By Chrystie F. Swiney
The Mary Riley Styles Public Library, arguably the most beloved building in our beloved little city, is often described in glittering terms: as a “gem,” a “treasure,” a “jewel.” And indeed it is. I’ll never forget the day when I first stumbled upon it with my then one-year old son while on an errand. At the time, we lived near Takoma Park, and while I’d often heard whispers of the virtues of “Falls Church City,” it seemed, as an outsider, indistinguishable from all other over-congested, boundary-less Northern Virginia suburbs. Yet, Falls Church City seemed and felt different, as I rushed home that day to inform my husband that we must, must move to this charming, small town-ish feeling city with the world’s most adoring library at its heart. This library, I excitedly reported to him, offers a children’s story time nearly every day of the week (and no need to register in advance!), stands directly across from a beautiful, shady park with a mulch-filled (not plasticized!) play area, and a community center that seems to welcome anyone who walks through their doors (for free!).
My son and I spent an unforgettably happy day in Falls Church City that day exploring the library’s many nooks, attending a story time, reading books together on the risers of the sun-filled window seat, and then playing at Cherry Hill Park before venturing to the Community Center to play in the open gym. Though it took us a few years to make the move to Falls Church City, my now family of four is among the 14,000 extremely privileged residents who call this charismatic, one-of-a-kind 2.3 square mile pocket home, a home, as I quickly discovered, that in many ways centers around its “beloved” (as it is so often called) library.
My insistence that we uproot our lives in Washington, D.C. and relocate to Falls Church City was inspired by my instant connection to the library. It didn’t, at least originally, have anything to do with Falls Church City’s award winning schools, year-round farmers market, high quality of living, endless series of community-nurturing events (Concerts in the Park, Sunset Cinemas, the Memorial Day parade, Farm Day….), hysterically laugh-out-loud weekly newsletter (Focus on FC), or raucous fourth of July extravaganza. I didn’t know about these things then. My connection truly started with the library; all the rest came as enormous cherries on top.
Perhaps nothing provides greater testament to how truly adored the library is in the community than to realize that its much-loved status persists despite its increasingly anachronistic, threadbare state. It was built six decades ago in a different era for a different population density within a very different legal, technological, and cultural milieu. As the Focus on Falls Church Newsletter recently highlighted, the library “is ADA deficient in many aspects, needs significant infrastructure repairs, lacks storage and sufficient security measures, and generally just needs more space.” It has an astonishing 27,000 registered borrowers, a number which is expected to exceed 35,000 by 2033; but yet, it has one tiny elevator on the brink of collapse, two small, endlessly clogging bathrooms due to insufficient plumbing, a HVAC system in imminent need of replacement, few power plugs, an unreliable phone system…Most pressingly of all, it “just needs more space.” Upwards of 150-200 children and caretakers, with their army of strollers and baby gear, cram into the one small open area for storytime each week. The story-telling librarian now wears a microphone to be heard, and when the session ends, there is nowhere to go unless a significant number departs. The library has only one minuscule, paint-peeling meeting room where all other programming must be offered and not a single individual or group study room; six librarians share a single-person sized office.
Remarkably, Mary Riley’s popularity remains steadfast despite these dismal and very visible realities. In the coming year, the community will steward the library through its first expansion and renovation project since it was built in 1958. As the newest member of the Library Board of Trustees, I share the honor of being part of this much-needed process. But this is a community-wide project that should and must be overseen by the community as a whole. It will require hard choices, difficult conversations, and tough compromises. It will necessitate all of us to accept newness and change, even though we are all so connected to the old, and it will require making big decisions in the face of a tight budget and growing construction costs. As we go through this difficult but rewarding process, we must remain ever cognizant of what inspired this project in the first place: our desire to preserve and maintain our most “beloved” “gem” of a library.
The opinions expressed above are entirely my own and do not reflect the opinions, views, or decisions of the Library Board of Trustees for the Mary Riley Styles Public Library.
Chrystie F. Swiney is a human rights attorney and doctoral fellow at Georgetown’s Law Center; she also serves on the Library Board of Trustees for the Mary Riley Styles Public Library.