A Storybook Job
By Babs Rodriguez
Photos by Ron Jenkins
There’s no need to shush anyone in a library where children are encouraged to play as they learn. That makes Javier Rodriguez very happy.
It’s a childhood dream come true: a public library designed exclusively for kids. To be clear, adults can visit the Reby Cary Youth Library, but the ticket to entry is a child, or several, at your side. What type of person, we wondered, would it take to helm such an enterprise. Branch manager Javier Rodriguez invited us to visit his east Fort Worth wonderland to find out.
The parking lot is full when we arrive on a weekday. It’s warm enough for a mom and her toddler to enjoy the adjacent city park that is also named for the historian, educator and politician who was the city’s first Black school board member. Our inner child can’t wait to get inside, but our adult self stops to admire the architecture. The predominantly glass, steel-framed KAI Enterprise-designed building is extraordinary from all sides, more so perhaps for its bright and shining presence on a timeworn stretch of East Lancaster Avenue.
Rodriguez meets us at the door. He flashes a large smile and says, “It is going to be loud.”
He’s right. It’s not playground loud but closer to the chatter and hum of any group project. Rodriguez and his staff welcome this joyful rumble. Adults throughout the sunlit space — parents, grandparents, babysitters — park strollers, unload backpacks and set up base camps. Kids settle into every corner, some curling up with books, others strolling the serpentine aisles of shelves that top out at about 4 feet in height for easy access and open sightlines.
There is parallel play, too. Young girls enjoy a child-size workbench filled with faux tools. A pair of siblings cook up something imaginative in a play kitchen. Older children focus on projects in the Creative Lab. A 3D printer invites a new generation of creativity.
Every aspect of design is mindful of the library’s shifting uses. Much of the furniture is child size, and all of it is moveable, the better to facilitate reading as a family sport. Some spaces can be reserved for community meetings. Creativity is the goal, Rodriguez says, and that is encouraged by frequent arrivals of new games and projects as well as books (including titles for teens) — all of which can also be checked out.
While working as the branch manager of the Northside library in Fort Worth, Rodriguez rose to the top of a nationwide search for a manager of the Reby Cary. The youth-dedicated concept delighted the native of Puerto Rico, who was drawn to graduate studies in library services — a second master’s degree is in teaching ESL — because he likes systems of organization, institutions that connect the dots of community and, yes, children (he has a young daughter). As a student, he liked books but, he says, he fell in love with the Dewey Decimal System.
The journey from his island home to Fort Worth began when the Dallas ISD was recruiting talent in Puerto Rico; Rodriguez’s 10 years of teaching made him an attractive candidate. “My wife, my daughter and I arrived in Texas with nothing more than six pieces of luggage,” he says, laughing at the memory. “But then, we have always been adventurous people.” After arriving, he completed his Texas teacher certification but kept his eyes open for work outside the classroom. He was offered a Fort Worth Central Library job in 2017, and in 2018, became manager of the Northside branch.
Libraries were always a good fit, but with the Reby Cary Youth Library, the job felt custom-tailored. “I have been working with kids all my life.” Educating them, for sure, but he knew something about entertaining them, too, dating to the day he morphed into a clown. When the entertainer for his niece’s first birthday party canceled, he told his sister not to worry. “My twin brother and I raided the closets for some costumes, and we went out and did a clown show.” Such a good one, in fact, that Los Hermanos Alegria went on to become a popular act at Puerto Rico’s Spectacular Latin Circus.
Running a library for kids is a different sort of circus, but it’s one he finds more exhilarating than exhausting. He keeps many balls in the air but says his staff of seven shares this enthusiasm for honoring all that the Reby Cary represents. Named after a man who spent his life dedicated to breaking down racial divides (Reby Cary died in 2018 at age 98), the facility boasts multiple study/meeting rooms as well as a sensory garden, all intended to encourage neighbors to gather. Rodriguez wants the West Meadowbrook area to consider the library a “friendly neighbor.”
It’s not a hard sell; the bright, open space is endlessly attractive. The design team worked with Joe O’Connell of Creative Machines to create and install Only Connect, a suspended sculpture in which thousands of glass spheres illuminate to simulate firing neurons, thrilling patrons of all ages. Each of nine push-buttons hidden throughout the library triggers a different light show. Rodriguez has a favorite display but encourages children to discover their own.
Other challenges are more serious. “The library is named for a trailblazer and a wonderful professor. We are trying to honor his legacy and advance education for all children.” But while Rodriguez works hard to make sure kids become readers and lifelong learners, he knows it is equally important to create a spot where they and their parents make friends, then return time and again.
“We are creating a community here. That’s why I tell people I have the best job in the world.”