A $70 million renovation and addition could be the main library’s next chapter

A rendering shows the west end of the main library, which would be razed and rebuilt. (Images courtesy of Richmond Public Library)

A new edition of the city’s main library is being written downtown.

The Richmond Public Library is planning a $70 million renovation and addition to its complex at 101 E. Franklin St.

Preliminary plans for the project, as presented at a community meeting at the library earlier this week, call for the demolition of 15% of the 140,000 square foot library at its western end near the intersection of East Streets Franklin and North First.

A cutaway rendering of the new building shows the library’s planned 70-space parking deck.

This would be replaced by a new section comprising an underground car park with approximately 70 spaces, new multi-purpose spaces and more efficient shelving and storage areas for the library’s book collection, as well as accessibility features that comply with the Code. ‘ADA.

RPL director Scott Firestine said the library is still in the planning and feedback-gathering phase of the process.

Scott Firestin

“This is absolutely just the beginning,” Firestine said of the project.

The majority of the main library was built in 1972, and during construction the new building rolled up and “consumed”, as Firestine put it, the site’s original library building which was built in 1928. The 1928 building would be what would be demolished.

The real roots of the expansion project date back to 2009 when the library began a facilities master plan, but Firestine said planning started in earnest about a year ago. As Firestine pointed out, now is the time to update the core library every 50 years or so.

In the decades since 1972, Firestine said the way people use libraries has changed and the goal of the renovation project is to bring the main library to a point where it can better serve the public at the modern era.

“These buildings (1972 and 1928) were designed around the book. You wanted collections that were as big and as deep as possible. The bigger the better,” Firestine said.

“It went from owning large collections of books to having access to them. You may need more information than the basic information we have, but we can get it quickly, either electronically or through interlibrary loan. It’s more about having skilled browser librarians who can help you get past that quick Google search.

He took the example of a user searching for medical text. In such a field, information can quickly become outdated, and although RPL is not able to keep the latest medical books, the VCU library could, and RPL could obtain this book from the university.

“Libraries have changed and our collections need to be very responsive to the specific needs of our community,” he said. “Instead of having a huge, deep collection, we have an agile, robust, and accessible collection. We need to continue to evolve with the way information is conveyed.

The 140,000 square foot library’s 1972 building would not be affected. (Photo by Mike Platania)

Firestine said RPL operates a hub-and-spoke model, with the main library supporting RPL’s other eight branches in the city. The Main Library’s collection totals around 500,000 volumes – up from 800,000 in the late 2000s – and Firestine said that with new hardware and compact shelving strategies, RPL would not have to reduce its collection further after the renovation.

“The collections on the floor will be our most popular books,” Firestine said. “The books that move the most to meet the needs of the greatest number.”

Since the Main Library is currently made up of two buildings that are essentially renovated together, Firestine said its excess stairs and lack of ADA-compliant design present an accessibility issue for users, which he says, indicates that community feedback is exacerbated by parking issues.

“It’s amazing, when we started doing surveys and we got feedback from the community, the most important thing was parking. People loved the library, they loved coming here, but the first and the final concern is parking,” Firestine said.

The new library parking lot would help solve that problem, and Firestine said it’s in line with the city’s Richmond 300 Master Plan, which prioritizes reducing surface parking lots in neighborhoods such as Monroe Ward. It would be built where the basement of the library currently stands.

“It wouldn’t increase surface parking. We would convert the space we once needed for books into space that could be used for parking,” he said. “It’s a key part of this concept plan.”

The roof of the new building would be accessible to the public, and the roof of the 1972 building would be fitted with solar panels, which Firestine says would help RPL achieve its goal of being the first net-zero energy library in Virginia.

“If you think of a library and what we do, we are the epitome of an organization that encourages conservation and reuse,” he said. “I mean, we lend books.”

A cafe and new common areas are part of the concept designs. (Courtesy of Richmond Public Library)

Funding for the $70 million project would come from a variety of sources, including private benefactors, foundations and corporations, but Firestine said the bulk would come from the city’s capital improvement budget.

RPL brought in New York-based architecture firm Steinberg Hart and local firm Kei Architects to design the project, and Lu+S Engineers and Lynch Mykins are listed as engineers.

Firestine said the next step in the process is for the library to finalize the renovation concept within the next 60 days, after which it will submit it to the city in the fall for review as part of the capital improvement plan. Another timeline for the project is unclear.

Firestine recalled a 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library, which had a similar design and structure to the main Richmond Library. The fire, believed to have been started by an arsonist, burned for seven hours, destroyed 500,000 books and closed the library for about three years.

He said the story is told in a 2018 book by Susan Orlean, “The Library Book.”

“He talks about how he emptied the library in Los Angeles. He talks about how we are institutions of learning, how we help people in lifelong learning, especially if they are trying to learn something new or change careers said Firestine.

When asked if “The Library Book” is available at public libraries in Richmond, Firestine laughed.

“Of course it is,” he said.

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