- Associated Press - Monday, October 12, 2015

BALLINGER, Texas (AP) - In case you’d forgotten, there’s still a library down here.

The Carnegie Library of Ballinger is one of two such buildings in the Big Country. It and the Stamford Carnegie Library, along with three others in the state, are the only Carnegie libraries still in use for their intended purpose.

According to the National Park Service, industrialist Andrew Carnegie donated over $40 million between 1886 and 1919 to create over 1,600 libraries across the nation, 32 of them in Texas.

Ballinger received $17,500 from Carnegie and construction began in 1909. May 6, 2016, will mark 105 years since the library first opened its doors.

Many libraries featured auditoriums and special club rooms to help defray operating costs. Ballinger is one of them and the second floor is home to a large auditorium.

Mechele Ussery has been the librarian for about four months. The wooden stairs creaked with a century’s worth of footsteps as we ascended to the second floor’s ticket booth.

“They had the USO up here in the 1940s,” she told the Abilene Reporter-News (https://bit.ly/1MY6lUC). “We’ve had ballet up here, on Oct. 24 the Ice House Brass Band from San Angelo is going to play here.”

In the corner stands a relic from the auditorium’s days as an entertainment center for troops. An old jukebox, it’s lights still working well enough to read the typed slips of paper labeling what it used to play.

The records are long gone, but at least you can still see what people were dancing to. Clyde Mooney’s “Spanish Waltz” and Patty Page’s “Tennessee Waltz.” Even George Clooney’s mother, Rosemary, singing “This Ole’ House.”

Ussery has big ideas for the library - she said that’s one of the reasons why she got the job. She said they recently received a $5,000 grant for more books.

“I was a bilingual teacher for 25 years and I retired, so this is just perfect for me,” she said.

But it takes more than just books to keep the library going. Ussery said that a lot of people don’t realize that the auditorium isn’t only used for music or comedy shows, but weddings and reunions as well.

“We don’t have a lot of money, we’re just trying to keep our library going,” she said.

Libraries in Texas have taken a hit in recent years over funding. I reported back in 2012 how the state Legislature the year before had slashed the overall budget for the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC) from $19.8 million to $7.2 million. As a result, funding for the agency’s library programs dried up from $13 million to $1.6 million.

Things have gotten somewhat better since then. The TSLAC reports that the Legislature increased funding for the agency during the last term by $7.6 million, adding to an increase in funding from the previous session as well.

That’s going to help libraries like Ballinger’s have a wider reach for the public they serve. Part of the money going to the TSLAC will be used for launching the Texas Digital Archive which will be used to preserve and make available electronic versions of state government archives.

But for now, it’s up to Ussery and her “big ideas” to make the library even more relevant than it already is. Right now she’s waiting to hear if a $7,500 grant will be coming their way.

“We’re going to get artifacts from NASA and a space suit,” she said. “I’m going to have an astronaut come, we’ll have an inflatable planetarium, and a science museum with robots.”

If approved, that exhibit will start this month.

“I lived in Houston for the last 15 years and didn’t realize you could get stuff from NASA for free,” she joked. “There’s a 7-foot space shuttle that I want to get, but I can’t get it in the library.”

It’s the doors, you see. Back in early 20th Century the only spaceships that entered the library were in the pages of an H.G. Wells novel.

“I know the space suit is coming,” she said. “I’m getting the one that’s in a box, because I couldn’t get the one in a glass case to fit through the door. Plus it weighs 600 pounds.”

Her goal is to get the children who come to dream big.

“I want the kids around here to have a bigger vision,” she said. “To where they would say, ‘You know, I learned about space in Ballinger and maybe I want to be a scientist.’”


Information from: Abilene Reporter-News, https://www.reporternews.com

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