COLUMBIA, SC — The other morning at about 10, a dozen doting mothers and grandparents began to gather in the children’s room of the Richland Library, their noisy toddlers wrestling with stuffed animals or drawing on endless rolls of brown paper.
Storytime would begin soon.
For parents like Jaleesa Watson and her 3-year-old, Maryam Wright, the library is a familiar place.
“They have a huge variety of books for children,” said Watson, who was playing tic-tac-toe with her daughter. “She’s kind of creative so I like the drawing table and, over there, she loves the puzzles.”
There’s no question people love the county’s library system, built 20 years ago. But after a brutal recession and a May increase in the local sales tax, it’s anybody’s guess whether they’ll pay more to enhance the showcase main library and its 10 branches.
On Nov. 5, voters will decide whether to pay higher property taxes of $12 to $14 a year on a $100,000 home.
As details of the $59 million plan begin to circulate, users of the library – with its history of embracing technology and offering non-traditional programming – seem receptive.
“I can already tell you I would totally vote yes; I would pay higher taxes,” Columbia mom Lauren McCollester said last week. “The facilities, the employees, the copious amount of books – and they’re in such good shape.
“I love to see what’s new.”
Bookcases all around
Twenty years ago, the main library, then on Sumter Street, was anything but contemporary.
The four-story brick building, built in 1952, was crammed with books.
By the time it closed in 1993, some books were stored in a rented building two blocks away, requiring a runner for patrons looking for those titles.
“It was just an open building with bookcases all around, and the floors really were not strong enough to handle the books,” said Jay McKay, appointed chairman of the library board in the late 1980s.
“There really was a lot of concern about the building sinking.”
The basement boiler made some parts of the building hot in winter. But in summer, when meetings were held in the board room, air-conditioning had to be diverted from the children’s room.
The library had one public restroom for men and one for women; customers had to request the key at the circulation desk.
Despite such deficiencies, then-director David Warren, who took the helm in 1979, insisted on being in the forefront of information technology.
The Richland Library was the first large, urban public library in the country to install a computerized cataloging system, facilities manager Steve Sullivan said. Starting in 1985, patrons could locate books by card catalog, on reels of microfilm or on the green-screened computer terminals.
There was just one word processor in the building for staff. “It was said to be very expensive, and only two or three people were authorized to use it,” said Sullivan, who worked at both the old and new main libraries.
‘Keep it low key’
As soon as McKay became chairman of the library board, Warren showed him around the place.
“The facilities were perfectly dreadful,” said McKay, 90 and still practicing law. “So what we decided was to try to build a new library.”
The first choice – asking County Council for the money – didn’t work. So the library went to voters for permission to borrow $27 million.
The referendum was held on Feb. 14, 1989.
McKay sought advice from business leaders about who should head the campaign, and said he was told by one prominent banker, “Jay, leave the men alone; all they’ll do is turn it over to their secretary. So we talked about Kit Smith,” who later would become an influential member of Richland County Council.
“Kit at that time wasn’t involved in politics, but she worked for Marvin Chernoff, and she was enthusiastic,” McKay said.
Chernoff, an ad man, predicted voters would kill the plan. “What he said was, ‘You’ve got to keep it low key.’”
So members of Friends of the Library started calling registered voters. They kept the names and phone numbers of anyone who said they would vote for the referendum, and called them back to remind them the week before Election Day, McKay said.
“If you love your library,” they were told, “get out and vote.”
The Valentine’s Day loan package passed by a landslide.
Then, as now, a group of tax activists opposed the building plan for libraries.
Referendum opponent Michael Letts said last week he supports the library but has to question the wisdom of another tax increase, in light of the transportation sales-tax approved this past November.
“There’s got to be an alternative to another tax increase,” he said.
Big city library
A proposal to buy and renovate the U.S. Post Office on Assembly Street for the new main library was quickly considered and rejected.
Then Warren, now a library-design consultant, set about planning a modern, Scandanavian-influenced structure.
Walls of glass provide natural light and heat. Rows of indoor trees with built-in nutrient systems create a fanciful garden.
And, in a unique triumph, a mural approved by children’s author/illustrator Maurice Sendak, who died last year, defines the children’s library.
To get permission for the mural, Warren took advantage of a friendship between Sendak and storyteller Augusta Baker, who had relocated to Columbia.
Warren was planning a trip to Houston to meet with the library’s interior designer when he realized Sendak was there, too, working on an adaptation of one of his books for the stage.
He had a rendering of the proposed mural prepared using the centerfold of, “Where the Wild Things Are.”
Warren met with Sendak and unrolled the drawing. “He just sat there and looked at it. In a minute, he looked at me and said, ‘This is the only place in the world I’ll ever allow my work to be used as public art.’”
As part of the grand opening of the new main library – on Valentine’s Day, of course – there was a celebratory parade for three blocks, from Sumter at Washington streets to the corner of Hampton and Assembly.
The Bookmobile’s logo was so faded, Sullivan remembers, he stayed up the night before refreshing the paint for the ride.
