WILLIAMSBURG — Williamsburg Regional Library (WRL) is dreaming up a future expansion/renovation project that will not only modernize the library building, but once acted on, will accommodate more people, interests, programs, and books for years to come, it said.
The current downtown regional library building, located at 515 Scotland St., was built in 1973, when the estimated population of James City County (JCC) was at around 17,966, and Williamsburg’s at 9,644. Today, it’s estimated that the population has grown by 300%. In 2020, JCC’s population was estimated to be at 76,032, and Williamsburg’s at 15,034.
The last renovation to the Scotland Street library building was in 1998. WRL Library Director Betsy Fowler expressed admiration for the surrounding community, noting the building has been utilized and enjoyed by Williamsburg, JCC, and York County residents for nearly 50 years. However, Fowler says there is a greater need — now more than ever — to meet the needs of the 1,000 library visitors the library welcomes through its doors, on average, every day.
“The Williamsburg Regional Library System is a wonderful library system,” Fowler said, “We have a very supportive community. We have tremendous support from the local government. We have a very high rating nationally. What we don’t have is the building and the space to really make the library soar. We have a tremendously supportive foundation who’s doing a lot of fundraising to make a lot of these extra things happen. This library has tremendous potential to impact more lives and to do more if we have the facilities to make it happen.”
The ever-growing population, plus a need for renovations to infrastructure such as piping work and electrical conduits, has library personnel like Fowler to start think about other improvements at WRL.
“We really envision these big, bright, welcoming community spaces with lots of activities for people of all ages, and with quiet areas and wonderful browsing collections for people who are coming for the books,” added Fowler. “We really envision these big interactive children and teen spaces for families to come to, and wonderful outside spaces because that’s increasingly important for libraries. So, we have a lot of dreams, and we’re dreaming big.”
In 2018, WRL conducted a community survey to gather information from the public to inform both the library and participating jurisdictions on potential building projects.
According to an executive summary of the survey, 3,130 respondents shared their thoughts with the library, including nearly 7,500 comments.
The biggest concerns raised by those community members who responded to the survey were:
- The difficulty of parking at the Williamsburg Library
- Concern about moving the Williamsburg Library building
According to the survey, “While there is a high level of satisfaction with library service from WRL, there are clearly concerns from some users about the Williamsburg Library moving from its current downtown location. However, there are also clear indications that users are interested in the possibilities that a new or significantly renovated space might offer. Balancing these tensions as WRL moves forward with the City of Williamsburg and James City County will be a key to success for any new or renovated library facilities. “
The survey discovered that the majority of library visits last from 16 minutes to one hour, with 80%, or 2553, of the survey respondents indicating that they browse and check out books, movies, audiobooks, or music when they visit.
As Fowler guided WYDaily and other media members on a tour of the library, many of the director’s concerns became apparent. A big area of importance for Fowler and for 2,672 community members who responded to the survey is accessibility. It placed second only to improving onsite parking.
One prominent accessibility issue for the library is the building’s elevator, for those who need to use it to access the second floor’s collection of books. A librarian must unlock a door with a key and open a metal gate to give guests access to and allow the operation of the small elevator.
The survey indicated several areas that community members cited as important in a new or renovated library. The following areas received the most responses as “very important” on the survey:
- Onsite parking
- Large windows and natural lighting
- Sustainable, energy-efficient design
- Quiet work areas
WRL had to make a compromise last year when it sacrificed a quiet area in exchange for adding a Makers Space — an area of the library that offers educational programs and tools for library visitors. This includes Cricut Machines, 3D printers, and even a laser etcher for visitors to use for their own personal projects. The desire to provide modern amenities in 2022 meant it had to give up an area that was used for those studying and reading.
According to WRL, in 2022, the Library Board shared its preference that the city of Williamsburg and James City County build a new 55,000-square-foot joint facility on the current Williamsburg Library site. That was based, it said, on a documented need for a new and expanded library space, the findings of the 2018 community-wide survey that showed there was strong public support across all three jurisdictions for such a a facility, and a need to minimize future operational costs, adding how to proceed was in the hands of the individual jurisdictions.
“Williamsburg Regional Library is one of the best library systems in the country for its size,” said Jean Stettler, WRL Board of Trustees President. “To continue to provide the same outstanding service to the region’s growing population, the system needs adequate, updated spaces. WRL’s Board of Trustees looks forward to supporting the jurisdictions as they work towards their vision of a new, modern library.”
While the library is at least four years from a building project being complete in any capacity, WRL has provided a webpage for additional information. Those interested in learning more should visit wrl.org/newbuilding.