Public library future in NK, CC far from being resolved
Volumes vibrate on the shelves as passenger and coal-carrying freight trains rumble past Heritage Public Library’s cramped quarters in Providence Forge. Railroad tracks run just a few feet behind the building the only public library serving New Kent and Charles City counties has occupied since the early eighties.
Founded in 1981, the then infant library has since outgrown its 4,500 square-foot crib. There is no more room to add to the 43,000 books, tapes, and videos available inside for patrons.
“Because of space constraints, for every new item that comes in, an old one is removed,” said Alan Bernstein, the library’s director for the past 20 years.
There is an open meeting room that could be rapidly filled with new works, but Heritage’s governing board is reluctant to give up the space where frequent and popular library- and community-sponsored activities and meetings take place, Bernstein said.
To say the library could benefit from a larger location is an understatement. The predicament, meanwhile, is not lost on county officials who see the need, but two overriding factors must first be addressed — money and location, location, location.
The matter of a new library surfaced during New Kent’s Board of Supervisors meeting last Wednesday. County Administrator John Budesky said he is meeting with library representatives on a monthly basis.
“We’re meeting to analyze where to go with the future of the library,” he told the board.
Discussions are centering on the possibility that New Kent and Charles City could establish separate libraries. For now, Heritage serves both from its centrally located Providence Forge home. Questions, in the meantime, remain unanswered.
“Are we best served by two libraries or a single Heritage Library? There are pros and cons to changing,” Budesky said.
“Is Charles City truly committed to opening its own facility? If so, that gives New Kent flexibility on location,” he said.
Land on Route 155 a short distance north of Providence Forge has been proffered as a potential library site, which could be used if both counties agree to build one library. Should the counties go their separate ways, Budesky said a library site has been penciled in just east of New Kent’s courthouse complex. Another possibility, he added, could be utilizing the current middle school building after it closes next year.
And still there are more questions.
“What will be the cost to operate two independent facilities? How much state money do we get?” Budesky told supervisors.
“There’s a tremendous amount of work to do even before there’s a debt service discussion,” he said. “This is not something we’ll solve overnight. How we get there and approach it is what we need to do now.”
Budesky said any new library project would not be entirely a local government undertaking. County officials expect community support and funding to be a part, he said.
New Kent and Charles City, meanwhile, budget annual contributions to Heritage. Last spring, lobbying on the part of the library’s board and Friends group helped up New Kent’s share by more than $44,000.
That extra money is not going to waste, Bernstein said. Six new computers were installed late this summer so that the public now has access to 13 machines. Two, by the way, are stand-up since there’s no room to sit down.
The money is also being used to finance more kids’ activities both in and out of school, and plans are in the works to upgrade the library’s circulation/automation system so that patrons will have access from home to monitor accounts, renew items, and place requests.
“The more money we have, the better we can serve our patrons,” Bernstein said. “And the money is being spent as promised to the supervisors.”
Routine inside the library is “incredibly busy,” he added, with daily circulation and amount of business on the rise. Since 2001, the annual number of volumes checked out has mushroomed from 32,000 to 60,000 and visits by patrons have increased from 19,000 to 29,000.
“Every year we’re seeing increase in both those figures, and because of it, we’re issuing new library cards on a daily basis,” he said. “Practically every new person in the county is getting a library card.”
The immediate challenge at Heritage is continuing to serve a rising number of patrons, Bernstein said.
“We’re beginning to have enough money to do more for patrons and do things that are routine in larger and better funded libraries.”