In an era when more and more books are being banned and some libraries face a crisis in public funding, the city of Richmond has made a different choice—one that affirms the worth of public libraries and their role in democracy and literacy.
In October 2022, the California State Library awarded the Richmond Main Library’s “Building Forward” project $9.7 million. The city contributed 50% of that total in matching funds. In May 2023, the city appropriated another $15 million for the project, allowing the major renovation to begin to become reality.
Like most civic projects of this kind, Building Forward has been brewing for years, according to both Library Services Manager Christopher Larsen and Library Director Kate Eppler. Plans for an expansion have existed since 1977. Library and city personnel began looking at possible funding sources in 2009, and a comprehensive Library Needs Assessment was completed and published that year. Finally, a state grant was funded from the 2022 $487 million California State Library budget.
Despite claims that “no one uses libraries anymore,” Richmond’s statistics tell a different story, according to Eppler. “During the most recent April-December tally, 31,075 people used Richmond’s three libraries,” she said. In a city with a 2021 population of 115,639, that works out to 27% of the city’s residents. “Ten thousand people attended library events, and 113,000 books, tapes and eBooks were checked out,” Eppler added.
The Main Library provides multiple services and activities, including public access to computers, free computer skills classes, family storytimes, homework help and access to the Literacy for Every Adult program. It also hosts the nationally recognized Seed Library, where gardeners donate and take seeds without charge. Libraries throughout the U.S. have contacted the Richmond Public Library about establishing their own seed libraries.
Remote-access resources are also available. The library provides programs on Facebook Live, YouTube, its website and Instagram. “The library is not just a building,” Eppler said. “We’re constantly evaluating and revising what we offer.”
The Main Library has a rich, nearly century-old, history. The original Richmond library building, founded in 1909 as a Carnegie Library, was one of 1,689 funded in the U.S. by industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Two women’s clubs, the Richmond Club and The West Side Improvement Club, were circulating book collections, and the Richmond Club sent a petition to the Carnegie Corporation for a gift of funds to build a public library.
The building erected with that grant now houses the Richmond Museum of History. The current Modernist-style building was designed in 1945-48 by San Francisco architects Milton T. and Timothy L. Pflueger as part of the postwar Civic Center Plaza, and opened in 1949.
According to library materials, “Architectural Forum magazine called the new Memorial Civic Center ‘a milestone in U.S. civic design. It is the first modern Civic Center built in any American city, and it is one of the most comprehensive centers constructed anywhere in the world.’”
Today, as renovation plans move forward, the library has hosted several community input meetings and offers a bilingual survey on its website. Survey questions include “What library services could best help you and your family?” and “What do you imagine in your ideal library?”
Regarding the live meetings, Eppler said, “So far, children’s services have been ranked as very important, along with public art.”
Actual renovations are scheduled to begin in 2025, said Larsen, and to be completed by 2027. Planners are looking at historical photos of the Main Library as it appeared when the building was opened. “We will really be remodeling in place,” he said. “Some of the main reading room has been lost over time … additional work could change [how some of the library’s areas] work.”
Although the Main Library will be closed during renovation, the two other branches, Bayview and West Side, will remain open, along with continued service from the bookmobile. Some services may be moved to those branches.
Eppler and Larsen agree that vocal support for the freedom to read, along with public access to libraries, is crucial at this time. A study published by PEN America tallied school book bans in the 2022-2023 school year, finding “3,362 book bans affecting 1,557 unique titles, with more than 40% of the bans occurring in Florida.”
Books receiving the most bans included Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, for “sexually explicit material,” “lots of graphic descriptions and lots of disturbing language,” and “an underlying socialist-communist agenda”; Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for “depiction of sexual abuse, LGBTQIA+ content, drug use, profanity”; and, as has been widely reported, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer: A Memoir.
Public librarians face more than just vicious online comments, and in some cases have been physically threatened.
In March 2023, the American Library Association released a statement: “The American Library Association (ALA) condemns—in the strongest terms possible—the violence, threats of violence and other acts of intimidation that are increasingly taking place in America’s libraries.
“America’s libraries are there for communities; and communities must be there for libraries. ALA calls on community leaders and elected officials to stand with libraries and others who promote the free and democratic exchange of ideas to stand up to those who would undermine it.”
Both Eppler and Larsen support a separate project proposed by the city of Richmond’s Human Rights and Human Relations Commission, which would use the programmable marquee in front of Civic Center Plaza to post a graphic in support of banned books.
“The commission voted unanimously to support this,” said Commission Chair Victoria Sawicki.
The project is also supported by the city’s Library Commission.
“There is shared support for the freedom to read, access to information and a place for the community to connect,” Eppler said. “This is their library.”