Betsy Fowler, the director of the Williamsburg Regional Library, believes that libraries change lives, and in 30 minutes, she tried to prove it.
Fowler spoke at the Williamsburg Economic Development Authority’s monthly business roundtable luncheon, delivering a presentation titled “21st Century Libraries.”
“Humans love stories,” Fowler said. “And libraries, for generations, have been the keeper of stories, and they still are.”
After more than three decades of work in libraries in Chesapeake and Fredericksburg, Fowler transitioned to Williamsburg nearly a year ago. As director of the WRL, she oversees the Williamsburg and James City County branches, which serve a population of nearly 85,000.
Fowler began with a bird’s eye view of American libraries as a whole, discussing their importance as a democratic institution.
“Everyone, regardless of income, age or origin, can access information,” she said. “Libraries level the playing field.”
Throughout her presentation, she weaved in stories — of children who chose a trip to the library over going to Busch Gardens, of lonely teens who met friends at library programs, of international parents who can’t speak English yet but go to the library so that their children can.
Fowler ended each story with the refrain: “Libraries change lives.”
Under her supervision, the James City County library underwent a substantial renovation, adding a vending cafe and coffee-shop-style marketplace in the lobby.
New plans are also underway for a potential renovation of the Williamsburg Library.
Last fall, the library had an architect assess the nearly 50-year-old branch on Scotland Street to gauge whether the building should be renovated or a new space is necessary.
His evaluation concluded a renovation would cost upwards of $17 million and would still not address many of the main issues — including parking.
Staff from both branches have been in conversations during the process, given that 68 percent of the traffic at the Williamsburg Library comes from James City County residents.
The national recommendation is that libraries have one square foot per resident. The Williamsburg Library on Scotland Street is about 30,000 square feet under that recommendation.
“We are working with the county on how to move forward,” Fowler said.
This year, the WRL submitted a request for a new 50,000 square foot library to be completed by 2023. Currently, the WRL has 63,000 square feet of facilities between the branches.
Any new or expanded facilities would be funded by the City of Williamsburg, York County and James City County under a contractual agreement for the operations of the library system. Between the three localities, the WRL will receive $6.7 million in the upcoming fiscal year. The City of Williamsburg is expected to provide $600,000 over the next two fiscal years for “design and construction to renovate the WRL building on Scotland Street,” according to its adopted budget plan for fiscal year 2019.
A second option would be for the two branches to merge into a new joint facility. Fowler said a report on that potential option, including possible locations, should be available in September.
The EDA business luncheon will take a one-month hiatus reconvene for its 105th roundtable mid-August.
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