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Scott Firestine column: Let’s write Richmond’s next chapter by investing in our libraries
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Scott Firestine column: Let’s write Richmond’s next chapter by investing in our libraries

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As early as 1812, a century before Richmond Public Library was established, the city saw opportunities to create a place where citizens could go to learn, relax and read to their hearts’ content. There were attempts to create libraries for public use, though few would be what we would consider a public library today.

Some 209 years later, our greatest challenge is having the resources to provide library service that is equitable to all. It’s a complicated history, a disparity remains among social classes in our city and the impact of 100 years of systemic racism is very apparent in our library.

Buildings, books, digital services and programming are not where they should be for a library that serves Virginia’s capital city. Furniture, fixtures and equipment are aging and dilapidated.

At some point, all libraries need to be updated, repaired or replaced. Yet federal funding for libraries ended in 1997, and libraries are left to cover costs themselves — a daunting and nearly insurmountable hurdle for cities like ours.

We receive some state aid, but it is far below what would make an impact for our community. With Congress at work on what currently is a $3.5 trillion infrastructure package, now is the time to pass the bipartisan Build America’s Libraries Act.

This legislation will dedicate $5 billion to the construction and renovation of libraries in underserved communities nationwide, an estimated $117 million of which would be allocated for Virginia.

Richmond Public Library serves a population with a 23% poverty rate and a 73% high school graduation rate. Branches are spread across the city with collections and services curated for the people who live, work and play in nine different neighborhoods.

Our libraries are vital in helping community members get online for research and and job searching. We provide ladders to economic opportunity by providing first-time home buying assistance, homework help in Spanish and English, financial and personal bookkeeping classes, and tutoring, to name a few services.

Library staff members often assist residents with low literacy who can’t find help elsewhere. We offer so much more than physical books. We deliver access to information, electronic books, computers, Wi-Fi, copiers and fax service desperately needed by an impoverished community that often cannot afford to purchase those items.

Additionally, we work with partners such as AARP and the city of Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building, an antipoverty initiative that provides support for residents seeking work.

The library of the 20th century is not designed to serve 21st-century information needs.

For starters, the Build America’s Libraries Act could allow us to renovate the Main Library to provide free parking. This is the No. 1 barrier to residents who wish to use our services. And while we have space at the Main Library, a renovation would help us evolve with the community we serve, especially postpandemic.

We need study rooms, coworking spaces and community spaces for people to come together and share information. We would like to offer a space for artisans and craftspeople to demonstrate their crafts; spaces that promote family learning and that can have a magical impact on minds; and study spaces where people can come if they need to be with other people or have a respite from their current living conditions.

Our branch libraries all are undersized, and we could add larger, better equipped spaces for community programs and activities for lifelong education, as well as study rooms and coworking spaces.

Libraries are crucial to achieving educational and digital equity and access, and expanding economic opportunity for all. The Virginia Library Association stands with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) in protest of the racism, discrimination, pain and sorrow that marginalized communities have experienced for too long.

William Faulkner, the beloved author of Southern literature, wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In Virginia, the era of racial segregation is only a few decades behind us.

Many of Richmond’s libraries were designed and built in that era, and they reflected that era’s cruel logic about who public services like libraries were intended to serve.

Today, we aspire to be a library for all Richmonders. It’s time to upgrade our library buildings to ensure they reflect that vision.

Scott Firestine is director of the Richmond Public Library. Contact him at: scott.firestine@richmondgov.com

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