News • July 24, 2022

Kanawha County Library: Welcome to the Library of the 21st century

On a recent Monday morning, the citizens of Kanawha County, West Virginia, came to check out a new chapter in the life of an old institution. After more than two years and $32 million in renovations, downtown Charleston’s public library reopened to the public – less a warehouse of books, and more a marketplaces of ideas.

Inside, visitors discovered a brand-new cafe, a tool-lending library, and an “idea lab” full of the latest technology. From podcasting booths to computerized sewing machines to augmented reality screens, the facility has been updated for the modern age.

There was an excitement you could see AND hear – which is exactly what the librarians were hoping for. Erika Connelly, director of the Kanawha County Library, said, “Librarians from time immemorial, like, you’re ‘Shh’!”

Correspondent Conor Knighton asked, “Are we beyond the age of shushing?”

“We’re beyond the age of that, yeah!”

“I tell you what I’m not seeing here; I’m not seeing a ton of books.”

“No! We have 3D machines, we have robotics, we have 3D pens.”

While there are still plenty of books, the redesign allowed the staff to rethink how they were displayed.

“It was more about the engagement, how we wanted our public to engage within the library,” Connelly said. “And it wasn’t at the shelves. It wasn’t just grabbing a book and then leaving. We wanted them to stay.”

Across the country, library attendance has declined 21% from 2009 to 2019. But borrowing has actually increasedit’s just moved online, as collections have shifted from physical to digital material. That’s caused libraries to shift their thinking in terms of what might bring people through the doors.