Into the bookless future: As the county invests $20 million in new construction, libraries come to a fork in the road

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The brand new Crozet branch library. Photo: Jack Looney The brand new Crozet branch library. Photo: Jack Looney

The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite, perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries.–Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”

In September, Albemarle County will open a library in a brand new building in Crozet. Between now and then, it will also begin a public planning process for the newly approved $12 million Northside branch library, which is set to be relocated from its current strip mall home to a building that for years served as a warehouse for a building supply company on Rio Road West.

The process will mostly involve detailed citizen input on specific topics, like how many computer terminals will be online and whether there will be separate areas for children and teenagers. It’s not likely to address the question of whether or not libraries are relevant in the digital age, because the statistics show they are, which is amazing, in a world where Google is the information architecture for our most basic decisions and the publishing industry is moving digital.

The Crozet library is going to be grand. The exterior has already taken a stately shape, two stories formed in stone and brick with towering panes of glass, and an interior that promises to hold all the appeal of a cozy, high-end ski lodge. A fireplace with cushy lounge chairs facing its hearth sits adjacent to floor-to-ceiling, end-to-end windows with spectacular panoramas of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The view anchors what will be one end of an open expanse of book stacks, computer stations, reading and meeting tables, and separate, designated areas for children, teens, and adults. At the opposite corner of the span from the windows is the door to a large multi-purpose room, to be used for public events and as a home to various learning programs.

It’s a monumental project on many levels. The new Crozet library will be double the size of the current one, which resides in the old railroad depot, affording space for not only more meeting area but more room for books as well. Shelf space is so tight now that if they acquire a new title they have to get rid of another one to make room for it.

John Halliday, director of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (JMRL) System, has overseen the development of the brand new Crozet branch library, a $9.6 million project, and sits on the committee that will award the contract for the $11.8 million renovation of the Northside branch library. Photo: Elli Williams
John Halliday, director of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (JMRL) System, has overseen the development of the brand new Crozet branch library, a $9.6 million project, and sits on the committee that will award the contract for the $11.8 million renovation of the Northside branch library. Photo: Elli Williams

“It’s the first library that Albemarle County has ever built,” said John Halliday, director of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library (JMRL) System. “This Crozet library will be the first [JMRL] library to meet state standards of what a public library should be.”

The Crozet library cost $8 million to build, with an additional $1.6 million to be raised by the community to furnish books and computers. Library supporters are about halfway to that goal thanks in part to $100,000 contributions from Hollywood film director and UVA alumnus Tom Shadyac (Patch Adams and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective) and the Dave Matthews Band.

The JMRL system, which operates nine libraries in four counties, has almost 500,000 books, and circulates around 1.5 million books a year. Just 2.7 percent of that circulation—roughly 40,500 units—are books downloaded from its website.

The busiest branch in the entire JMRL system is the Northside library, located in the sparsely-inhabited Albemarle Square mall on 29 North just above Rio Road. According to Halliday, the county is paying $300,000 a year to rent the 15,000 square feet of space the library now occupies at Albemarle Square. It also pays an additional $200,000 a year for the storage space that holds county administrative records. The new Northside branch will accommodate both the library and the county’s storage needs, so the new library is a solution to an existing, pressing problem, and the proposed $11.8 million investment is calculated to pay for itself within 10 years.

The main challenge facing the county and JMRL right now is time. The lease on the Albemarle Square property expires Halloween 2014. That means over the next couple weeks a hand-picked committee of county, community, and library people, including Halliday, need to select an architect from a batch of 12 submissions received during the bid process. As is the standard these days, community input is considered a prerequisite to a successful project.

“One of the qualifications of course will be to see how they have worked with community input in the past,” said Halliday.

Once a design firm is selected, the county will hold a public meeting sometime in August, during which the community will voice its preferences and concerns to the architect, who will then go and turn the input into a vision to be reexamined and modified until it is eventually hammered into a plan that everyone can agree on. At that point, the architects will have to figure out how to convert a warehouse into a full-fledged, digital-age library in a matter of months.

Books and mortar

When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. There was no personal problem, no world problem whose eloquent solution did not exist—somewhere in some hexagon.—Jorge Luis Borges, “The Library of Babel”

“We’re closing down branches and shutting down hours across the country,” said UVA professor and digital media guru Siva Vaidhyanathan. “The great thing about Charlottesville is that we haven’t had to do that. We’re opening libraries here.”

Vaidhyanathan, Robertson professor and chair of the UVA media studies department, is a leading expert in the field of information science. Once named by Library Journal as one of the “Movers & Shakers” of the library field, he is the author of  the widely acclaimed books, The Googlization of Everything and The Anarchist in the Library, works that mainly address the perpetually changing behaviors that dictate the custody and dissemination of information in the digital age. His tweets and articles appear in such vaunted places as Salon, Slate, and The New York Times.

