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Some patrons of the Richmond Public Library fear that proposed changes could threaten the shelf life of its extraordinary arts and music archives and its expert staff. 

Speaking Volumes

Sarah Merritt and Catherine Roseberry don't always know what they're looking for. And for these two local artists and long-time patrons of the Richmond Public Library, that's the joy of the search: that an uncharted quest through the library's well-maintained art archives will uncover some forgotten picture book that, once dusted off, inspires swift strokes of the imagination — and the paintbrush. For Merritt and Roseberry, a visit to the mustard-yellow building on East Franklin often is a welcome afternoon cure for an acute case of artist's block.

But if recent proposed changes recommended by the library's 10-member governing board are put into place, Merritt and Roseberry worry their days of discovery may be numbered.

In a move to make the Main Branch of the Richmond Public Library — and its eight auxiliary branches — more appealing to more people, the library board and with City Librarian Robert Rieffel agree that two things are essential: The library system must change with the times and adopt the latest technology as an information repository; and it must shed its dinosaur image for that of a dynamic destination for everything from books to art to coffee and gifts.

The plan, which Roseberry says was provisionally accepted by the board in June, calls for drastic changes not only to the library's interior look, but to the location and accessibility of many of its materials. For people like Merritt and Roseberry, who glean pleasure from the physical act of browsing, such change could mark the final chapter in that kind of library experience.

"When you look at all the shifts in library science in the past few years, especially with technology, it's understandable," concedes Merritt. "But this is where City Council comes in — in Richmond so much is done with good intention but with very little foresight."

But according to Rieffel and the board, the plan — called "Main Vision" — is the product of months of careful planning to remedy low attendance and outdated technology.

The plan calls for the art and music section, and the business, science and technology section to move into and share the space now occupied by the history and literature department. Periodicals, which are expansive and enjoy frequent use, will be moved upstairs to the spot previously held by the business, science and technology department.

A new wheelchair-accessible and possibly soundproof children's area will be created next to the Gellman Room gallery — which Merritt and Roseberry say causes concern among artists about the safety of displayed work. A new information area will be designed with reference sections radiating out from an open corridor. Callers will benefit from a telephone reference area, and additional computer terminals will be added. There also will be an area designed specifically for teen-agers. Roseberry mentions, too, that the fund-raising group Friends of the Library would even like to see a place created for a gift and coffee shop. "They want it to be a destination place," says Roseberry.

Critics of the plan say public input is needed before there are drastic changes in the location or content of current collections. "Many people don't use it on a regular basis, but we are very concerned that it could be reduced," says Merritt. She fears the valued art and music archives, which she finds indispensable, will be placed in stacks that are accessible only to librarians — librarians who may not have the same expertise as those who have worked in special collections for years. And Roseberry doesn't exclude the possibility that old materials or those rarely requested could even end up on the bargain table at the annual Friends of the Library book sale.

Merritt and Roseberry feel the archives deserve defending because the resources they provide are not available anywhere else. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has a quality arts library, but it is non-circulating, and Virginia Commonwealth University's James Branch Cabell Library charges a fee and doesn't house some of the lesser-known works by local artists and musicians.

"We have a tremendous asset in the arts and music department being developed in such a special way as a repository," says Roseberry. "I'm concerned that with the changes the specialness of it is undermined and it won't be cared for."

Rieffel, of the library, says he would like to assuage the fears of patrons like Merritt and Roseberry. "The arts and music collection and staff won't be compromised," says Rieffel, just months after a job restructuring resulted in the reclassification of 11 senior librarian positions into other positions. "I've always said that our expertise lies in people, not where [the materials] are located. It is my hope people will take a new look at the library. It was built in 1929, remodeled in 1972 and hasn't been touched since." Rieffel asserts that the library has to act now to respond to the changing expectations of library services. "It is my mission to make sure access to information is the most up-to-date."

At the Aug. 12 board meeting, a few concerned patrons did turn out to listen to the board's discussion of proposed changes. Architect Joseph D. Lahendro, a long-time patron, says he keeps his practice downtown to be near the library. Lahendro worries that special collections will blend in with other stacks, and the quiet place he enjoys now will no longer be available.

"This is not about keeping things the way they've always been," says Merritt, who along with Roseberry is not against all the changes but hopes an organized public forum will address concerns before the board takes further action.

Merritt and Roseberry are optimistic that there's still time. And at the meeting there was talk that a forum could be held late in October. "While the library seems to think the news is out and about," says Merritt, "I don't think it's as visible as they'd like to think."

Elizabeth Faircloth, an artist and patron who turned out for the recent board meeting, says of the proposed changes, "It's like walking into a Wal-Mart, and I don't want to shop at
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