If you’ve been alarmed by bare shelves and plywood walls at the Richland Library downtown, don’t get the idea that books have disappeared for good.
The library’s ongoing renovation of its main branch on Assembly Street has recently made its way to the first floor, which means many of the branch’s books have been moved to other floors or other branches, put in storage and, yes, some of them removed for good to make way for the construction and upgrades.
About 10 percent of the library system’s hundreds of thousands of physical books will disappear through the system-wide renovation process, the result of more spaces transitioning to people-oriented from book-oriented, library director Melanie Huggins said.
“That is, I think, fundamental to what a library is. It’s first and foremost about people,” Huggins said. “It’s about the community.”
The shift in space usage is a sign of the evolving way the library plans to serve the community now and in the future. That evolution, though, does not necessarily sit well with everyone in the community.
“It’s not that we shouldn’t embrace change, but we shouldn’t give up the things that are good,” said Elizabeth Marks, a library patron and downtown neighborhood activist.
The changes are all part of $15 million worth of renovations that began at the main branch a year ago and are expected to last at least another year. Three years ago, Richland County voters agreed to spend $59 million to renovate and upgrade a total of 10 library branches.
A library is ... first and foremost about people.
Melanie Huggins, Richland Library director
With more space at the downtown branch being transformed into meeting rooms, auditoriums and studios for public use, some books will be transferred to other branches – and will still be able to be ordered by and delivered to downtown patrons.
Thousands of “physical books,” though, will be taken out of the countywide system.
Culling the collection is a normal process in any professional library, Huggins said, as it makes way for more relevant additions.
The library spends almost $4 million purchasing new resources each year, Huggins said, the bulk of which are still physical books. To accommodate new resources, the library must get rid of some of the old, she said.
For the first time in recent memory, library staff members have put their hands on every book in the collection of hundreds of thousands to assess their condition, relevancy, accuracy and and frequency of use by library patrons, Huggins said.
Books that are removed from the collection are either donated to community partners, sold to a worldwide used bookseller or, if they are in poor condition, recycled.
Public libraries everywhere are increasingly expanding the ways they meet their communities’ needs, becoming more utilitarian and not known just as repositories of physical books.
In addition to an expansive digital resource collection, Richland Library offers, for instance, free computer and internet access, personal assistance to job seekers as well as resources for lower-income people applying for housing and other benefits.
At the downtown library, the continuing evolution of service to the community means will reveal more spaces for people to gather – expect nearly 40 meeting rooms once renovations are complete: co-working spaces, artist studios and a production space that will provide filmmaking, audio recording and game development learning opportunities.
The first floor, which should be fully renovated and open by spring of next year, will look and feel more like a bookstore than a traditional library, with shorter shelves, table-top book displays and a more frequently rotating collection.
But the evolution also will look like smaller bookshelves and fewer books. And people’s differing responses to that part of the transition highlights a divided perception among some community members of what defines a library.
It’s not that we shouldn’t embrace change, but we shouldn’t give up the things that are good.
Elizabeth Marks, library patron
Marks was upset to learn that thousands of books would disappear from the collection. A library’s priority should be books over public meeting spaces, she said.
“Books are the easiest and most portable form of education to everyone,” Marks said. “I don’t think Columbia would write off books, and I don’t think Columbia understood what it was giving up when it voted to spend $59 million” to renovate the library branches.
But change is “inevitable” and, overall, positive, said Sandra Bowden, a longtime book-lover and frequent library patron. While the library she grew up with was about books and books alone – and she still uses the library for books more than anything else – Bowden said she recognizes the library of 2016 and the future as offering more, not less, as its focus broadens beyond books.
“I’m sure (library users) can get the same experience by getting access to more materials even, but just not in the same way, necessarily,” said Bowden, a former English teacher and professor. “I think the whole point is that it gives them a much broader range, both width and depth, to get” information.
Huggins said she recognizes that change can be hard for the community to accept. But she said she believes the overall the response to the library’s evolution has been positive.
“I do understand that it is difficult for people who have nostalgia about their library or who have a more limited view about what a library would have,” Huggins said. “We certainly understand that the library of the 21st century doesn’t look like the library of (20th century public library benefactor Andrew) Carnegie’s time.
“But we also understand that the needs of the 21st century learner are different, and we have many tools at our disposal to make their lives better.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.