New Library Shows Institution in a Relevant Light

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Anyone who thinks libraries are going the way of recor d players and VCRs should take a peek this weekend at Fairfax City's gleaming new regional branch, which opens with music, kids' activities and other fanfare on Saturday.

The soaring, 44,000-square-foot cathedral of brick and stone on a bustling downtown corner of Fairfax is a monument to the continued relevance of the form.

The lofty main reading room features a vaulted ceiling of Southern yellow pine. The bright, stainless-steel chandeliers evoke traditional warmth with a modern gleam. The same can be said for the book stacks, which combine solid cherry with funky, stainless-steel accents.

Meanwhile, 40 public computer stations, four meeting rooms, an army of study tables and cushy chairs -- not to mention 200,000 books, audiobooks, movies and the region's largest collection of local historical and genealogical materials -- stand ready to provide the variety of services that today's patrons demand. Maybe best of all: 199 parking spots, in a covered garage.

In all, the space feels more like a warm, inviting Barnes & Noble rather than a shushy, dusty library.

"It's almost a reaffirmation of the importance of the library as a place," said Sam Clay, director of the Fairfax County Public Library system, which will operate the regional branch. "Certainly online services are vital to our growth and development. But I think this building celebrates the library as a place where people can come physically."

Clay said he believes in expanding library services to meet new demands, for example by providing a wireless network and maintaining a library presence in such online communities as MySpace and Flickr. But he also believes in protecting the services historically offered by public libraries, all of which can be found at the Fairfax regional branch: books, meeting spaces, a children's collection and the tools for genealogical research.

Certainly the evidence is that this is what library patrons want. Fairfax City paid for the project by issuing $23 million in bonds that were overwhelmingly approved by city voters. And countywide statistics show that library use is up across a number of services, including traditional circulation, visits and hits on the Internet.

For the last six months of 2007, for example, circulation across the county rose 7 percent, to 6.4 million, over the same time frame the previous year. Internet visits rose 11 percent, to 2.1 million, and the countywide door count rose 5 percent, to 2.7 million visits.

And because of the new library's exponential increase in parking, computer stations and overall space, library officials expect usage to chalk up even higher percentages in Fairfax. The new building replaces a dark, low-ceilinged structure built in the 1960s that featured frustratingly few parking spots.

"This is just a huge expansion of the previous space," said Branch Manager Tina Cunningham. Cunningham oversees a staff of 67, many of whom have been busy in recent days shelving books as the screech of drills and the clanging of ladders made clear that workmen were still putting finishing touches on light fixtures, cabinets and shelves.

The space itself is also vastly improved, Cunningham said. High ceilings and lots of light open up the library, with the historical collection of the Virginia Room on a large open mezzanine overlooking the main reading room. A round, three-story atrium greets patrons as they walk through the front doors.

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