I grew up an hour and a half northwest of San Antonio, Texas in a small, rural town called Medina. Medina is home to one school (K-12 campus), about five stop signs, one gas station, two restaurants, and three churches. When I was younger, the town had a population of about three hundred people, while others lived ‘out of town’ on ranches, plots of land, or small trailer park communities. The school district, which spans approximately sixty miles of rural land in each direction, has anywhere between two hundred and fifty students to three hundred students (K-12).

The school had a football field, one un-air-conditioned gym, a bus barn/weight room, two halls for high school classes, one hall for junior high classes, and another for elementary school classes. The cafeteria, library, and work out facilities were shared by all. The school library had one room for elementary students, one room for junior high students, and about six shelves for high school students. Needless to say, the library, despite their best efforts, was woefully lacking. Outside of the school library, the closest library was a forty-minute drive and one town over. However, because we were not residents of that county, we were unable to check books out. Medina was, among other things, book-poor.

This changed in 2001 when a group of community members came together and raised the funds to build the Medina Community Library. The library had computers for those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the internet, which was still largely unavailable in rural areas or was so outrageously expensive as to be unavailable, it had movies so people wouldn’t have to drive forty minutes to the Blockbuster a town over, and they had twice as many books as the school library.

Texas has an interesting history when it comes to public libraries, especially considering the state’s general aversion to public, non-commercial spaces (consider the lack of public land, public transport, and bikeable/ walkable spaces in Texas cities compared to other states and cities of similar populations and demographics). The frontier mindset of Texas influenced the prioritization of the accumulation of wealth while deprioritizing that which was not deemed essential to accumulating that wealth, such as non-commercial spaces for the public and acquiring non-technical knowledge (like the humanities). Consider, for instance, that Harvard University was founded some sixteen years after the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock, but it took eighty years before Texas’s first public library[1] was founded.[2] While there are many other factors as to why the humanities have been decentralized and deprioritized (the frontier mindset is not the only factor by any means), I do think that the frontier mindset certainly contributed to the disparity of public libraries in the region I grew up (Notably, Medina’s county seat is nicknamed the Cowboy Capital of the World and it is not uncommon to see someone order a Cherry Limeade on horseback from the local Sonic Drive-In).

When the Medina Public Library opened I was finally given easy access to literature. My mother began volunteering at the library once a week after she got off work from her full-time job. These days I would wander the stacks choosing books I was interested in. I would sit on the floor and read for hours while my mom worked. Often when we think of a moment that inspired us to pursue the work we do in the humanities, we think of a book, a series, an author, an artifact, or a place with historical or religious significance. I have no singular thing that revealed to me the importance of the humanities. Instead, my humanities moment was the gift of public knowledge. The Medina Public Library, while it is still woefully inadequate compared to many other public libraries, was a democratic endeavor to provide my community with equal access to knowledge about other places, worlds, people, and experiences beyond our county. Instead of forefronting economic production, as the frontier mindset would mandate, the library instead fostered the circulation of knowledge and equitable community care.

[1] This is a debated topic. There are three different public libraries that lay claim to this title, but all claim their opening around the 1900s.
[2] See Texas Land Ethics by Pete A.Y. Gunter and Max Oelschlaeger (25-6).

– Chaney Hill (PhD Graduate student in English, Literature at Rice University)