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The Changing Role Of Libraries In Virginia

Jason Fuller

The kids are probably out of school for a few days this week.  For some families, that might mean finding some distraction at the local library.   With so many other avenues for reading and buying books, not to mention other entertainment choices, have public libraries lost their significance in 2017?

In downtown Richmond sits a library formally founded in 1823 by the Virginia General Assembly. But in 2017, this library on East Broad Street gives off museum vibes.

“So this is our exhibit gallery and it’s on prohibition which is right in the middle of the commemoration of Virginia going dry,” Gregg Kimball, Director of Public Service and Outreach at The Library of Virginia, explains.

He peruses the Library’s nearly six million volumes distilling information with other curators and archivists. Then he works with designers to make engaging exhibits. “Here’s a list of state agents. This is in 1931. A Cadillac Phaeton. A roadster. So, these are really fast cars, well then, you have to ask the question, ‘Why are they driving these fast cars?’ Because they’re trying to catch these bootleggers who are also driving really fast cars through the mountains.” 

But not everyone who goes to the Library of Virginia goes for an exhibit. Last year, close to 40 percent of the library’s 200,000 visitors came to trace their family history.

Inside of Alexandria’s Beatley Central Public Library are book sales, people using computers and a group of children playing under a mural in the children’s section.   Fatma Hassan, an immigrant to the United States, visits the library with her daughter. “I come like four to three times a week. I bring my daughter to play and I bought a book for my son my daughter and me. And I like this Library.”

Credit Jason Fuller
The children's section at Beatley Central Public Library in Alexandria

“Children are a big part of our services, so I’d say at least 40 to 50 percent of our circulation is just from children coming to the library and checking books out,” says Linda Wesson, Division Chief for Alexandria Library. This year, the number of visitors increased by almost five percent.  Library circulation, the process of checking out books and other materials, is up almost 20 percent.

Visitors who come to Alexandria’s libraries come for numerous reasons. For some, like Jamie Walther, it’s a way of getting to know the neighborhood.   “I like it, I just moved to the neighborhood a couple months ago. Always one of the first places that I look for when I move into a new neighborhood. Where the library is, and hopefully, it’s within walking distance.” 

For others, like Meg Talley, it’s a way or discovering family history. “It’s actually my first time here, and I’m here researching my family’s history. My Grandfather use to work at the torpedo factor during World War II.”

Shari Henry is the Director of Library Services at Roanoke County Public Library. She’s been on the job for a few months and says she loves the identity of Roanoke County’s six branch libraries, especially libraries in Bent Mountain and Mt. Pleasant. “The feel when you walk into those two, which I love, they are going to feel a little bit more like the old general store, right. Where everyone knows each other and they come to chat as much as they come to get materials.” 

Although Henry serves a smaller community, she’s driven to expand the libraries’ presence, provide expertise and bring people to their community space, connecting Roanoke to the world even to those who are more inclined to Amazon.

“There will be people that don’t know about us, so yes, of course, we want them to know and we want them to come in our buildings. But if they don’t want to come, we’re still their library if they’re in this area,” Henry says

So, whether you’re into exhibits and family history or you want to drop your child off for story time, there’s a library for you in Virginia.