Is bigger always better, or is less sometimes more? Those two design philosophies are colliding in discussions over an $81 million slate of recommended changes to the Buncombe County Public Libraries.
As outlined by architect Maureen Arndt, principal of Dallas-based consultancy 720 Architects, in a Library Master Plan commissioned by the county, the proposal would shift Buncombe’s system away from a hub-and-spoke design centered on Asheville’s Pack Memorial Library. The libraries would instead use a regional branch model, in which bigger, newly renovated facilities throughout the county provide patrons with more services.
Such an approach, Arndt says, would boost the county’s overall library square footage and programming while increasing access for all residents. “One of the most important considerations was to address the buildings that are in the worst physical condition from an architectural, structural, mechanical/electrical/plumbing perspective,” she adds. “The regional system can solve other major challenges as well — including safety concerns for libraries that have a single staff member working at a time, libraries that lack adequate parking and less duplication of books and services.”
But to focus resources on these regional branches, the plan would close three existing libraries in Black Mountain, Oakley/South Asheville and Swannanoa. Neighborhood groups in those areas fiercely oppose the changes, as they’ve made clear in recent community listening sessions hosted by the county.
“Even though things are, in some instances, pretty desperate in terms of facilities, this attitude that we prefer what we have over something new is different in my experience,” says Ruth O’Donnell, chair of the county’s Library Advisory Board and a former library consultant. “A lot of people we’ve talked to have interest in smaller, neighborhood libraries. The thinking amongst the people, certainly half of them or more, is that it doesn’t matter how big it is, how many resources it has, just that they are very opposed to change.”
Arndt first presented the library plan to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on May 18. “The team began by looking at the physical condition of each building, the projected population growth and gathering community input regarding what a 21st century library should look like in Buncombe County,” she says about the process behind that proposal. “We were tasked with looking into the future to design a system that will serve the county well into 2035, making sure the library is able to grow along with the community it serves.”
720 Design, Arndt says, took into account library usage data, 13 focus groups and an online survey with over 1,400 participants to shape its proposal. But that input process, claims Elisabeth Wallace of the recently formed Oakley Neighborhood Association, was flawed from the start.
“The firm did a terrible job,” Wallace says. “It all happened in 2020, and nothing was done in person. The focus groups were not well attended, their survey was not well distributed, and the [Oakley population] numbers in the report are incorrect. The proposal is poorly informed.”
In response to similar concerns from throughout the county, Buncombe launched a new listening tour on the library plan in July. Wallace’s was one of 75 households that showed up online for an Aug. 10 session focused solely on the branch that serves Oakley and the Shiloh/South Asheville communities. A parade of residents shared concerns about the proposed closing during the 60-minute session and lobbied to keep the branch at its current location.
“The branch is an anchor in our community and is a center of learning and connection in a vulnerable neighborhood,” Wallace says, having noted at the listening session that 25% of Oakley/Shiloh residents are people of color and that nearly 10% have no access to a vehicle.
Multiple participants referenced the county’s Strategic Plan 2025 while arguing for the Oakley branch’s future. The long-term plan advocates for walkable and accessible neighborhoods, as well as a focus on equity for underserved county residents. Removing the branch, Wallace claims, would be against that plan.
“If you eliminate walkable branches,” she says, “that all goes out the window. We are in favor of changes if they are inclusive and supportive of our communities, and in line with the equity model that the county purports to uphold.”
720’s plan calls for current Oakley branch users to commute to the new East Asheville branch or other library facilities. For most neighborhood residents without cars, that could mean multiple transfers on the city’s bus system or walking on roads with inconsistent walkability, according to Michael Stratton, co-leader of the Oakley Neighborhood Association.
“The idea that people from Oakley and Shiloh are going to make the commute to the East Asheville branch is a tall order,” Stratton says. “The consensus is that we want a walkable and livable community. When you take those focal points out, it’s a step in the wrong direction.”
Renovate or relocate?
