By George Slaughter
One can always learn something new when visiting a library. For Akhila Bhat, that passion for learning has evolved into a career that finds her in a new role, as branch manager for the Maud Marks Library.
Bhat began her new role last month after making an almost 9,000-mile journey to get to Southeast Texas. She is from Mumbai, India. She married and moved to the United States as her husband, Surendra, pursued a career in the energy industry.
Bhat herself focused on getting her education in psychology. She had earned a three-year degree in India and took courses at the University of Houston to get an American degree and enhance her credentials.
Bhat recalled spending hours in the library to read the required books and articles for her classes. When Bhat had her daughter, they went to the library together. Bhat was impressed by the many programs and services offered at Harris County libraries.
Bhat changed her professional focus. She earned a Master of Library Science degree at Texas Woman’s University and joined the Harris County Public Library System in 2008 as a children’s librarian.
In 2013, Bhat had been promoted to assistant branch manager at the Barbara Bush Branch Library, in Spring, when Hurricane Harvey hit last year. That library was flooded and, like four other branch libraries, was closed until further notice.
Bhat worked out of the Tomball Community Library at Lone Star College. She also became involved in a “pop-up” library program, where the libraries would “pop-up,” albeit temporarily, at churches, mosques, yoga studios, and selected stores, including Half Price Books.
Library programs included story times, among other things, but the real benefit for everyone was that the libraries could reach out to the communities in a way they couldn’t being in just one place.
“It gave us a totally different perspective,” Bhat said.
Another important service the “pop-up” libraries provided was book returns. Many library patrons needed to return their checked-out books and other media. For many patrons, returning those things at a temporary, but closer location, made it easier than to drive to the library itself.
“We had tubs and tubs of books returned,” Bhat said.
Bhat said she hopes that the knowledge she gained can be transferred over to her new role at the Maud Marks Library. She succeeded Sylvia Powers, who retired.
One might say that the first significant change at the library comes from the ground up. The county removed the carpeting on the floor and replaced it with tile. Bhat said replacing the flooring with tile is happening at the other Harris County Public Library branches as well.
Reflooring the library requires bookshelves to be moved. Making these moves gives the library staff a chance to evaluate its collection. Books remain crucial, of course. But increasingly, e-books, audio books, and other electronic media are growing in importance. The library system is purchasing e-books for classic and popular titles.
“There’s definitely a bigger push to have books online,” Bhat said, adding that e-books are a big thing for those who don’t have the time to drive to the library to check out a book.
Libraries and their roles have changed over the years, Bhat said. It’s not just about books or e-books or other media. Libraries serve as meeting places for the community. Another advantage of moving shelves and reevaluating things is to identify ways the library can become even more of such a gathering place.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Bhat said. “We’re still in change mode around here. I’m glad to be in a place that’s really busy and thriving.”