Libraries in Richmond

I feel disgruntled about the inadequate library resources here in Richmond. It is particularly painful for me, an avid library user, having just arrived from Boston whose metropolitan area almost certainly must have the largest concentration of public and private library resources in the world. This includes two of the three largest libraries in the US, the exception being the Library of Congress.

The Richmond Public Library does not seem to have added significantly to their collection in the last 25 years. The suburban county libraries fare better; significantly better in certain affluent neighborhoods. Still, the quality and choice of materials that are available seem odd and peculiar. As one would expect in a public library they are well supplied in local history and the suburban libraries have plenty of recent popular fiction. Recent nonfiction is rare and outside of the many translations and editions of the Bible one is hard pressed to find significant representation of our basic cultural heritage—the canon of great books that is the foundation of a liberal education.

One can occasionally run across an untouched copy of a Platonic dialogue in the uncatalogued Young Adult Paperback section sitting next to a worn copy of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye but odds are against finding Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, worse yet for Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and it is clearly pointless to even consider looking for something as esoteric as Wittgenstein.

Yet I should consider myself fortunate, it was even worse in the previous century. The first free public library came to Richmond in 1924, the last US city of its size to build one. The city missed out on the Andrew Carnegie library-building boom of the late 19th and early 20th century having turned down a Carnegie grant of $100,000 in 1901 because they were unwilling to provide the $10,000 needed to maintain the library. Again in 1922 an ordinance for building a public library was proposed accompanied by ten thousand signatures but was again turned down by the City Council. Of course if were an African American I would have had to wait still further, until 1925, when a small Negro “branch” was opened at the YMCA.

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~ by severalfourmany on January 8, 2011.

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