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


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

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

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

Preliminary plans for the project, unveiled at a community meeting at the library earlier this week, call for the demolition of 15 percent of the 140,000-square-foot library at its west end near the intersection of East Franklin Street and North First Street.

A cross-section of the new building shows the library’s planned parking deck with 70 parking spaces.

This would be replaced with a new section that would include an underground parking deck with approximately 70 spaces, new multipurpose rooms, and more efficient shelving and storage space for the library’s book collection, as well as ADA-compliant accessibility features.

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 bulk of the main library was built in 1972, and during construction the site’s original library building, constructed in 1928, was enveloped and “consumed,” as Firestine put it, by the new building. The 1928 building was to be demolished.

The true roots of the expansion project go back to 2009, when the library began a master plan for the facilities, but Firestine said planning began in earnest about a year ago. The timing works, as Firestine pointed out that they updated the main library about every 50 years.

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 best serves the public in the modern age can.

“These buildings (1972 and 1928) were designed around the book. They wanted collections that are as big and deep as possible. Bigger was better,” Firestine said.

“It has changed from owning large collections of books to having access to them. You may need more information than the basic stuff we have, but we can source it quickly either electronically or via interlibrary loan. Rather, it’s about having experienced navigator librarians who can help you go beyond the quick Google search.”

He gave the example of a user searching for a medical text. In such an area, information can quickly become out of date and while RPL may not be able to carry the latest medical books, the VCU library could do and RPL could obtain this book from the university.

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

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

According to Firestine, RPL operates a hub-and-spoke model, with the main library supporting RPL’s eight other branch offices across the city. The main library’s collection totals about 500,000 volumes — up from 800,000 in the late 2000s — and Firestine said new compact shelving hardware and strategies would prevent RPL from further downsizing its collection after the renovation.

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

Because the main library currently consists of two buildings that were essentially retrofitted together, Firestine said its excessive stairs and lack of an ADA-compliant design pose an accessibility issue for users, which community feedback says is exacerbated by parking issues.

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

The new parking deck at the library would help quell that problem, and Firestine said it aligns with the city’s Richmond 300 master plan, which prioritizes reducing surface parking in neighborhoods like Monroe Ward. It would be built where the basement of the library is currently located.

“This would not expand surface parking. We would convert space that we used to need for books into space that could be used for parking,” he said. “This is a key element of this conceptual plan.”

The new building’s roof would be open to the public, and the 1972 building’s roof would be outfitted with solar panels, which Firestine said would help RPL achieve its goal of becoming the first net-zero energy library in Virginia.

“When you think of a library and what we do, we’re the epitome of an organization that encourages preservation and reuse,” he said. “I mean, we borrow books.”

A café and new communal areas are part of the concept designs. (Courtesy 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 of that would come from the city’s capital improvements budget.

RPL commissioned New York-based architectural 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 this process is for the library to complete the renovation plan in the next 60 days, after which it will submit it to the city for review as part of the capital improvement plan in the fall. 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 Richmond’s main library. The fire, believed to have been started by an arsonist, burned for seven hours, destroying 500,000 books and shutting down the library for around three years.

He said the story will be told in a 2018 book by Susan Orlean, The Library Book.

“It’s about how the LA Library gutted it. It’s about us being institutions of learning, how we help people with lifelong learning, especially when they’re trying to learn something new or change careers,” Firestine said.

When asked if The Library Book is available from Richmond Public Libraries, Firestine laughed.

“Of course it is,” he said.


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