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Williamsburg is getting a new library building. How much space is needed?

The Williamsburg Regional Library system currently covers around 77,000 square feet — 42,000 of which is encompassed by the Williamsburg branch location.
Nick McNamara / WHRO
The Williamsburg Regional Library system currently covers around 77,000 square feet — 42,000 of which is encompassed by the Williamsburg branch location.

Library leader expects Williamsburg Regional Library will need a third library location in 10 years.

Planning for a library’s future means offering up-to-date technology, robust collections and enough staff to operate.

It also means ensuring there is enough space to meet community needs. But how much space does a library system need to thrive?

It’s a question that is front of mind for librarians like Sandy Towers, director of the Williamsburg Regional Library system.

“We’re kind of at that point where we have done as much tweaking as we’re pretty much able to do in the space that we have,” she said.

Williamsburg recently began seeking contractors to remove and replace the city’s branch building. Towers described the location as “bursting at the seams” in June, citing a need for updated utilities and data infrastructure.

The new building could increase Williamsburg Regional Library’s overall footprint. Williamsburg opened proposals for a structure that is up to 50,000 square feet, where the current Scotland Street library covers 42,000 square feet.

But even after a bigger and more versatile building is constructed, Towers thinks library usage and population growth means the system will still eventually need more space.

“We had almost 12,000 people come through the doors of the library buildings just last week,” Towers said. “I think we’re going to need a third one before too long.”

The Library of Virginia offers guidance on library size.

Libraries are rated between one and three stars on a variety of categories, including their facilities. Those that receive one star meet minimum essential standards, while those that receive three stars fall into the exemplary range.

To fall in the exemplary range in the facilities category, a library is expected – among other requirements – to encompass one square foot per capita in service areas with populations less than 500,000.

While specific, the standards are “intended to be aspirational,” according to Nan Carmack, director of library development and networking with the Library of Virginia.

“Here’s what we would like to see, here’s what we would hope that a locality would be able to provide,” she said.

Carmack said the standards give library administrators like Towers baselines and goals for services and amenities, but emphasized that the final decision on what a community library needs space-wise is best decided by the library’s community.

“Everybody is 100% different on what they need and what they have,” Carmack said.

The Williamsburg Regional Library’s combined service area population totals 91,000 people across Williamsburg, James City County and York County. That means the library system’s footprint would need to add up to 91,000 square feet to hit the Library of Virginia’s exemplary range.

“We don’t have 91,000 square feet in this system,” Towers said. “That’s the only aspect [in which] the Williamsburg Regional Library doesn’t achieve that excellence level.”

The system currently covers around 77,000 square feet between its James City County and Williamsburg locations. Even if the new Williamsburg library building hits 50,000 square feet, the system would fall 7,000 square feet short of the exemplary range.

While Towers sees the importance in closing that gap and growing the system’s footprint, it’s not all about the square footage for her.

“It’s really about how you’re utilizing the square feet,” Towers said. “It’s really what’s inside the square feet that count.”

The mission of public libraries has evolved over the past couple of decades, according to Towers. Libraries have changed from quiet study zones to active “community hubs” with makerspaces and podcast recording studios.

“The library is important because it levels the playing field for a lot of people. We’re just looking to have the best space possible to serve the needs of the community,” Tower said.

But the amenities cannot be provided without enough space to house them and for people to use them.

Part of the Williamsburg Regional Library’s needs will be addressed by the new Williamsburg building. While not greatly increasing the system's overall footprint, a modern design could grow the system’s public-facing spaces.

“There’s so much of the [existing] building that is not accessible to the public,” said Towers. “The basement, which takes up a lot of square footage there, is really only useful for storage and some staff spaces.”

While a new library will help Williamsburg in the next few years, Towers said she expects the system will need a third library within the next decade.

A new library location is in James City County’s 10-year capital improvement plan, but is currently unfunded. There are no plans on where to build that library, and Towers speculated population growth will drive the decision.

Depending on the rate of growth and the size of the building, a second James City County location could surge Williamsburg Regional Library past the one square foot per capita threshold a decade from now.

“In the best case scenario, you do build them slightly before you need them,” Towers said. “You really aren’t building them to serve the needs of today, you really are building them to serve the needs of 10, 15, 20 years down the road.”

Nick is a general assignment reporter focused on the cities of Williamsburg, Hampton and Suffolk. He joined WHRO in 2024 after moving to Virginia. Originally from Los Angeles County, Nick previously covered city government in Manhattan, KS, for News Radio KMAN.

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