June 21, 2018

A Walmart Turned High-Tech Library, Ready for School


From the hard-wired tables to the high-definition screen in the teen space, the new McAllen Public Library (MPL) in south Texas is a technological fun zone. Built inside a former Walmart, the library (pictured) brings expanded space along with souped-up digital amenities to its patrons, young and old.

“You can look at the layout map and envision two and a half football fields, but it’s another experience when you’re in the building,” says Kate Horan, interim library director since early May and a former MPL branch manager. “We shed our high heels and started wearing flats after the first couple of weeks.”

The new space and technology upgrade comes just in time to support the McAllen Independent School District as it rolls out a new digital curriculum. That includes putting an iPad 2 or iPod Touch in the hands of each of its 25,000 students, a process to be completed by the fall. This has prompted parents to visit the library seeking resources, says Horan. So the staff created pathfinders, online research guides that parents can bookmark. They’re also encouraging families to download available ebooks. “It’s exciting to see all ages coming in with technology and taking ebooks home with them,” she says.

The new library opened in December 2011 after the city bought the former Walmart in 2006 for approximately $5 million. Details are designed to attract, from furniture in eye-popping hues of orange and acid green to signage in multiple languages. The new building recently garnered top honors in the 2012 Library Interior Design Competition, awarded by the International Interior Design Association.

Still, growing from 40,000 to 123,000 square feet has taken some getting used to. For one, the staff is communicating more frequently by email and text, notes Horan. But that’s hardly the only impact technology is having at the branch. Computers are linked together, allowing IT to push new programs and update apps to every terminal in the building simultaneously rather than machine by machine. The building is also filled with tables where patrons can charge laptops and other devices or plug in to a hard-wired port as an alternative to the free WiFi.

In the teen room, kids in sixth grade and up enjoy watching movies and playing video games on a big screen. That was a request from middle and high school students who suggested services via a survey. While the wish for an Olympic-sized swimming pool went unfulfilled, teens did get a dedicated computer lab just for their use. Even if the main computer lab is full, “we explain that an adult must have a teen to enter this space,” says Horan.

In another library activity, a group of about 30 teens faithfully arrives each Wednesday for a Yu-Gi-Oh! tournament, reports teen services librarian Billy Cryer. And the annual summer reading program is in full swing, with 350 students registered to read at least 30 hours during the summer. The final prize: a skate party.

Horan says patrons of all ages are really responding to their new space and seem to feel the excitement as soon as they walk through the door. “Children come in and start skipping,” she says. “And that’s how we feel, too.”

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at www.laurenbarack.com.


  1. What a wonderful library and to think it is a Public Library that will support a school. You have done a great job, it is just too bad Walmart had to charge soooo much to start with, but you have
    overcome that challenge and gone ahead to serve all of your patrons, esp. the teens-a hard group to capture.