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January/February/March, 1997
Volume 43, Number 1

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Library of Virginia Opens

by Janice M. Hathcock

The Library of Virginia, the newest building in the Capitol Square area of downtown Richmond, opened to the public on January 3, 1997. The building houses the invaluable archival and book holdings of the Commonwealth of Virginia. With collections dating from 1607 and more than 83.1 million items in the archives and 1.5 million books, bound periodicals, and serials to consider, the planning for and the actual relocation of the Library was a monumental undertaking.

More than ten years ago it became apparent that there were serious problems with the heating, cooling, electrical, and ventilation systems at the Library's Capitol Square location. The inadequacies of the building could not be corrected without expensive modifications which would not address space needs. Construction of a new library building would be the most cost effective route for the Commonwealth.

The planning began with the search for a suitable site and design. The internationally recognized architectural firm of Skidmore Owings & Merrill was selected to design the Library. Eleven possible sites for the Library were evaluated by state officials. Late in the administration of Governor Gerald Baliles, the leading site for the new library was a location on Governor's Street almost directly behind the Executive Mansion. A library building featuring a dome was designed to fit the narrow sloping site.

The administration of Governor L. Douglas Wilder made dramatic changes in the plans for the new library. At the September 1990 Library Board meeting, Secretary of Education James W. Dyke, Jr., informed the Board and senior Library staff that a new site had been chosen for the Library-a ten-acre parcel on the north side of Broad Street. The City of Richmond donated the land to the state for the Library.

The architects for the Library project presented new designs more in keeping with the pivotal nature of the site between Richmond's downtown and civic districts. The new site assured that the Library would play a key role in the economic revitalization of Broad Street.

The design of the Library is based on a cost-effective structure that minimizes building volume and maximizes interior flexibility. A vital element in the design and planning was the need to keep cost at a minimum while providing the critical elements necessary to protect and house the irreplaceable collections of the Library. Craig Hartman of Skidmore Owings & Merrill was the design architect for the Library.

Ground was broken on the project in September 1993. While construction was underway, Library staff began intense planning for the move. Gilbane Building Company, which helped plan the move of the National Archives to Archives II, was hired in 1995 to assist in these preparations. The company was chosen in part for its familiarity in projects of a similar scope.

Staff from every area and unit of the Library began meeting to brainstorm, develop strategy, and plan for the smooth transition of the collections and staff from Capitol Square to Broad Street. Detailed assignments and schedules were prepared and feedback was solicited. We made a special effort to develop procedures for the new building and anticipate patron needs.

Staff found creative ways to meet the challenges of the new building. The old Library had space for about 10,000 books in the reading rooms. The new Library would have space for more than 75,000 books. Staff developed general policies about what types of books would be appropriate for the new reading rooms, and then individuals walked the stacks marking the books selected.

Similarly, staff and volunteers used the Library's OPAC to identify titles for inclusion in the new Virginia Authors Room. Staff of the Virginia Center for the Book, the Technical Services Section, and volunteers pulled the books and marked them. In both cases a detailed inventory was also developed, an essential element to tracking and ensuring the proper relocation of the books. Similar attention was given to all the Library's holdings since the new building would have only two stack floors. Each of the stack floors, however, is equivalent to two football fields placed side by side.

Several talented staff members wrote a script and starred in a training videotape for the moving company selected to relocate the Library. The videotape detailed the special handling needed to move safely these priceless pieces of the Commonwealth's history and culture. Office Movers , Inc., used the videotape to train its staff in the proper procedures for handling the Library's books, manuscripts, pictures, photographs, maps, microfilm reels, and documents.

The move began in late September in 1996, about three years after the groundbreaking, and continued through early January 1997. Staff monitored the move by checking outgoing manifests and, at the new building, rechecking to make sure that what left Capitol Square made it to Broad Street. In the new building staff worked with the moving contractors to unpack and shelve books and materials according to the detailed plans. Four levels of security were used, from common truck transport to armed security surveillance.

