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“Power Card Challenge” Draws Houston’s Students to Libraries
Mayor's Goal: A Library Card for Every Student

In his inaugural address early in 1998, Houston Mayor Lee Brown said he was dedicating his administration to children and spoke of his vision of a Houston in which every school-age child is handed a library card instead of a beer, joint or pill. “Let our kids find their adventures between the covers of a great book,” he said.

Since that inaugural, Brown’s commitment to his City’s library system has taken several forms. In terms of financial support, the libraries’ City-funded budget has grown about 32 percent between Fiscal Years 1997 and 2000; in 1999, the library materials budget alone increased nearly a third. In terms of personal support, the Mayor has made expansion and improvement of the library system a highly visible goal – and one that is being reached.

One of the keys to change in the Houston Public Library system has been the Power Card Challenge, an effort to put a colorful (orange, green, purple, yellow) new library card in the hands of every child in the City’s schools. Prior to the Mayor’s taking office, the Library’s pilot Cards for Kids program had been targeting the approximately 17,000 third-graders in Houston’s central school district; following his inauguration, Mayor Brown secured $1.2 million for the Power Card Challenge (as part of an overall $35 million library budget), and the target became all of the City’s 509,000 students.

Progress toward that target has been swifter than expected: When the Power Card Challenge was launched during the summer of 1998, there were 114,000 juvenile cardholders; the library system had hoped for 200,000 Power Cardholders by June 30 of the following year, and that goal was exceeded by more than 4,000. The next goal, 240,000 cardholders by June 30, 2000 was exceeded seven months ahead of schedule: By the end of November 1999, the City’s libraries had recorded well over 250,000 juvenile cardholders, and by January 2000, the number was approaching 254,000. In addition, the rate at which materials for children were being checked out was climbing rapidly: In Fiscal Year 1999, libraries checked out 21 percent more children’s books, videotapes, compact disks and audiotapes than in the previous year. Juvenile circulation in November 1999 was 17 percent higher than in November 1998.

And beyond these numbers, according to Houston Public Library officials, is the fact that the Power Card is helping existing library programs, such as ASPIRE – an after-school reading enrichment program for students in grades five to nine – and the Summer Reading Challenge, to attract record numbers of participants.

Reaching the much larger numbers of children with the new Power Cards has been a City-wide, top-to-bottom, public-private partnership. The Mayor himself carries a Power Card and displays it for audiences of all ages, and his ceaseless promotion of the card has resulted in staff members in several City departments – police, fire, health, solid waste and others – distributing the cards and using them themselves. One of the City’s Juvenile Court judges requires juvenile probationers to obtain cards. Other judges keep Power Card applications in their chambers and encourage divorcing parents, for example, to use the library with their children. Houston Public Library staff members, of course, promote the card at every opportunity and issue them through outreach programs and a variety of community venues, and during school open houses and library branch events. More than 50 private and parochial schools in the City also have responded to the Power Card Challenge.

Power Card applications may be obtained at all Houston Public Library locations and on the system’s web site at   Users of the site are encouraged to “print it out, fill it out, turn it in!”

Houston’s City Council has supported the increases made in the Houston Public Library budget as well as the Power Card initiative. To help promote Power Cards throughout the area, the Council has waived the non-resident library card fee for all persons of all ages living in Harris County and the contiguous counties of Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty, Montgomery and Waller. Those living outside this eight-county area may purchase a Power Card for $40 per year or $20 for six months.

Reliant Energy, which operates in Houston, adopted the Power Card Challenge and, as the card’s prime sponsor, helped with its design and distribution. Reliant prints the applications that are distributed to the schools, includes a mailer on the card in its energy bills, and has encouraged other institutions it supports, including museums, to allow children with cards free admission. The company’s in-kind contributions to the Challenge have exceeded $100,000.

The dramatic increase in the number of library cards issued and in use in Houston is drawing attention to the Power Card Challenge and Mayor Brown’s efforts. In 1999, the initiative received the Texas Library Association’s Project of the Year Award; the Power Card design received the International Association of Business Communicators Bronze Quill Award; and Mayor Brown was named Politician of the Year by the Library Journal. Most recently, the Power Card received the John Cotton Dana Library Public Relations Award from the Library Administration and Management Association, a division of the American Library Association, and the H.W. Wilson Company.

 “The combination of the dedication of our staff and the enthusiasm and support of our community and sponsors is truly powerful,” says Director of Libraries Barbara A.B. Gubbin. “This program was created to address Mayor Brown’s and the Library’s commitment to youth, and has become a model for other libraries hoping to duplicate our success.”

Information on Houston’s Power Card Challenge is available from Sheryl Berger, Houston Public Library, at (713) 247-3505.


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