This year marks the 30th anniversary of the “new” Pack Memorial Library building on Haywood Street in downtown Asheville. Those few of us remaining who worked in the Pack Square structure that now houses the Asheville Art Museum are still prone to refer to the current library facility as the “new” building, despite the fact that it’s showing its age and is badly in need of renovation and updating. The Buncombe County Board of Commissioners has appropriated money for this project, and the specifications for the renovation program are nearly complete. Bids will be solicited this summer, and construction is expected to begin later in the year. Work is expected to proceed floor by floor and take in excess of a year to complete.
The renovation of Pack Memorial Library is the capstone of an ambitious capital-improvement plan dating back to 1996. In the last dozen years, the Buncombe County Library Board of Trustees has proposed—and the Board of Commissioners has funded—new libraries in the Enka-Candler, Fairview and Leicester communities. The Weaverville, North Asheville, West Asheville and Skyland/South Buncombe libraries have been replaced or renovated and expanded. Renovations to the Black Mountain (Tyson) Library will proceed simultaneously with the Pack project. After those are done, the capital plan calls for replacing the East Asheville Library on Tunnel Road. These projects reflect the commissioners’ commitment to extending convenient access to libraries across the county’s roughly 650 square miles.
Meanwhile, the very nature of public-library service has changed. The advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web have brought about a revolution that extends across the entire culture and has brought new roles and expectations to public-library service. Most library reference work is now done online, and virtually all current reference resources are to be found online, either in subscription databases or the open Internet. In less than a decade, the reference books that were the fundamental information resource of most library collections have been rendered functionally obsolete. Online resources for current information are the rule, and that rule is very nearly absolute.
Public libraries have aggressively moved to help those who have ended up on the offline side of this digital divide. For those citizens without personal computers and broadband Internet access, the library system’s public-access computers have become an essential resource. Aside from e-mail, general information seeking and just “Web surfing,” these computers often are the means for finding and applying for a job. Many large employers today use the Internet exclusively to post vacancies or accept applications. The planned Pack Library redesign will allow for additional computers on the main floor in a more compact arrangement while creating a spacious computer lab on the lower level.
Pack Memorial Library is, first and foremost, a popular public library. It boasts only one research-level collection: the Sondley North Carolina Collection, which will occupy the entire upper level and will have, for the first time, secure, properly climate-controlled quarters. The children’s room will remain on the lower level but will expand into what is now its program space; a new program room will be built across the corridor in space currently used by the cataloging and processing department.
Administration and all non-public-service operations will be moved to the current storage space behind Lord Auditorium. The circulating book collection will not be diminished. Books are still the medium of choice for children and adults in such categories as fiction, picture books, biography, history and travel. Stack capacity for the circulating collections will actually increase.
A small addition on the north side of the building will address life-safety issues by creating fire exits for the main and upper floors; it will also, for the first time, provide restrooms on the main floor.
Although Pack Library was recently listed among the most successful of Asheville’s buildings by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects, there are several problems in the original design that the project will address. First and foremost is the problematic placement of the public restrooms in the lower level corridor outside the children’s department. New public restrooms will be added on the north side of the main floor and off the existing main-level corridor. The current public restrooms will then serve Lord Auditorium, which will be reconfigured so that people won’t be walking past the stage as they enter the room.
Lastly, fire-suppression sprinklers will be added throughout the building, and the lighting, heating and cooling systems will be upgraded to improve efficiency. The intent is to transform our 30-year-old library into one that can effectively serve for another 20 years as the downtown branch, the home of the Sondley North Carolina Collection, and the central hub of a 12-branch library system—all at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer.
[Asheville native Ed Sheary began shelving books at Pack Library as a high-school student in 1968. He’s been the director of the Asheville-Buncombe Library System since 1990.]