The Library of Virginia finally closed to the public at the old building on November 27. The staff returned after Thanksgiving to pack personal offices and work areas. Beginning the evening of December 6, office materials, boxes, and file cabinets began the three-block move to the new building. Again staff served as monitors and stayed on the job into the wee hours of Monday, December 9, to ensure that when their colleagues arrived that morning all their boxes made it to the right places.

Despite torrential rain on December 7, the move of office materials went smoothly. Only a few boxes ended up in the wrong places, and these were quickly located. For the next 16 days staff worked hard to ready the new building and learn the procedures and policies designed to make it efficient and accessible to the public.

From the staff parking to the 97 free patron parking places to the staff offices on the fifth floor with exterior windows offering panoramic views of the city there is much to appreciate about the new building. Visitors know immediately that they have entered a library. Visible through the glass walls of the second floor are shelves of books, lining the reading rooms.

The soaring three-story atrium invites visitors into the library and draws them up the stairs to the reading rooms above the grand staircase, where seeming to hover like a UFO is the handsome Special Collections Room. The building is airy and full of light with colors of warm woods and stone.

The reading rooms flow around the exterior of the second floor offering wonderful views of the city through floor to ceiling windows. The reading rooms feature handsome specially designed tables allowing patrons to link their laptops to the Library's computer and access the Library's electronic catalogue. Beginning this summer, patrons will be able to access the resources of the Internet and the Library's Digital Library Project.

At the southeast and southwest corners of the second floor, the State and Federal Documents Room, a new feature of the Library, and the Archives Reading Room feature curved floor-to-ceiling windows with rice paper laminated between the sheets of glass to diffuse glare and protect collections. The State and Federal Documents Reading Room reflects the importance of these records within the Library as well as providing access to government information regardless of format.

At the north end of the second floor, the new Virginia Authors Room overlooks Marshall Street. It features comfortable reading and research areas, more than 5400 books published by Virginia authors since 1950, and the Library's current periodicals and newspapers. This room was a project of the Virginia Center for the Book.

There are 14 quotations by noted Virginians on the wood friezes that line the reading rooms, done in raised stainless steel lettering with signatures in gold. The quotations emphasize the importance of books, records, and history, providing a link to the old building which featured inscriptions on its exterior suitable for a building that at that time housed legal and judicial offices as well as the Library.

The Special Collections Room on the mezzanine of the new Library is still a work in progress. Specially designed grillwork is being installed on the brushed stainless steel doors over the beautiful wood bookshelves to provide security for rare books. Wings on each side of the room span the length of the building and house the Library's picture collection and rare books.

Directly across from the Special Collections Room is the Board Room with a huge table that seats 22. The room has advanced audiovisual capabilities and comfortable seating for 32 guests. Also located on the mezzanine are the Library's administrative offices and the office of the state librarian.

Levels three and four are the stacks of the new Library, featuring more than fifty miles of flexible shelving designed by Virginia Correctional Enterprises and motion sensitive lights that automatically turn on when staff enter the area. Each floor is almost a city block in size. There are numerous study carrels on the third floor for future use by visiting scholars doing long-term research at the Library.

The fifth floor houses the bulk of staff offices and technical services and processing for the Library. Offices occupy the outer perimeter of the fifth floor. Clerestory windows ensure that staff working in the central area of the floor still have natural lighting.

The new Library of Virginia was designed to be more accessible to the public and more structurally flexible than its predecessor. With a fiber optic backbone, each square foot wired and covered by carpet tiles, the new Library's electrical and electronic capabilities seem unlimited. The building offers the opportunity to adjust rapidly and easily to changes in technology. Its HVAC system is designed to protect the collections and can be adjusted from a laptop to correct deviations in humidity and temperature.

At a cost of approximately $81 per square foot, the new Library of Virginia is relatively inexpensive. New features such as free parking for patrons, the Virginia Authors Room, the State and Federal Documents Room, expanded microform stations, more books in the reading rooms, and the ability to link personal computers to the Library's electronic catalog and other resources make the Library even more user friendly. The new Library stands as a milestone in library and archival design, assuring the continued protection of the invaluable documentary heritage of the Commonwealth.

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