Our library in Harlingen and how it grew


In 1963 the annual book circulation has risen to 48,000. It was in April 1965 that the Friends of the Library was organized with membership dues ranging from 25 cents to one dollar. It had four stated purposes: 1. improve existing services, resources, and building; 2. develop public understanding of libraries and the vital role they play in today’s living; 3. stimulate public support through gifts of money, books, furniture, bequests, and endowments; 4. sponsor displays, speakers, book review programs, book fairs, and record concerts.

Following the accidental death, in 1964, of young Aaron Godfrey of Primera, his family was thoughtful enough to donate to the Harlingen Library his many-years collection of 230 valuable railroad history books together with numerous railroad magazines, bulletins, and letters of inquiry to a number of railroad companies.

This rare collection is very likely the most comprehensive collection of its type in the Valley.

This same year the city commission approved the inclusion of a library item to be part of the bond issue to be presented to voters. Approval was sought for $35,000 to add a new wing to the library.

In early 1965 there were 16,189 library card holders compared to 14,000 in 1964.

The library’s 1964-65 budget request from the city was for $20,560 or $143 more than the $20,357 actually expended in 1961-62 and $1,510 less than the actual $22,070 expenditure for 1959-60.

The fact was that the city was far behind the American Library Association’s standard of $3.50 to $4.00 per capita. Harlingen with a population based on 40,000 was budgeting only $.447 per capita, and this budget request was for but $.51 per capita. In 1964 the library’s collection amounted to 43,000 books and magazines with a soon-to-be circulation of 144,000 a year.

In the fall of 1965 the library would submit a budget request of $20,410 which included $500 for the binding of books.

Fortunately volunteer labor continued to supplement the work of the paid library staff. An an example Junior League women spent a minimum of six hours a week compiling overdue book cards. By 1966 the library’s operating budget is $19,380. When the city fathers came to recognize the library’s value to the community the budget, by December 1968, rose to $39,000.

The fact was that the city, in previous years, had been very stingy in its financial support of the library despite the numerous solicitations made by librarian McKenna and, even once, the submission of six pages of signatures on a petition urging the commission to give greater support to the library.

In 1954 the librarian’s salary was $4,500 and in the four following years $4,500, 4,200, 3,960 and 3,840. In 1959-60 her full-time assistants received $1,800 and $1,980.

The following year this was cut back to but one assistant at $2,400. While two assistants were restored in the following three years they were at “starvation wages.”

Fortunately, after the loss of Mrs. Ruth Clark, wife of Lt. Edward M. Clark, due to illness, volunteers from the high school filled in to re-stack borrowed books.

There was also the matter of expenditure per capita. In 1968-69 this was $.93 per capita for the library while the total general funding was $38.06 and, with the addition of bond interest, a total per capita of $39.59. The library continued to grow its collection and circulation. By 1969 there were 1,500 volumes in its Texana collection and already 390 volumes in the recently begun Genealogical Collection.

In the early 1970s the Junior Service League, then led by Mrs. Wayne (Janice) Labar, continued to help with Summer Reading Program, providing original art work and furniture for the children’s reading room along with a children’s book catalog and the Saturday morning story hour.

Librarian Verna J. McKenna retired from the library in February 1971. In 1928 she became a board member of the Harlingen Public Library. She had became librarian in 1939 but took a leave of absence to serve as librarian at Harlingen Army Air Field from 1943 to 1946. After her retirement the genealogical section in the Texas Room was formally dedicated by the Lon C. Hill Memorial Library Board as the Verna McKenna Genealogical Room.

Also in 1971 Mrs. McKenna received the Harlingen City Commission plaque of appreciation for outstanding service and the mayor’s citation for community service. She was named to the Harlingen Historical Hall of Fame, and in 1972 she was chosen “First Lady of South Texas” by the Rio Grande Rotary Club and District 593 Rotary International.

Mrs. Ola Sandlin is appointed as Acting Library Director upon Mrs. McKenna’s retirement. At this time she is assisted by eight full-time and five part-time employees. The Library Board members are Mrs. J. Gordon Nix Jr., Mrs. Neal (Donna) Bonner, Mrs. Jack (Ruth) Skaggs, Mrs. Antonio (Berta) Macias, Mrs. Richard (Janet)Volkart, Don Griffen and Graham McCullough. Soon, in November 1971, this board hires the library’s first professional librarian. This is Mrs. Helen MacPherson Thompson, a retired U.S. Air Force librarian. She will fill this position only three years before retiring.