Libraries throughout the state are getting makeovers, modern collections, and more engagement than ever.
There have always been countless reasons to love a library: Tall shelves that envelop you on all sides, filled with the essential information you were hunting for as well as nuggets of wisdom and wonder you didn’t even know you needed. Dim corners with squishy armchairs, a place to check out of daily life into a fantastical story and steal whispers from a friend who simply must recommend a favorite mystery novel. Staff who, long before the Internet offered fast, impersonal answers, could point you in the direction of what you needed, a glimmer in their eye as though they were giving you a clue to a grand puzzle.
West Virginians are familiar with these respites around the state that range in size from less than 1,000 square feet to over 60,000. These buildings may have begun as a resource for books, but it’s clearer than ever that they are determined to adapt alongside the communities they serve. Libraries in West Virginia are enjoying a transformation of sorts, using their roots to lean even further into art, community pride, hands-on education, improved facilities with extra space, and collections that allow the community to take home much more than they ever have.
“Beyond just people wanting to check out books, there are other needs the community has now that we are able to offer,” says Linda LaRue, branch manager at Barboursville Public Library. LaRue has been with the library for more than 40 years and has seen just how vastly things can change. The library’s previous building, a one-story facility built in 1967, had developed structural issues and was outgrowing its circulation. In early 2022, its sleek new home—replete with an electric vehicle charging station—opened to the public and allows everyone to stretch their legs a bit more.
A second floor means that children’s and adult sections can now maintain some distance. New study rooms allow for more privacy, children of various ages and adults alike take advantage of a new media lab and television, and school groups from throughout the community visit for a change of scenery and a place to learn. A furnished outdoor area even explores the limits of what a reading room can look like. It’s been a hit: In June, the new library’s first full month open, LaRue said more than 5,000 people entered the library—a turnout the staff was very pleased with.
Barboursville isn’t alone. After 14 years of fundraising and planning, Shepherdstown Public Library celebrated its 100th anniversary this year with a brand new building. Although its soaring ceilings and light-filled spaces that contain a media room, a cheerful dedicated children’s space, cozy nooks for reading, and a large conference room are noteworthy, what makes it really unique is what lies beneath the foundation: It was built on the site of the old town dump. Armed with help from the West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center and an EPA grant and under the leadership of Shepherdstown Public Library Director Hali Taylor, the community rallied to turn trash to treasure. “Hali has made the project of building a new library for Shepherstown her life’s work and passion. We are thrilled with the results,” says local Jane Blash.
The larger spaces allow the library to function more like a multipurpose community center than simply a place for research and quiet reading. More attention was given to the outdoor spaces as well. An expansive patio surrounded by natural gardens—there’s even a green roof—provides a habitat for native butterflies, birds, and other pollinators and serves as a flexible outdoor education space. “Libraries are one of the most important institutions in our state. They provide a safe area for everyone,” says Terry Kramer, president of the Shepherdstown Public Library board of trustees. “We have had 300 new members join since opening and, after being open one month, we’ve doubled the amount of people who use the library on a daily basis.”
Libraries also provide space that members of their communities long for and sometimes truly need to get by in their daily lives.
“We had a family visit when the power went out, and their power was out for two days,” LaRue in Barboursville says, noting that it was hot outside and the family needed the air conditioning the library offered. “So they would come for three or four hours and just sit and read magazines or articles.” She also says that, as the Internet continues to seep into more aspects of daily life, the library allows folks to submit online job applications and complete other important tasks. Barboursville Public Library even utilized some of its new space to host tax filing assistance: Professionals were stationed at the library during tax season and submitted more than a dozen forms per day for those who might not have had the knowledge or the home Internet access to tackle the forms themselves.
Keeping an eye on the needs of the community is something that Seth Newell, manager of technology services and collections for Kanawha County Public Library, knows very well. Through his facility’s Tool Library, Newell and his colleagues are responding to the region’s desires and pushing the boundaries of what can be borrowed with a library card.
The Tool Library, which was jump-started by a private donor, offers new kinds of shelves for visitors to browse. It houses everything from basic screwdrivers and hammers to specialty saws, gardening supplies, and power washers, and the library is always looking to expand based on what the community requests. There’s no extra cost to take these items home for a couple of weeks—a patron simply presents a library card and government ID and signs a safety waiver, and they’re on their way.
To Newell, this isn’t so different from the book- and manual-lending that libraries have always done. “We’re here to serve the public, so we have to adjust ourselves to their needs,” Newell says, adding that, while there will always be a need for quality information and escapism through books, libraries can meet other needs, too. “Home ownership is getting more and more expensive. If we can help people out, that’s kind of the point of the library. We’re meant to buy things and then use that chance to share the costs and make life a bit easier for our neighbors.”
Also making a splash at the Kanawha County Public Library is the IDEA Lab, standing for Innovation, Design, Engineering, and Art. The lab boasts high-tech offerings like 3-D printers, recording booths, and laser cutters, and it also offers more traditional skill-building activities like button makers and embroidery machines. Each activity costs $5 or less—often just 20 cents or so, depending on the project—and is open to adults as well as to supervised children. Whether visitors take part in workshops and lessons there, use the lab to further their personal hobbies, or just try something new to see if they might like it, the IDEA Lab is making it possible for West Virginians to dabble in those fields.
“When I was younger, I didn’t always have the money, or my family didn’t always have the money, to buy every book I wanted,” says Bianca Prince, who oversees the lab. “And the library was able to provide access that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. And that’s what I’m really proud of here—that we are doing the same thing, just in a newer, more modern way.”
And even as state-of-the-art buildings and advanced offerings abound, in true bibliophile spirit, some libraries are still finding new and inventive ways to showcase their traditional bread and butter—books. Case in point: 2022 brought a spotlight on local authors to West Huntington Branch Public Library in the form of a mural. Painted on the building’s outer walls and created by local design studio Ackenpucky, the art mimics the colorful spines of a bookshelf filled with local and regional classics. The names of essential authors like Cicero M. Fain III, Homer Hickam, and Jeannette Walls adorn the painted books. Some of the featured creators have stopped to take photos with the mural, and plenty of people have noticed the burst of color as they drive by.
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Today’s libraries offer you more than books.
- E-books, e-mags, and audio books
- Movie, television, and music streaming
- Programs and classes
Branch manager Olivia Picklesimer says the mural draws attention to the books they offer in a new and visually interesting way, and it also serves as a celebration of local artistic talent. “Here in Huntington, there is such a vibrant artistic community—not just with writers, but we have so many different artists,” she says. “To me, that’s what the mural symbolizes.”
Libraries may be abundant in West Virginia—more numerous than a certain big box store, according to one source—but that doesn’t mean they should be taken for granted. As evidenced by the hard work it’s taking to revolutionize these facilities and others across the state, they are often home to some of the most community-minded folks you could ever meet. Whether you need a few tools to spruce up your porch, a meeting room for your knitting club, a place for your kids to hang out after school, a room to tutor your students, a place to find solitude and community, or, yes, a good book, there’s a library in West Virginia waiting for you.