Local Libraries Look Ahead

  • By:  Jamie McAllister

In 1994 Sonal Rastogi left her native country of India and moved to Hampton Roads. Although she held a bachelor’s degree in geography, economics, and Indian history, Sonal was unsure which career path she wanted to pursue, so she volunteered at a library in Newport News. She had worked in a university library in India, but it was nothing like the public library system she discovered in the U.S. Mesmerized by the way public libraries provided access and resources for the community, Sonal knew she’d found her life’s work. 

From the Ancient Library of Alexandria in Egypt to your neighborhood branch down the street, libraries have long been seen as places to study and learn about the world through books. But with the increasing popularity of technology, including the rise of e-books, many began to wonder if libraries could still serve a purpose. Indeed, the influx of technology has made libraries even more valuable to the communities they serve. A wealth of information is available through books and traditional print resources, as well as databases and online collections, all only a click away at your local library.

Tidewater is home to several public library systems. Let’s meet three local directors who are working to shape the future of libraries in our region.

Sonal Rastogi became director of libraries for Norfolk Public Library (NPL) in 2013, but she has been an employee with the city for more than 20 years. Sonal arrived in Hampton Roads curious about the new culture she would be exploring and excited about marriage to her husband, B.K., which had been arranged by her family. After volunteering at a library in Newport News for six months, Sonal decided to earn a master’s degree in library science.

“It interested me so much to be able to walk up to a branch and use all of the resources available,” Sonal said. “In India, most libraries are on college campuses and are usually used by students and professors for research. Here in the U.S., a library is more than just a place to check out books. It is a gathering place for the community, a destination in and of itself.”

No two days are ever alike for Sonal. She visits each of the 12 NPL branches on a regular basis and loves spending time with library patrons and staff. “I should not even have a desk phone because I am never there to answer it,” she joked.

Sonal loves the planning process, too, and that’s a good thing because the city has numerous projects in the works over the next few years. NPL’s 60-year-old bookmobile is getting an overhaul, complete with fresh interior and a beautiful new wrap. The city is also building the Broad Creek Library adjacent to an elementary school, as well as a new 10,000 square foot branch location in the Campostella neighborhood.

“Norfolk is a very urban city,” Sonal explained. “People expect neighborhood-centric programming that is within walking distance.”

Norfolk is also a diverse city, and NPL encourages citizens to learn about others through multi-cultural events that showcase food, music, and dancing from ethnic groups around the globe. Sonal has shared customs and traditions from India and feels the program was as enriching for her as it was for the audience. “People are naturally curious,” she said. “They enjoy learning about other people. Those types of face-to-face cultural experiences are unique because they are not what most people associate with libraries.”

The most recent addition to the NPL system is the Slover Library in the heart of downtown Norfolk. Opened in January  2015, the Slover incorporates historic buildings and a wealth of print materials with high-tech amenities, including digital media and video production labs. The library is the perfect blend of past, present, and future. “Not many cities would embrace such a project,” said Sonal. “Most cities would see it as just another expense, but Norfolk sees it as an investment for the community.”

The Slover offers opportunities for everyone. The facility boasts a large, open children’s area perfect for playtime and learning. Researchers and genealogists can find what they need in the Sergeant Memorial Collection, and employees in nearby office buildings can stop by during their lunch breaks to grab a book and enjoy a bite to eat at the on-site bistro.

Local residents aren’t the only ones enjoying the Slover’s beautifully designed buildings and high-tech resources, though. The world-class facility is also a tourist destination. “People visiting from outside the region, including international tourists, are amazed by the Slover,” Sonal said. “They have never seen a library that embraces so many aspects of history, architecture, and technology. It has quickly become a trademark of downtown Norfolk.”

Sonal dismisses the notion of public libraries disappearing. In her experience, it is the exact opposite. “Libraries will never go away,” she said. “The idea of libraries as destinations for patrons to explore and experience is really coming into play, and the need for libraries will continue to grow.”

Alicia Phinney, manager of library locations for Suffolk Public Library (SPL), has spent the past three years working to grow that city’s library system. “The public library is the best-kept secret in Suffolk,” she said. “We want people to know we’re here, so our outreach efforts are all about getting in people’s faces.”

SPL also wants to get in people’s kitchens. Soon they will begin offering novelty cake pans for patrons to check out, just as they would books or DVDs. The unique offering is part of their Library Made 2016 initiative, which connects community members with the materials they need to try their hand at different creative outlets. Earlier this year the library introduced knit and crochet kits, which are flying off the shelves.