The Googlization of Everything is an energizing read–a fast-paced and thorough analysis that contrasts the pitfalls with the conveniences of living under a monopolistic yet seemingly innocuous (their motto from the jump was “Don’t Be Evil”) search engine company that has evolved into the largest, most pervasive information holding, manipulating, and distributing company in history. Vaidhyanathan profiles all the ways in which Google has insinuated itself into our society and our lives, and sketches out the extent to which the company holds sway over key aspects of the business realm. He also poses alluring questions, like considering whether or not Google can be considered…you guessed it …a library.

While Albemarle residents are indeed fortunate to be able to upgrade and build new libraries, Vaidhyanathan wonders if all the right questions were considered, but he doesn’t question the need for libraries.

“One of the things that I’ve noticed about the Albemarle, I guess the Jefferson region, the city and county libraries, is that they’re not evenly spaced,” he said. “There’s no library branch in some of the low income neighborhoods in Charlottesville. It seems to me that that should have been their priority from the beginning.”

It’s perhaps indicative of county library planners’ particular problem that they have a digital media expert whose writing on libraries and information reaches to the far corners of the globe following their progress. It’s also, maybe, a testament to our confusing information landscape that his main critiques deal with the location and condition of its buildings and the quality of the books they hold, not to the digital horizon he perpetually contemplates.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, chair of the UVA media studies department, is a leading expert in the field of information science. Once named by Library Journal as one of the “Movers & Shakers” of the library field, he is the author of the widely acclaimed books, The Googlization of Everything and The Anarchist in the Library. Photo: Jane Haley
Siva Vaidhyanathan, chair of the UVA media studies department, is a leading expert in the field of information science. Once named by Library Journal as one of the “Movers & Shakers” of the library field, he is the author of the widely acclaimed books, The Googlization of Everything and The Anarchist in the Library. Photo: Jane Haley

“The existing libraries are in need of upgrades anyway. Every one of the library branches needs upgraded collections. The children’s books are a couple of decades out of date at this point,” Vaidhyanathan said. “It’s clear that both Charlottesville branches need pretty serious upgrades as well. The Downtown Charlottesville library is sort of musty, has old furniture, old carpeting, inadequate parking.”

As a nearly daily visitor to the JRML Central Branch library, I read out-of-town newspapers, borrow Vaidhyanathan’s books, and cruise the stacks at random to see what might jump out at me. My motivations are, essentially, nostalgic.

My world of information, though, is distinctly digital. I have a smartphone, I submit stories via Google Docs, and run a small documentary media company with contracts in Michigan and California from my desk in Belmont.

Downtown reference librarian Russ Lyttleton worked in the Cincinnati public libraries for nine years before coming to work in the JMRL system two and half years ago. He also sat on the planning committee for the 2007 renovation of the downtown Cincinnati library, a project that reflected the new direction of libraries as community centers where the public can access computers at no cost.

“We centralized all the computers into a computer lab,” said Lyttleton. “We added the nice new flat-panel computers with faster processing speed and added a lot more software. We also added video editing and sound editing software. The computers here, for security reasons, won’t allow outside materials to be uploaded onto the computers.”

While I don’t really have to use them, I’ve noticed that the in-house computers at the Central Branch could use some updating. The library website offers a plethora of e-encyclopedias, e-books, and e-magazines and journals, but it has some catching up to do in the software department. For instance, if you bring in a disc or other drive and upload it to work on it on JMRL’s computers, you’ll get an error message.

Since we will soon be a community of library planners and since $12 million of our tax dollars are going to build a new library, these are the sorts of specifics we might want to consider. And since software evolves on a nearly continual cycle these days, and hardware generations turn over only a little bit slower than that, considering those specifics very quickly gets you into thinking about bigger stuff, like what the library should look like 10 years from when it’s built. Or whether libraries should be virtual information networks or place-based community centers.

If you put on your Google Glasses and look around, it’s not hard to see how quickly the fundamental idea of a library as a repository for books is changing. San Antonio will open what Bexar County, Texas touts as the country’s first completely bookless library later this year, the BiblioTech. All its holdings will be accessible only from computer stations or on mobile devices. Public libraries have experimented with nearly book-free environments already, usually resulting in vitriolic public backlash, at least in the cases of Newport Beach, California and Phoenix, Arizona, but it’s irrefutable that libraries are hardly about just books anymore.

“Libraries are really becoming community centers with a focus on education,” said Halliday. “We had 170,000 people come last year and use the computers.”

Sixty-three percent of adults in America are able to access the Internet via a personal mobile device such as a smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer. The Internet makes its way into 76 percent of American households overall. Income is the biggest exclusionary factor for people who don’t have their own personal Google machines. And with the Internet being where almost all information lives now, access to it is not even optional anymore, it’s crucial.

