Illustration by Cam Floyd
The challenges facing the Library of Virginia are a lot worse than overdue books.
“There’s a difference between going out to destroy an institution and just cutting out the frills,” says Barbara Vines Little, a member of the Library Board and professional genealogist, venting the frustration that many friends of the library have voiced about the attrition of staff and funding at the venerable institution founded in 1823.
When Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced in early October that some state employees would lose their jobs as a result of a $1.48 billion revenue shortfall, the Library of Virginia was the biggest loser, with 18 positions cut. Since the recession of 2008, the number of full-time library employees has dropped 43 percent, from 195 to 111 after the job cuts, and part-time staff has shrunk 82 percent, from 45 to eight. Its operating budget decreased nearly $4.5 million during that period.
“The governor is required to balance the budget and asked all executive branch agencies to plan for a 5-percent budget cut, so the library was not singled out or treated any differently from other agencies,” but simply had no where else to cut except salaries, spokeswoman Jan Hathcock said, before retiring in December.
As a result, the library has closed its reading rooms on Saturdays and Mondays, essentially cutting off hands-on access to records and manuscripts.
One of its critical assets is an archive of irreplaceable documents dating from the establishment of Virginia as an English colony in 1607. Little says that she has brought four genealogical conferences to Richmond, each with upward of 2,500 attendees. Since moving to 800 E. Broad St. in 1997, the library has attracted more than 200,000 visitors a year.
Library Board Chairman R. Chambliss Light Jr. of Lynchburg has written an impassioned letter to McAuliffe asking that the library be spared from a looming 2.5 percent budget cut in the second year of the biennial budget. He says proposed reductions would result in the loss of an additional three staff positions, and could jeopardize federal funding requirements as well as other library programming. The General Assembly will consider budget amendments during its session that starts Jan 11.
“It has not made a lot of sense to a lot of people that such a small group as the library has sustained such a disproportionate impact,” Light says.
In unveiling amendments to the biennial budget on Dec. 16, the governor offered the hope that some library positions could be saved under a budget proposal that would restore nearly $220,000 to the library’s budget in fiscal year 2017. He originally proposed reducing the library’s budget by $633,171.
Retired employees and volunteers have been pitching in to preserve the library’s collections and programs in the face of cutbacks. One of them is Conley Edwards, a retired state archivist. “It took a long time to build them up, and not such a long time to erode them,” Edwards says. “It’s been disheartening.”