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Mayor Levar Stoney and Richmond Public Library director Scott Firestine visited the Broad Rock branch on Sunday to kick of National Library Week. (Photo by Tina Eshleman)
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Leighton Powell, past president of the Friends of the Richmond Public Library, presents Mayor Levar Stoney with a T-shirt in honor of National Library Week. At left is library director Scott Firestine. (Photo by Tina Eshleman)
It's a sleepy Sunday afternoon and there's a standing, all-ages crowd at the Broad Rock branch of the Richmond Public Library in South Side. The only library in all of Richmond (or the counties) with hours on the Sabbath is usually thick with bodies on this day of the week, but today's appearance by a sharply-dressed, smiling Mayor Levar Stoney — kicking off National Library Week — has the electric feel of a celebrity book signing.
The day is filled with light-hearted cheer, good food, a bit of speechifying about the importance of libraries and reading by the mayor, as well as Richmond Public Library's equally dapper director, Scott Firestine, and the unveiling of a cute publicity campaign to replace Readasaurus, the official RPL mascot. Library visitors are invited to choose between an owl, an otter and a turtle — all inspired by the James River and its environs — and cast their votes for the library system’s new animal-suited symbol.
But for all the smiles, and Mayor Stoney's boast that the Richmond Public Library system is "the best in Virginia," this and the other eight branches of RPL will have to go through some hard changes in the coming months. It's even possible that the Broad Rock branch will have to close on Sundays.
"We have the numbers to operate, but not at the level that we need to," says Firestine, formerly the director of the Appomattox Regional Library system, in an interview a few days prior. "We may have to shorten our hours, and cut back on library programs and outreach programs."
The proposed RPL budget for 2017-2018 is just under $6 million to operate nine branches. Of that total, $5,281,626 comes out of the city's general fund — down from the previous year's $5,492,382, with most of the cuts coming in an early childhood development initiative, public computer access and reference services. A separate $400,000 goes to support the RPL law library, which is its own collection. The rest is revenue from fees, donations, federal grants and used book sales. In the 2016-2017 budget, RPL took a 16 percent cut. In the new mayor's first budget, 2017-2018, it's a smaller, 9 percent cut. "We're still in a deficit in obtaining books, e-books and securing access to electronic databases," Firestine says.
The ongoing library renovations have been a challenge the last five years," the director explains. "Richmond Public Library undertook a library renovation plan in 2008 and so we've done one library a year. Many of the libraries were built in the ’50s and ’60s and were just kind of falling apart, so these renovations are really just to get them up to speed." The overhauls were funded through former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's City of the Future plan.
The renovations are nearly done, with the remaining West End branch scheduled to reopen in August. "The last three years, one branch of the library system has been closed for renovation," Firestine says. "We've taken that staffing and spread it across the network, so we backfilled our vacancies with those positions. Problem is that when the West End branch reopens, we'll have nine branches with a staffing plan of eight."
"The library's struggles with manpower started eight years ago when we started closing the branches for the renovations," says David Lydiard, a member of the Library Board. "The money was pulled from our budget, so we've been short eight to 10 people the last eight years. It's been a challenge." A lack of operating dollars keeps the library from modernizing, and growing, he says. "There will be a reduction in services, the inability to be as innovative or to offer some of the things a modern library should have."
Lydiard, a five-year board member, hasn't been shy about speaking out about the library's ongoing deficit. At a recent 3rd District meeting at Pine Camp, attended by City Council President Chris Hilbert (also the district’s representative), Lydiard talked about financial challenges.
“Initially we tried to handle this through the budget, but it's reaching the point where, as a responsible board, we need to make the populace aware of the conditions of the library,” he says in an interview, “and most people aren't aware that the budget has been decreasing each year."
A real estate agent by day, Lydiard says that Richmond's growing population is notable for a city its size, and that the new people locating here expect a first-rate library system. "Sometimes the city has looked at libraries, like parks and rec, as luxuries. When the axe falls, they are the first to take the hit ... and then they fall into disrepair. It's the mindset that I'm concerned about. These are not luxuries; these are necessities. And especially to draw new people into the city, and to keep them."
RPL also has library envy. "Look at what they did last year," Firestine says of Henrico County. "They did a $440 million dollar bond for schools, parks and libraries, and will add their third library in five years. But they have the tax base to support it, and they were able to do that bond without raising taxes."
Henrico’s 2016-2017 library budget is $18.3 million, more than three times that of Richmond, for 11 facilities. That represents a 7.2 percent increase over the previous year, mainly because of costs associated with the county’s new Libbie Mill and Varina libraries. The proposed budget for 2017-2018 is $18.8 million, a nearly 3 percent increase.
For the city, special needs have been assisted by the separate Richmond Public Library Foundation.
"They help us do the extra things," Firestine says. "Like a challenge grant from the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation to raise $200,000 to provide a young adult space and digital media space for the Main public library.
Richmond Public Library director Scott Firestine (photo by Tina Eshleman)
"For the last year, we've worked with the foundation to raise those funds. We do the most with the tax dollars we are given, but they don't always get us the things we need to meet our mission. So our friends in the foundation help us do more."
There's some catching up to do too. "Our material collections are down. The average age of the books at the Main library is 1984," Lydiard says. "Now a lot of that is reference material, which is older, but our collection is not as current as we'd like it to be. Same thing with best-sellers. We might only be able to have two or three at a branch, and that's what gets people in the door."
"People don't have any patience waiting for a book," Firestine echoes. "We are in the Amazon.com age, if you can't one-click it and put it in a basket, you go to the next thing."
Both men are heartened by the mayor's attention to the city libraries. "It was different with Mayor [Dwight] Jones," Lydiard says. "We only saw him for the ribbon-cuttings." Stoney is vowing to visit all of the branches before Library Week concludes on April 15. His public schedule includes visits Wednesday to the Main library (101 E. Franklin St.) at 10 a.m. and the Hull Street branch at 11 a.m., and a Thursday stop at the East End branch at 10 a.m.
Firestine, on the job less than a year, thinks that the new administration is trying to turn things around. "I feel very supported," he says. "They really are trying to do their best. The library has had challenges for a long time and some systems aren't working as they should. But I feel like people are trying to address those challenges. There are just so many demands on the limited revenue that the city has right now, and the schools have been the main ones who have taken any spare dollars in the city's budget."
At Broad Rock, after the smiling speech, Mayor Stoney grew serious when asked about the future. "Libraries and Parks and Rec have to be priorities. Yeah, I know we're going to have tough choices to make." He points to an upcoming library performance review that will be released in the coming week. "That report is what is going to allow us the opportunity to find efficiencies. It's going to give councilpeople, and me as well, the opportunity to weigh priorities. We know what the challenges are and we know what the public expects from their library."
UPDATE: Since this story was published, Richmond City Council members have introduced budget amendments that would, if adopted, restore some of the diminished library funding.