Civic

Study Recommends Larger, Multi-Use Libraries

Adding an affordable housing component to libraries was highlighted as a way to attract grant funding.

Asheville – Consultants presented the findings of the nine-month Buncombe County Libraries Facilities Master Plan study to the public at the commissioners’ last briefing. Among other things, consultant Maureen Arndt from 720 Design recommended replacing Pack Memorial Library with a larger, multipurpose facility, possibly consolidating the Swannanoa and Black Mountain libraries, and deploying multipurpose bookmobiles or setting up kiosk lockers in underserved communities.

The consultants were tasked with analyzing the appropriateness of the size and function, particularly of the leased library spaces serving Swannanoa, Black Mountain and Oakley. The condition of facilities and furnishings were also considered, with Swannanoa, Oakley, Skyland and West Asheville having issues. Another problem was staffing, as some libraries often have only one attendant.

For public input, 720 Design convened 13 virtual focus groups with a total of 46 participants. They found out the top reasons for attending a library were to check out books, attend programs or use the internet. An underlying assumption of the study was that other county services would be double-bunked in branch libraries, so participants were asked which they thought would be a good match. The top three answers, all with less than 20 percent support, were “job seeker resources,” “academic achievement,” and “senior services;” 49 percent concurred with the statement, “branch libraries should be everything to everyone;” and over one-third said parking situations were preventing them from visiting libraries.

An online survey had 1,410 respondents. Each of the county’s 12 branch libraries was fairly represented with between 50 and 160 naming it their library of choice, except Swannanoa, which only had 27 respondents. About 11 percent of respondents said they don’t use the libraries.

To assess the adequacy of the size of the branches, the consultants found Buncombe County libraries provided an average 0.49 square feet per capita. North Carolina sets no minimum, but something between 0.6 and 1.0 is an industry-standard for good service. Another consideration was which libraries cardholders attended. Generally, they patronized their local branches with a large number from Swannanoa and West Asheville preferring to go elsewhere.

There are, however, state standards for driving times to the nearest branch: no more than 20 and 30 minutes for urban and rural areas, respectively. The study found only 0.2 percent of users, mostly located in northwest Buncombe, drive over 30 minutes, and 2.4 percent drive between 20 and 30 minutes. Another rule of thumb, unfortunately, uses three miles as a maximum, redefining much of the county as underserved.

In a structural analysis of all county buildings conducted by a diverse team of engineers from CPL, the Swannanoa library ranked 43 out of 43. It was among three libraries in bad shape that are leased. As for maintenance needs, CPL recommended all libraries be recarpeted and provided new shelves. The new East Asheville library was not constructed when the survey was conducted.

Reconstructing Branches

Organizationally, the consultants recommended restructuring with seven larger, regional branches like East Asheville, and Pack Memorial working in coordination with a technical services branch. The tech branch was described as a distribution center with no public interface. The regional libraries would then be supplemented by a total of 11 area branches or service stations like Amazon lockers, and county services would be collocated in these buildings to address staffing shortages.

It was recommended that Pack Memorial be relocated to an area with better parking and expanded 25 percent. 

“Look for opportunities to combine library services and affordable housing for grant opportunities,” the consultants recommended. 

To argue the point, Arndt showed the lowest incomes in the county gravitate around Pack; and she pulled case studies of mixed-use libraries from Chicago. These had 44 residential units, each, and were described as “creating a community” with “broad library programs.”

In Dallas, a library was combined with a workforce development facility. It was equipped with ample unstructured space for classes, “making” that was described as providing hands-on training in robotics or for software certification, consulting, interview practice, and group study; as well as two large multipurpose rooms, two high-tech conference rooms, and several public computers. Buncombe’s library might also include a rooftop garden and a parking garage to make room for outdoor plazas.

Problems users described with the Black Mountain library were it was too small, parking was inadequate, and, while compliant, its ADA facilities made no sense, like requiring patrons to go outdoors to get to the restroom from the community room. This property is also rented, so the consultants recommended merging it with the Swannanoa Library, which is now only eight minutes away, to form a regional branch in a new building.

Also high on the shortlist for replacement was the Weaverville library, which would become the third regional branch. It was recommended the new facility be larger and include a large, accessible community room without large pillars obstructing conversations; group rooms; and an “expanded and acoustically separated children’s area.” The West Asheville library would be doubled in size to create a fourth regional branch. Since this won’t happen for another six years, immediate action was recommended to address plumbing and mechanical needs.

The newly-renovated Enka-Candler library was one of the higher-rated buildings, but it is so popular, the consultants recommended expanding it into a regional branch. As such, it would be built out to three times its current size, within seven years. Immediately, this branch’s electrical issues needed attention. The final regional branch, the Skyland library, would be four to five times its current size.

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