A new edition of the city’s Main Library is being drafted downtown.
The Richmond Public Library is planning a $70 million renovation and addition of its complex at 101 E. Franklin St.
Preliminary plans for the project, as presented at a community meeting at the library earlier this week, call for the demolition of 15 percent of the 140,000-square-foot library at its western end near the intersection of East Franklin and North First streets.
That would be replaced with a new section including a roughly 70-space subsurface parking deck, new multi-purpose spaces and more efficient shelving and storage areas for the library’s collection of books, as well as ADA-compliant accessibility features.
RPL director Scott Firestine said that the library is still in the planning and feedback-gathering stage of the process.
“This is absolutely just the beginning,” Firestine said of the project.
The majority of the Main Library was built in 1972, and during construction the new building wrapped around and “consumed,” as Firestine put it, the site’s original library building that was constructed in 1928. The 1928 building is what would be demolished.
The expansion project’s true roots date back to 2009 when the library began a facilities master plan, but Firestine said the planning began in earnest about a year ago. The timing works out, as Firestine pointed out, that they’ve been updating the Main Library about every 50 years.
In the decades since 1972, Firestine said the ways folks use libraries have changed and the goal of the renovation project is to get the Main Library to a point where it can best serve the public in the modern age.
“Those (1972 and 1928) buildings were designed around the book. You wanted collections that were as large and as deep as you could get them. Bigger was better,” Firestine said.
“It’s changed from possessing large collections of books to having access to them. You may need more information than the basic stuff we have, but we can get it quickly either through electronic means or inter-library loans. It’s more about having skilled navigator librarians who can help you go beyond that quick Google search.”
He used the example of a user searching for a medical text. In such a field, information can go out of date quickly, and while RPL may not be able to keep the latest medical books, VCU’s library might, and RPL could source that book from the university.
“Libraries have changed and our collections have to be very much tailored to the specific needs of our community,” he said. “Instead of having a huge, deep collection, we have a nimble, robust, accessible collection. We have to continue to evolve with the way the information is conveyed.”
Firestine said RPL operates a hub-and-spoke model, with the Main Library supporting RPL’s eight other branches around the city. The Main Library’s collection totals about 500,000 volumes – down from 800,000 in the late 2000s – and Firestine said through new compact shelving hardware and strategies RPL wouldn’t have to downsize its collection any further following the renovation.
“The collections on the floor will be our most popular books,” Firestine said. “Books that are moving the most to meet the needs of the most number of people.”
Since the Main Library is currently two buildings essentially retrofitted together, Firestine said its excess stairs and lack of ADA-compliant design present an accessibility issue for users, something he says community feedback indicates is exacerbated by parking issues.
“It’s astonishing, when we started doing surveys and we got community feedback, the biggest thing was parking. People loved the library, they loved to come down here, but the first and last concern is parking,” Firestine said.
The new parking deck at the library would help quell that issue, and Firestine said it’s in accordance with the city’s Richmond 300 master plan, which prioritizes reduction of surface parking lots in neighborhoods such as Monroe Ward. It would be built where the library’s basement is currently.
“This wouldn’t expand surface parking. We would be converting space that we once needed for books into space that could be used for parking,” he said. “That’s a key element of this conceptual plan.”
The roof of the new building would be accessible to the public, and the roof of the 1972 building would be outfitted with solar panels, something Firestine said would help RPL hit its goal of being the first net-zero energy use library in Virginia.
“If you think about a library and what we do, we are the epitome of an organization that encourages conservation and re-use,” he said. “I mean, we loan books.”
Funding for the $70 million project would come from a variety of sources including private benefactors, foundations and companies, but Firestine said the bulk of it would come from the city’s capital improvements budget.
RPL has tapped New York-based architecture firm Steinberg Hart and local firm Kei Architects to design the project, and Lu+S Engineers and Lynch Mykins are listed as engineers.
Firestine said the next step in the process is for the library to finalize the renovation concept in the next 60 days, after which it would submit it to the city in the fall for review under the Capital Improvement Plan. A further timeline for the project is unclear.
Firestine recalled a 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library, which had a similar design and structure as Richmond’s Main Library. The fire, thought to be set by an arsonist, burned for seven hours, destroyed 500,000 books and closed the library for around three years.
He said the story is recounted in a 2018 book by Susan Orlean, “The Library Book.”
“It talks about how it gutted the L.A. Library. It talks about how we’re institutions for learning, how we help people in life-long learning especially if they’re trying to learn something new, or changing careers,” Firestine said.
Asked if “The Library Book” is available through Richmond Public Libraries, Firestine laughed.
“Of course it is,” he said.