“One of the things we have to keep in mind about libraries is that they are the central nervous systems of the community,” said Vaidhyanathan. “They’re the places where people seek out jobs, seek out mystery novels, seek out music and movies but also seek out neighbors and collaborators and space to think and plan. A lot of really important civic engagement goes on in libraries.”

If libraries didn’t offer a free Internet service, there’s not a lot of other places people could go to log on. The Downtown library, between its mezzanine level computer lab and the several computer stations on the lower level of the building, has 25 general-use terminals where people with library cards can access the Internet. Those computers have a 30-minute time limit which is usually extended automatically so long as no one is waiting for a terminal. Once you sign off of a computer however, you have to wait another 30 minutes to get back on. There are three additional computers whose use is restricted to job searches and educational endeavors. The time limit on those is two hours and you need to have a librarian sign you on.

“Job applications are a huge part of our business, so to speak, or job searching,” said Lyttleton. “Or people have to interact with a government agency or make a tax payment or renew a license, that sort of thing.”

From the general-use computers, you can access only a very limited selection of e-books and you cannot access any of the titles downloadable for circulation unless you have a mobile device to put them on. And if you had that, you probably wouldn’t be at the library using their computers in the first place.

On any given day at the Downtown library, there are usually less people reading hard copy newspapers, magazines, and books than using computers. The people who come and stay a while are the Internet users and the parents who use the children’s section as a satellite daycare facility. Becoming an Internet access portal and a community center that happens to have some books on the shelves, which is sort of what the new Crozet library is shaping up to be, looks to be the way of the future.

As book repositories, our public libraries are used much in the way they have always been. People looking for books come in, find what they want, hit the checkout desk, and leave. Circulation still goes up every year.

“Here people still want to read books, hardback, physical books. When people go into a library, they still want to see physical books,” said Halliday.

Public libraries don’t receive near enough funding (Halliday says JMRL gets $600,000 annually for books, all from the state) to amass collections that rival the size and relevance of university libraries, though, so anybody serious about research locally would end up at UVA.

If that’s the case, shouldn’t our libraries should start to look more like the BiblioTech in Texas? If, in the future, books will be composed as digital files or scanned, digitized, and hosted online for prosperity why not position ourselves for access to all of that now? A recent Pew Research center study shows that the percentage of readers who prefer print, an aging group, are in decline, while our teens, who are demonstrating more of an affinity with e-readers of all types, are on the rise. If that trend continues, as most experts believe it will, books could well go the way of vinyl records, manufactured for and exchanged within a small community of fetishists and collectors. It seems impossible after so many centuries, but it’s probably going to happen.

  • Tony Townsend

    Good story, but you failed to mention the free online access to hundreds of databases also available at JMRL branches and online. From popular stuff (newspaper archives, magazines) to technical information (car repair manuals) to in-depth reference (Morningstar, etc.), this stuff is FREE to library patrons.

    Also, the Library makes available meeting space for a huge variety of community organizations, usually at no charge.

    Maybe having books out on shelves is an antiquated concept, but serendipity is a powerful force. When you are looking for title X but see titles Y and Z, this may expand your horizons.

  • Heather

    “The JMRL system, which operates nine libraries in four counties, has almost 500,000 books, and circulates around 1.5 million books a year. Just 2.7 percent of that circulation—roughly 40,500 units—are books downloaded from its website.”

    That’s actually right on target with public libraries across the country. A recent survey by Library Journal found that ebook downloads were about 3% of total circulation.

  • Esteban

    It’s not a Borgesian nightmare, but Ray Bradbury’s world of Fahrenheit 451. The world of Bradbury’s protaganist Montag struggles to find meaning in a world devoid of books in favor of a superficial one where TV and radio could convey some semblance of meaning, but people don’t demand it because they stop reading the only thing that can sucessfully convey any sense of meaning in society: Books. In one of the more memorable passages in the book, Faber tells Montag: ” “Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

    “Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway, telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often… So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.”

    Faber says that people need quality information, the leisure to digest it, and the freedom to act on what they learn. He defines quality information as a textured and detailed knowledge of life, knowledge of the “pores” on the face of humanity. He went on to compare the society of TV and radio to flowers trying to live on flowers instead of on good, substantive dirt: people are unwilling to accept the basic realities and unpleasant aspects of life.

    This is where we’re at now, even though we’re not burning books, we are though contemplating a world without them in favor of a more superficial one of Kindles, Nooks, tablets, and other digital devices (in which the rare earth minerals needed for the curcuits are covered in blood of women and children of Central Africa) have become in themselves a fetish for technological fundamentalists.

  • Wurms, Book

    Great job of opening thought to the nuances of what a sticky (yet extremely riveting) time it is to be custodians of cultural information. Shangri-La, batten down the hatches on your lamasery…(just as a ‘back-up drive’…).

  • Raul Baragiola

    Excellent, thoughtful note. Thank you!

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