Editor’s note: This story is one in a series looking at local public libraries and the services they offer to the community.
Libraries are the keepers of the community heartbeat and history, and the Lena Armstrong Public Library in Belton is no exception.
The library became part of the Belton community in 1899 when the Women’s Wednesday Club began donating books and operating for a few hours each afternoon out of a room at the Central Hotel.
Eventually the books began to overtake the room in the hotel, so the library relocated to space rented in the Harris & Walker building on Main Street.
Kim Kroll, director of library services, said the Wednesday Club began petitioning steel tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for money to get a permanent home for the library. Carnegie wrote a personal check for $10,000, and in 1905 the Carnegie Library opened at 201 N. Main St., the current home of the Bell County Museum.
In 1975 the library moved to its current location at 301 E. First Ave. and was renamed the Belton Public Library.
The library became part of Belton’s City government in 1933. Kroll said through its long history, the library has only ever had four librarians. Lena Armstrong became the librarian in 1946 and served for 52 years. During her time, she built up an impressive collection of genealogy and local history. In December 1998, the library was renamed the Lena Armstrong Public Library.
Kroll said the Women’s Wednesday Club still supports the library through the Friends of the Lena Armstrong Public Library by giving money every year to support the Book and Author Luncheon fundraiser.
Kroll said the library currently has five paid staff members, as well as adult and teen volunteers.
In addition to the collections of books, videos and other circulated material, the library also offers access to computers and free Wi-Fi, free printing, electronic databases and learning resources, audiobooks, text proctoring and more.
Kroll said the library offers year-round story times for younger children. A bilingual story time is offered 11 a.m. every Monday, and toddler story times are offered 11 a.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. She said they also host seasonal story time parties for Halloween or Christmas. Kroll said they always have a very popular “Polar Express” story time at Christmas with hot chocolate and cookies.
Kroll said they are trying to figure out more programs to get more teens and tweens involved the in the library.
“Because libraries are so much more than just books now,” she said. “They’re really becoming community places. They are gathering places now…They’re places to be; they’re not just where you come to get a book.”
Meanwhile, the library’s annual summer reading program is in full swing. This year’s theme is “Universe of Stories,” a space-related theme coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
“So we decorate the lobby with space themes,” Kroll said. “We bought extra space books and decorated with space, and our crafts are space related.”
She said the Texas State Library, which selects the theme, supplies some free materials and training for the staff.
She said this year 198 kids are signed up for the summer reading program. The first week, 80 reading logs were turned in.
Kroll said they want reading to be the reward, but this year kids who participate in the program also get a necklace. Every time they fill out and turn in a reading log, they get to pick a tag to add to the necklace.
“So they’re really excited about that, and our numbers are definitely up from last year,” said Lauren Gommert, children’s library clerk. “And other kids have seen kids wearing them and want to come in and get their own, so that’s a lot of fun.”
Gommert said most of the program goes along with the space theme. She said they have three story times a week, all space related. They also offer a weekly tween craft time and open crafts for elementary ages.
“We’ve also got a lot of big programs that are going on at the Harris (Community) Center,” she said.
Kroll said the Friends of the Library provide the funds to secure performers for each week of the summer reading program. This year they started off with a puppeteer and storyteller. Other performers include a balloon artist and a demonstration from Texas Parks and Wildlife.
“One of the biggest shows everyone’s excited for is we’ve got a reptile show coming up at the end of the summer program, and I know that the kids are excited about that one,” Gommert said.
Kroll said at the end of the summer reading program, Friends of the Library will also provide a free book for kids who turn in six reading logs. She said the program can help students prevent the “summer slide.”
“If you keep them reading over the summer, it helps them not to lose any ground,” she said.
Kroll said the Friends of the Library also supply free books for the library to give away during community events, like Kiwanis Turtle Festival and Christmas on the Chisholm Trail.
“And I try very hard not to let a child leave the booth without a book,” she said. “Even if they come up and say ‘I don’t want one.’ This is a free book. I don’t want them to leave without a book.”
Kroll said encouraging a love of reading is very important to her, and the library staff always try to make reading fun.
She said Friends of the Library have been responsible for giving away more than 16,000 free books to the tune of $37,500 since 2008.
Kroll said if done right, a library can be the heart of the community. She said the Lena Armstrong Public Library holds more than 100 years of Belton’s history.
“It is so important – not just for literacy – but keeping in touch with the community,” she said.
She said no matter how times change, the library is still the heartbeat of the Belton community.
“I’ve heard stories about Lena… I’ve heard that she didn’t care what color you were or what religion you were,” Kroll said. “She taught you to read. And that’s what a library should be. We don’t care who you are or what your status is. It’s free for everybody. And it’s gratifying to know that there’s a place like that in the community that people can go and get help with whatever.”
Gommert, who has been with the library for more than 10 years, said it’s fun to see kids get excited to read and to see them grow in their reading abilities.
“It’s probably one of my favorite things,” she said. “Also I enjoy that this library is just a hang out. The kids come and they have a good time with their friends and their family. We’re not the quietest library, but we definitely have a good time.”