The library master plan was designed, Arndt says, to meet the community wishes as expressed through user feedback. She believes that fulfilling those goals requires new construction and a rethinking of the system’s current model.
“The survey respondents believe it is most important for public libraries to offer areas for children and teens, space for reading and small group meetings, family restrooms and outdoor access to Wi-Fi,” Arndt explains. “Nearly 90% of the respondents indicated that the top reason for going to the library was to check out books — and books require a lot of space.”
Arndt says the Oakley/South Asheville, Black Mountain and Swannanoa branches were targeted for closures, thus making way for this new construction, due to their current physical state, which is worse than that of branches in the rest of the system. But Stratton argues that this disrepair is due to years of low funding and inattention, admitting his frustration that the recommendations would close a facility he claims has been neglected. “Rather than take it away, we would rather have more funding directed to it,” he says.
In the eastern part of the county, the plan recommends closing the smaller neighborhood Black Mountain and Swannanoa branches and replacing them with a new, larger facility, designed to serve both areas and located between the two communities. Renee Hudson, president of the Friends of Black Mountain Library, says her group gathered over 900 signatures on a petition opposing the move; a standing-room-only crowd of over 100 people, mostly in support of the current libraries, attended a listening session at the Black Mountain branch in July.
“The Black Mountain library serves as a community hub, with many people walking to the library or riding their bikes. People would like to see improvements made to the current building to encompass many of the updates proposed in the county plan,” Hudson says, including areas for students to study and complete group projects, improved workspaces for librarians, and making the building more accessible to users with disabilities. “A regional model that moves the library out of downtown Black Mountain does not take into account those who do not have transportation. I think it decreases some of the personal interactions the community has with librarians.”
Arndt says the data offers another perspective. “What we were seeing in the data is that people who lived near Swannanoa, for example, were driving past that library to get to a bigger, more full-service library,” she says, noting that state library standards permit a maximum 30-minute drive time for rural users. “In addition, our market segment analysis suggests that there is a large portion of retired library users at many of the libraries. The ability to walk or ride a bike is great, but having the option to drive and park when its physically necessary is also important to a large portion of the [county library] users.”
In Weaverville, thoughts of a newer facility have received a warmer welcome, according to Stuart Lamkin of the Friends of Weaverville Library. “Weaverville needs a library that can accommodate the many families who use it. That includes not having a constantly leaking roof or constantly spreading mold problem, like it does now,” he says of the town’s current branch, formerly a church, which was built in 1924.
When visiting the new East Asheville branch, Lamkin was struck by how impressive that space was. “I admit I had library envy, but I was happy for them. We’re excited about the prospect of the Weaverville library one day having a modern facility, to truly bless and resource our great community,” he says.
More to the story
O’Donnell, the library board chair, emphasizes that the recommendations from 720 are not definitive and that the county hasn’t yet made final decisions. In her experience, she adds, large-scale library system overhauls can take up to 25 years; she characterized the consultant’s 15-year timeline as “overly ambitious.”
As director of the county’s 13-branch system, Jim Blanton echoes O’Donnell’s comments about the current debate being one step in a longer process. Although in-person input sessions have been paused in response to increasing COVID-19 trends, online input sessions are scheduled through the end of September, and funding for any changes has yet to be approved. (A current schedule of input sessions is available at avl.mx/aas.)
“It’s critical feedback to hear from the community about what they need and want. One thing that is clear is that there are improvements to be made,” Blanton says. “We are grateful to the community for being so passionate about their libraries and to share feedback. We want them to continue to be engaged when we restart the process.”
During the online Oakley session, resident Althea Gonzalez asked Blanton if the current branch could be improved instead of closed. “Everything is on the table,” Blanton said, but he added that providing the new services residents have asked for would require additional square footage somewhere in the library system.
As the public input process continues, resistance from the Black Mountain and Oakley communities seems to be a certainty. Their efforts may have already found an audience with Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman. “I do not agree with the proposal to close the Black Mountain Library and to diminish services at other branch libraries,” he says. “I think the public involvement process has been flawed.”