EDINBURG — With booming programs and thousands of visitors, leaders of the Shenandoah County Library are asking the county for $3 million to meet demand.
Sandy Whitesides, Shenandoah County Library Systems director, told the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors last week that plans are underway to add a 7,600 square foot, two-story wing to the library in Edinburg, the focal point in a system that includes other branches spread around the county.
Annual visits have risen well above 100,000 per year, Whitesides told supervisors. Other activities, including program attendance, annual circulation and computer use have skyrocketed, giving Whitesides and his staff pause as to whether they can even continue advertising programs.
“We are in a place where we feel we can’t advertise our programs aggressively because we’re afraid people might show up,” Whitesides said. “It’s kind of a good problem to have but it's a problem we have.”
The projected cost of the expansion is roughly $4 million, Whitesides said. He is asking the county to invest $3 million and the Library Foundation has pledged to cover additional costs within the two-story wing.
When the county library opened in 2000, a similar funding system was used, Whitesides said. While the library system is made up of buildings sprawling from Strasburg to New Market, the county library is in Edinburg.
“This is the county library,” Whitesides said. “The county’s funding responsibility is here.”
Plans for the expansion have been brewing since 2007 when the county conducted a space study, Whitesides said. The study identified the amount of space county buildings would need to expand in the future.
In 2007, the study determined that the library needed to expand between 12,000 and 14,000 square feet for “current services and future expansion,” Whitesides said. More than 10 years on, some of that program expansion has already happened — without any physical expansion accompanying it.
Whitesides inherited a vague outline for expansion when he took over as director in 2011. He said the “plan” he inherited only had rough estimates for cost and size. When he created the library system’s capital improvement plan in 2011, Whitesides put expansion — and a clear vision for how it would look — in place.
Since then, the library has kicked the can down the road, Whitesides said. But with space running out for programs, community groups looking for meeting space being turned away and an ever-shrinking archives space, Whitesides said it was time to stop kicking and start working.
Libraries provide an important, disappearing public space, Whitesides said. Without the library, community groups, non-profit organizations, tutors and researchers would struggle to find other places to go.
“Our brand is books and books is still the biggest thing we do,” he said. “But it’s a lot more than just that.”
Anchoring the library as a hub in the county is the Shenandoah Room — an archive bursting at its seams.
Zachary Hottel, an archivist at the library, said access to the archives is an indispensable service to the community. Without enabling the archives to expand, the county would be hamstringing the library from one of its essential functions.
“Shenandoah County is kind of unique in the fact that the library system committed itself to housing and providing to researchers local history information,” Hottel said. “Usually that comes directly through a countywide museum or something along those lines.”
Of the roughly 100,000 library visitors every year, about 1,800 of them come for research, Hottel said. Many are local men and women, researching their family or property, but some out of state and international travelers come as well, he said.
Whitesides told supervisors that investing in history and preservation are economic development drivers.
Archives are trickier to store than general collections, Hottel said. While there is turnover in regular books, he can't rotate historical documents out.
“When you get Civil War letters, it’s not that I can decide 20 years from now that they’re not important anymore,” Hottel said. “Unlike the rest of the books and some of the other collections, we are always expanding. Space is always gonna be an issue and the need for growth is always gonna be there.”
Despite space crunches, technology booms and continued doomsday predictions that libraries are going extinct, Whitesides said he doesn’t see the library slowing down anytime soon.
“[People ask] what do we need libraries for anyway? We have Google,” Whitesides said. “When they come in the building they can see pretty quickly five or six answers to that question, depending on what they’re trying to get out of our services.”
“Libraries are one of the few places anymore where you can go and just be there without being expected to buy anything,” Whitesides continued. “Libraries are one of those places that are still very much a public space.”