Alicia majored in English in college, but it wasn’t until she job-shadowed librarians at two local universities that she discovered her passion for libraries. “My interests were all over the place,” she explained. “I wanted a career that would be changing all the time.”

Alicia’s wish was granted. In her position at SPL she handles a wide ranges of tasks, such as scheduling for all of the staff members, as well as staff development. She is involved with policies and planning and also helps choose and order materials for each of the library branches. SPL is currently in the process of ramping up a volunteer project for community members, including students who have to complete 50 hours of volunteer work as part of their graduation requirements. Alicia’s duties also include shifts at the circulation desk to check out books and help visitors find what they need. She spends one evening a week and one Saturday a month working the front desk. “I love having direct contact with patrons,” Alicia said. “It helps me learn about what people in the community really want and need.”

SPL has three library branches, each with its own history and personality. “The downtown location caters to the urban crowd, while the North Suffolk branch is more suburban,” Alicia explained. “Our smallest branch, Chuckatuck, has just two rooms and a small-town atmosphere, where everyone knows everyone else.”

Earlier this year, Alicia was named Outstanding Employee of 2016 by the Virginia Public Library Directors Association for a library system serving a population greater than 80,000. She was surprised and thrilled to win the award and hopes the library’s success will continue in the future.

“We are aspiring to have even more people in Suffolk use the library,” she said. “The way people read and consume information is constantly changing, and we have to be adaptable so we can meet their needs. We want to be the community’s hub and have our fingers in a little bit of everything.”

Eva Poole, director of Virginia Beach Public Library (VBPL), also wants to give residents access to as many opportunities as possible. “Public libraries are the people’s university,” she pointed out. “You don’t have to have money to get an education and learn about the world. All you need is a library card.”

Eva has spent her entire career working in libraries and has done everything from shelve books to oversee the development of strategic plans and launch capital improvement projects. From 1993 to 2012 she worked as public library director in Denton, Texas. Prior to coming to Virginia Beach in 2013, Eva served as chief of staff with the District of Columbia Public Library. She is also a former president of the Public Library Association.

When Eva read an online description of VBPL, written by previous director Marcy Sims, she was intrigued. “It sounded too good to be true,” she said, laughing. She had never even heard of Hampton Roads, but after three interviews and a tour of the area, Eva accepted the job as library director and moved to Virginia Beach.

Everything Eva does during her workday has one question attached to it: How will this help the community? “I want to keep my finger on the pulse of the city,” she explained. To that end, she works with staff at each of the city’s 10 library branches, making sure they have the training and resources they need to provide exceptional customer service to every patron, every time. “The residents of Virginia Beach truly love their library,” Eva said. “The library is one of the highest ranked departments in the city.”

Just like Sonal and Alicia, Eva embraces the changing role of libraries in communities, especially when it comes to educating patrons. In September VBPL will begin a program to help citizens earn a high school diploma, as well as additional job training and certifications. The program will be available online, and patrons will be able to complete the training anywhere that is convenient for them.

In addition to digital career resources, VBPL also wants to give the community a taste of specific careers through hands-on training. The Central Library location has a kitchen area that Eva would like to see updated so instructors can teach culinary arts to patrons. “The culinary arts are exploding,” she said. “That type of training could lead to more job prospects and better future careers.”

VBPL’s newest location, the Joint Use Library on the Tidewater Community College campus, opened in the summer of 2013 and is yet another link between the library and higher education. The spacious, airy building boasts 124,000 square feet of study space and meeting rooms, as well as shelves filled with books and DVDs. Not many cities share a library with a college, and Eva’s voice fills with pride as she talks about the benefits for students and the community. “The Joint Use Library is open to everyone,” she said. “Anyone can walk through those doors and take advantage of all the resources this facility offers.”

Although libraries were originally built to house books, Eva is intent on transforming the local branches to meet the needs of 21st-century patrons. The days of dusty stacks of books and getting shushed by stern librarians are over. “A library is a place to go to escape from the world,” Eva said. “It is one of the few places left to talk with someone and have a pleasant conversation without having to shout over loud music playing in the background. It’s a place where people can sit, read, talk, and think.”

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Jamie McAllister is a freelance writer in Virginia Beach. She writes for businesses, nonprofits, and publications. To learn more, visit www.mcallisterwe.com.

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