The library’s oldest book, its title forgotten now, was carried the distance by the longest-serving employee.
Once the doors finally were thrown open, an estimated 10,000 people came through the threshold.
Bill Starr, then the arts editor for The State newspaper, remembers a tony party, too.
“It was a huge social event – and by saying ‘social event,’ I don’t mean to obscure the fact that it was the opening of a major cultural resource for Columbia,” said Starr, who recently retired as director of the Georgia Center for the Book.
“It was a party, though, because everybody was so damned happy. It looked beautiful. We were all dressed up and we drank champagne.
“It was a wonderful evening and Columbia at that point – at that moment – felt like a big city.”
Over the past 20 years, the Richland Library system has become the busiest in the state. Circulation tops 5 million items a year, double the number of checkouts in 1993.
During that time, the library has added laptops, DVDs, Ebooks, Wii games and downloadable audiobooks and magazines to its inventory of items that can be borrowed by the public.
Programming has changed, too.
The library touts its 40-computer jobs center that changed the duties of librarians who now provide career counseling services such as interview preparation, using social media in a job search and starting a home-based business.
“It’s become a very popular service,” Sullivan said.
In 2001, Richland Library was named National Library of the Year by the Library Journal and the Gale Group, the nation’s largest publisher of reference books for libraries.
Now, the library board is asking voters for the authority to borrow money to renovate or expand seven branch libraries and build two new facilities, one to replace the Sandhills branch in the Summit and another in Ballentine. A new branch in Eastover opened earlier this year.
Improvements to the main library downtown would not enlarge the building, but renovate interior space, said Sullivan, the facilities manager.
He said demand for meeting rooms is high in a building with five small rooms available to the public, plus a 200-seat auditorium.
Karen Alexander, founder of the Auntie Karen Foundation, an arts advocacy group, has been holding board and committee meetings at the Assembly Street library since 2001.
For now, it’s fine, she said. But recently, it’s become difficult to reserve a room.
“Other people have discovered this facility,” Alexander said. “It’s not as easy for us to say, ‘I want to meet on Thursday in this particular room.’”
Sullivan said the main library also needs a second back entrance that doesn’t require people to climb two flights of stairs; a more efficient air conditioning system; and a new circulation area that doesn’t eat up space for staff.
Samantha Hastings, director of the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science, said services provided at the Richland Library “far exceed those of other systems” in the Southeast.
“The evolution of services in public libraries, in general, has expanded to where they’re almost like a government agency,” Hastings said.
“We act as economic development for workforce training and providing application help for job seekers.
“We act as a day care, in a lot of cases. We act as educators. We teach people how to read.
“One of the things that recently has been added to the plate is computer and technology literacy, because a lot of people using the library as a jobs center don’t know how to use a computer.”
A quiet space
Then there are the traditional library users.
Thursday, a lone man sat in the silence of the local history room, the third-floor enclave at the top of the central escalator.
Kenneth McCaw was scanning lists of people buried in one of Columbia’s oldest cemeteries, Elmwood Cemetery. Family names and dates, written in neat black pen, filled a paper at his desk.
“A lot of times, I just stumble across stuff I wasn’t even looking for,” said McCaw, who visits weekly, sometimes spending half the day on his genealogical research.
“Whatever you want, they’ve got it here.”
Where would the money go?
On Nov. 5, the library is asking Richland County voters for permission to borrow $59 million for systemwide improvements. Some highlights:
Main library: Renovation and reconfiguration. New heating and air systems; multipurpose meeting space and conference room; exterior improvements for families with strollers
Ballentine: New library including 70-person meeting room and conference room
Blythewood: Renovation, reconfiguration and expansion; teen space, meeting room, larger restrooms, learning lab, group study room
Cooper: Renovation, reconfiguration and expansion; teen space, 12-student learning lab, two tutor rooms or small conference rooms; expand meeting space with kitchen
Eastover (completed in April): Renovation and expansion; meeting room, tutor room and additional computers; children’s area by EdVenture
Northeast: Renovation, reconfiguration and expansion; 12-student learning lab, small conference room; expand meeting room with kitchen
North Main: Renovation, reconfiguration and expansion; teen space, 12-student learning lab, two tutor rooms or small conference rooms; increase current meeting room with kitchen
Sandhills: New library including lounge and exhibit space; 250-500 seat auditorium to be shared with a partner organization; computer area in children’s department
Southeast: Renovation, reconfiguration and expansion; four tutoring or small conference rooms; meeting space with kitchen
St. Andrews: Renovation, reconfiguration and expansion; teen space, meeting room with kitchen
Wheatley: Renovation, reconfiguration and expansion; increased children’s space
NOTE: For all the details, see http://richlandlibrary.com/about
Richland Library by the numbers
206,000 - Library-card holders
8,000 - People served each day
24,300 - Customers registered to use ebooks
21,127 - Music cassettes/tapes the library had in 1993
0 - Music cassettes/tapes the library had in 2013
NOTE: Richland County’s 2012 population was 393,830, based on estimates by the U.S. Census
SOURCE: Richland Library
Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.