Behind the Stacks: Jerry Houchins Keeps the Library Humming

Riddle us this: How many librarians does it take to change a light bulb? At the Kansas City Public Library, it takes exactly zero. That’s because we’ve got folks like Operations Manager Jerry Houchins to keep the lights on, the buildings warm, and all the facilities clean and running smoothly.

Whether it’s trimming the trees at North-East, replacing the book drop at Sugar Creek, checking the sprinklers at the Plaza Branch, or making sure the Missouri Valley Special Collections are protected in case of a disaster, no job is too big – or too small – for Houchins and his team.

In fact, it’s hard to think of areas that aren't affected by Operations in some way. Conducting renovations, ensuring fire and building safety, promoting energy efficiency, helping with events and exhibits, managing the janitorial staff – these are just a few of this department's charges.

“Anything that’s behind the scenes at the Library, that’s us. We touch more of everything than any other department,” Houchins says.

Houchins has worked backstage at the Kansas City Public Library for the better part of 10 years, a time that’s seen ups – and downs.

In July 2009, Houchins left his post as Plant Operations Manager for what he thought would prove greener pastures, working maintenance for a property management company. Houchins eventually found he’d made a bad move.

He wasn’t happy in his new job, and during a casual visit to the Library earlier this year, when a former colleague jokingly asked Houchins if he was ready to come back, he realized that in fact, he was.

“Three days later, I got the call,” Houchins says.

After a multiple-month process of working Houchins back in, he returned as Operations Manager this past October.

“It was good to come home,” he says.

Houchins has made the Library his home since 1999, when he answered a newspaper ad and got hired to work the maintenance beat for the branches. A few years later, he found himself helping with the renovation of the First National Bank building at 10th & Baltimore, which opened its doors as the new Central Library in 2004.

He especially remembers helping to install the Stanley H. Durwood Film Vault. Leaving its 35-ton door in tact, the renovators converted the bank vault into a movie theater – a process that involved drilling through three-quarter-inch steel plates and into an 18-inch concrete slab just to install the seats.

“They went through a lot of drill bits,” Houchins grins.

Does your office have an elevator-monitoring panel?

At Central, Houchins has also worked on the H&R Block Business & Career Center and the children’s area. The Plaza Branch’s Truman Forum Auditorium bears his stamp, too. His favorite space at Central? The Grand Reading Room.

“I love showing off this building, talking about it, and bringing my kids here. There’s not another library like this that I know of,” he says.

That sentiment could apply to the entire Library system. Houchins’ department spends a good portion of its maintaining the bustling Central and Plaza libraries, but Houchins knows – perhaps better than anyone – that the Library touches neighborhoods all over town.

“The branch managers and their employees make the Library what it is, and without them, we wouldn’t have the system that we have. They love their branches and the customers that they serve,” Houchins says.

And that’s why it’s crucial to keep the lights on.

-- Jason Harper