Charleston's Main Library on Calhoun Street isn't a bibliophile's dream, but it's no nightmare, either. It's clean, relatively new-looking, quiet. It's got a good fiction selection and a decent reference section, plus interesting extras like the South Carolina Room, the Jerry and Anita Zucker Holocaust Collection, and the Charleston Archive, where you can find bits of history like old maps of the city and records from the Charleston Orphan House that go all the way back to 1790.
One would think that the Charleston County Public Library (CCPL) system is a fairly good one, at least for South Carolina. But according to standards set by the S.C. State Library, that's not the case. "We're way, way below," says Jamie Thomas, CCPL public relations and marketing manager.
She's not exaggerating. Ideally, the State Library says, library systems should have 1.25 square feet per resident. Charleston's has 0.44 square feet, or just 35 percent of the recommended amount, which places it in the bottom third of all of South Carolina's library systems. For print materials, the standard is four per capita; the CCPL has 3.1. And finally, the target number of library computers is three per every 1,000 residents, with a base standard of one per every 1,000. The CCPL doesn't even meet that baseline, with 0.93 computers per 1,000 residents.
But hopefully, that will all start to change soon. In March, the library announced a proposal to modernize the library system — that means everything from building new branches to adding materials to the collection — that voters will see as a referendum on the ballot this November.
It's a measure that's long overdue, according to Doug Henderson, the CCPL's executive director. "The library hasn't had a chance to go out to voters since 1986, and since then the population has changed tremendously. Technology has changed tremendously," he says. "The average age of our buildings is 43 years old. They weren't built to handle technology — they weren't built in the way that people use libraries today."
The proposal, which has been three years in the making, calls for building four new library branches and renovating 12 others, plus relocating library support services out of the Main branch to free up more space for the public. The total cost of the plan is $103.8 million, which would mean about $12 per year in taxes for the owner of a $100,000 owner-occupied home.
The proposal's origins are in a detailed, system-wide survey conducted by the library planning consulting firm Providence Associates, which works with libraries nationwide. They started the survey in 2011, and found several areas where the CCPL was sorely lacking. "They went around and looked at our buildings and operations, and found the things that needed attention," Henderson says. "Some of the objectives were updating the collection — weeding it, making it more topical. We had some things that had sat on the shelves for 20 years, never circulated. Then looking closely at the technology, when I first got here [in 2010], many of the computers hadn't been updated in eight or nine years. The internet was so slow you couldn't use it during the afternoons."
Providence helped the CCPL create a strategic plan with recommendations for the library's next five years, which the library then presented to the county. The county partnered with the library for the next step, which was to hire a cost estimator and an architectural firm. The team also looked at population and demographic data to determine where the need for library services most outstripped availability, and commissioned an independent survey to get feedback from local library users and non-users.
Using all that information, library staff created the current proposal, which they presented to County Council this January. "They've [the council] been very positive. They were all in favor of doing the referendum," Henderson says.
Now the final proposal documents are available on the library's website, ccpl.org. There's a map of the current branches plus the proposed new ones, a cost breakdown, and a timeline for completion — the new libraries would be completed at the end of 2017 or early 2018, and the bulk of the renovations would take place in 2018-19.
The proposed new buildings would replace four library branches: Cooper River Memorial on Rivers Avenue, James Island on Camp Road, West Ashley on Windermere Boulevard, and St. Paul's/Hollywood off of Highway 162. Currently, the plan calls for a single new branch to replace both the James Island and West Ashley branches, but the plan can and will change based on community input. The library started holding a series of 10 community meetings to gather public feedback at the end of March, and they ran through April 21.
In addition, an entirely new branch would be constructed in northern Mt. Pleasant, the East Cooper/Carolina Park Branch. This branch would serve the growing Mt. Pleasant population, which continues to expand north up Highway 17 — way past Mt. Pleasant Towne Centre and the Isle of Palms Connector, which were considered the far reaches of the town just five or six years ago.
The other 12 branches, from Folly Road's tiny space — it's basically a single small room — to the multistory Main branch, will be redesigned and refitted to match a 21st century library culture that is more user-friendly, tech-savvy, and aesthetically pleasing — think comfy chairs, large windows, more dedicated single-use spaces for studying, kids, and teens, and innovative program offerings. A March 7 New York Times article, "Breaking Out of the Library Mold, in Boston and Beyond," cited libraries that rent musical instruments and plots of land for cultivation, and include free Maker Lab spaces with 3-D printers and laser cutters, and offer cafe or bar-style seating for patrons who choose to work on their laptops. And while it's a pretty good bet that the CCPL won't begin lending out garden plots any time soon, these approaches do give a good idea of the direction in which the library is headed.
One trend that the CCPL is almost certain to jump on is adding separate, soundproof teens' and children's areas, so kids and young people can gather for storytime, to work on a school project, or simply to hang out. "We would love to offer a safe gathering space for teens," says Nancy Lupton, the James Island Branch manager. "We don't have meeting rooms, so we are very limited to what we can offer. When we have our Summer Reading program for the kids, because of the noise, pretty much the whole building participates."
Lupton would also love to be able to accommodate local community groups looking for meeting space, she says. "Libraries are supposed to be quiet places, but they also become meeting places for the community. I think the community deserves a facility where we can offer programs for everyone in the family, but have quiet study spaces as well."
Kim Odom, the branch manager at the John L. Dart Library on King Street, feels similarly. "People want to know whether the libraries will be more user-friendly. The answer is yes — we want more inviting spaces," she says. "What the renovations would mean for us is a more efficient use of space and better access to our resources," she says.
And that will mean something different for every branch. In West Ashley, the library sees mostly families and schoolchildren, who go there to hang out after school, do research, and browse the YA paperbacks. The Dart library, on the other hand, is a neighborhood landmark — older people come to read the paper and periodicals in the mornings, and the computers are often busy with job-seekers and students.
The CCPL wants to hear patrons' needs all across the county, which is why they've been holding the meetings. But even after November, when voters have hopefully signed off on the referendum, there will still be opportunities to offer feedback. "None of these things are going to be done in a vacuum," Henderson says. "When people pass this referendum and support these buildings, we'll go back with what we're thinking and hear what the people are thinking — we'll go back to the communities. We might find that in St. Paul/Hollywood they'd like to see more technology, or more kids' materials. We want to be very responsive to what people want."
So far, the main concerns that attendees have brought up at community meetings have been the need for better technology and more computers and books, with a few requests for more e-books — but not as many as one might think given the booming e-publishing industry. West Ashley and James Island residents have also urged the CCPL to try and figure out how to keep both those branches in their existing neighborhoods, which Henderson says they're certainly open to exploring.
One thing that the library wants to stand firm on, however, is the cost. "It looks like a large referendum, a lot of money, but we know it's fiscally responsible," Henderson says. "We'll work very hard to stay within those numbers."
If the referendum passes and the proposal is carried out in its existing form, Charleston County will have around 210,000 square feet of library space, which is still only half of what it should have according to those State Library standards. But with library circulation up 289 percent since the last referendum in 1986, it's clear that more library services, buildings, and materials are needed. "I say it's a good start because it's been so long and the population has grown so large," Henderson says. "It's not meant to be an end-all, be-all. It's meant to help the library become more modern, and these are the areas that need to be handled first."