms and be part of the technology.
"There will be computer classes, coding classes and 3D printing workshops, so anyone, no matter their level of skills will be able to go on and actually have a real positive hands-on experience."
The Mobile Express, which can serve up to 24 participants or expand its interior walls to accommodate more, has an outdoor flat screen for dance sessions or for showing the instruction that is being held on the inside.
With its improved classroom flow and comfortable and engaging environment, the Mobile Express is able to offer English as a Second Language classes, workforce development classes, sewing workshops and pop-up library activities.
The mobile library and technology lab on wheels has no restrictions on its service area, so it can go into every neighborhood and corner of Houston and serve the public where it is needed the most.
"Every stop the Mobile Express makes is a continued investment into the Houston community," says Swanson. "A lot of people take for granted that everyone has equal access to online resources, but there's a lot of families that are having trouble making ends meet and they don't have internet in their home.
"The Houston Public Library has always been really good about finding creative and innovative ways of bringing services to the community."
For those that can't wait to make an appointment with the Mobile Express, there's always the neighborhood brick-and-mortar library.
"I welcome everyone in Houston to just go visit their local library," says Swanson. "They will be very surprised when they walk in and they see how many people are there reading or on computer terminals. They'll also be surprised by the library's focus on technology."