Bolton: Richland Library has good story to tell

Associate EditorAugust 21, 2013 

— MY SONS always get a kick out of going to the Richland Library’s main branch, whether it’s for story time or to get books.

More often than not, they end up giving their mother and me titles or subjects so we can shop for books while they tackle puzzles, color or wrestle with the large stuffed animals in the Children’s Room.

I often tell them, “This isn’t your father’s public library.”

Not even close.

In my day, when children flocked to the library for story time, there was no spacious room just for that purpose.

Nope, the main library resided in very cramped quarters at Sumter and Washington streets. Despite the lack of space and the fact that it got hot sometimes, hundreds of folks still flooded into the facility daily; there was little concern about the prospect of having to sit on the steps because there were no more seats. Frankly, books and periodicals had to compete for space as well.

But all that was destined to change after the Valentine’s Day 1989 referendum, when Richland County voters approved a $27 million bond issue that transformed not only the main library but the entire system. The money was used to build a new 242,000-square-foot main library and seven new branches, upgrade the computer system and purchase $2.6 million worth of books and other resources.

By the way, that Children’s Room at the main library that my sons like? It’s 20,000 square feet. The entire Sumter Street library I grew up visiting weekly? It was only 32,000 square feet.

Richland County’s library took off after that public investment. The dedicated and capable library staff, led by then-director David Warren, built a system that was selected as the National Library of the Year 2001 by Library Journal and the Gale Group, the nation’s largest publisher of reference works for libraries.

Ever since, the Richland Library has remained consistently good and continues to serve practically every conceivable sector of this community — from children to students to workers and job seekers to employers. It is as much an economic engine as it is a place of enrichment and leisure.

But in this changing environment where the appetite for digital downloads and ebooks is exploding and technology is ever-changing, library officials say it’s critical for the public facilities to keep pace to ensure people have the access they need. The library has done a solid job of changing technologically and intends to do more, but the libraries themselves need to be renovated to reflect the changing times as well.

To make that next transition, the Richland Library is asking county voters to approve a $59 million bond issue to expand existing facilities and build new ones. If the referendum County Council has approved for the Nov. 5 ballot passes, the library system will be transformed into one as unlike what my sons know today as their library is unlike mine.

Library director Melanie Huggins, who has proven to be more than capable since being chosen to lead the system a little more than four years ago, said the plan isn’t to renovate the libraries in order to “put shelves and shelves and shelves and shelves of books in them.” No, the idea is to reflect the new way people access information and create innovative spaces where people can learn and meet.

It’s important to position the facilities for what libraries need to do now and 30 years from now. “Every location will be touched,” she said, adding that there will be a focus on making the facilities green and sustainable.

The plan calls for the main library on Assembly Street to be renovated as well as renovations and expansions to seven branches. Also, two new branches would be built: The Ballentine area, which is being served by a tiny branch in a store front, will get a new facility, and the Sandhills branch in the Summit would be replaced. A newly constructed branch was opened in Eastover earlier in the year; it was funded via a federal grant and match money from the county.

Obviously, if voters sign off on borrowing money to make these improvements, taxes will rise to repay the loan. Library officials say the owner of a $100,000 home would pay $12 to $14 a year to repay the debt; the owner of a $200,000 home would pay $24 to $28.

There will be some who question the timing of this request, given that the economy remains sluggish. That’s a legitimate question.

But after taking care of basic needs, the library ranks up there with the Riverbanks Zoo as the top amenities the county should care for. If voters or county leaders are going to raise taxes for anything outside of the basics, those two items get my vote.

The zoo long has ranked among the top attractions in the Southeast, and it seems every few months or so it breaks another attendance record. That’s why Lexington and Richland county councils agreed last year to raise taxes slightly to give it $32 million to make improvements aimed at keeping it among the best around.

The same argument could be made for the Richland Library. For it to remain one of the best systems in the country and, more importantly, continue to serve this community at the high level it has, it must change with the times to meet the needs of this community — now and in the future.

No doubt, some also will question the fact that the referendum is being held at a time when city races dominate the ballot and turnout certainly will be lighter than during elections held in even years. But it’s at a time when voters at least expect an election; the Valentine’s Day 1989 referendum clearly favored the library.

The fact that this isn’t a general election is likely to favor the library again, although not to the same degree, in that those working to get the bond issue passed might be able to focus most on getting supporters and patrons to the polls and find success.

But this library doesn’t have to shy away from critics; it can rely on its exemplary history of success and consistency as a selling point. It has a very good story to tell, one my young sons are familiar with: This isn’t their father’s library.

Reach Mr. Bolton at wbolton@thestate.com.

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