By Susan Sorensen
On a recent visit to the downtown library, I overheard a young girl ask her grandmother where they should line up to pay for their books. “They’re free,” Grandma told her little blonde-haired charge. “Free?” the dubious child asked. “Every one of these books is for free?” “Yes,” her grandmother laughed. “This is a public library.”
Public library. Two of the most beautiful words in the English language, if you ask me.
On my first visit to a public library more than half a century ago, I too was astonished to learn I could take home any book—or 10—on the shelves. Once I’d finished reading what I’d checked out with my shiny new card, I’d return for 10 more books. Same thing’s true today—except 75 is the check-out limit at the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, and your choices—in addition to traditional books—range from computers, audiobooks, and e-books to state park passes, toys, and maker kits. According to JMRL Director David Plunkett, the system has just under half a million items, which can be picked up at or returned to any of the branches (there are eight, plus the bookmobile), and everything is available to the 106,000 residents who currently possess library cards.
“We connect people to information; we’re a hub for the community to get together and share and learn and grow,” Plunkett says as he glances at the calendar of summer program offerings, which includes everything from an ongoing English conversation circle for non-native speakers (several branches) and a workshop on how to pay for college (Crozet), to an affordable housing resource fair (Central), a seminar on downsizing (Northside), and a Bollywood dance night (Greene County).
“The services we offer are pretty extensive,” Plunkett says. On the lower level of the Central Library, you’ll find the Downtown Job Center, where staff are ready to assist you with finding employment, writing a resume, or recruiting potential employees. At various other branches, you can check out Chromebook laptop computers, use high-speed Wi-Fi, copy, print (even in 3D!), or fax, digitize videos and photos, and eat a healthy lunch through the No Kid Hungry Summer Feeding Program. There are also health literacy kits, a how-to for starting a book club, notary publics, and meeting rooms for all manner of gatherings.
In other words, there’s something for everyone at the Charlottesville-area public libraries. As Plunkett put it in 2018, shortly after he was named JMRL’s director, our local libraries are places that “provide equal access to information for all the citizens of Albemarle, Charlottesville, Greene, Louisa, and Nelson.”
As matter-of-fact as that may sound, it’s a huge statement.