The City of Falls Church’s multi-year effort to upgrade its public facilities has finally come to an end with completion of the new Mary Riley Styles Public Library, which will officially reopen to the public as soon as the scissors snip the ribbon on Sept. 10. A bond referendum voted on by City residents in 2016 paved the way for Falls Church to fulfill major infrastructure needs to its City Hall before constructing a new high school and now adding the finishing touches to its library. The City was happy to report that the project came in on budget.
Library Director Jenny Carroll and City Project Manager Lionel Millard gave the News-Press a tour of the library’s new digs ahead of its opening next week.
What we saw was how the bones of the original library still remain, but with extensive additions and a more open layout to accommodate the increased demand for the library’s services (more on that later). Right off the bat, it was apparent how noticeably brighter and more vivid the library now is.
Giant windows line the building’s facade on the upper and lower levels, letting natural light pour into the rows of bookshelves and various seating areas. Everything from comfy lounge chairs to the shine of the wood on new desks and tables have replaced the aging look of the old building, while still paying homage to it.
“I feel like it still looks cozy,” Carroll said. “It still has the flavor of being what everybody liked about Mary Riley Styles, which is, that sort of homey look as well.” Layout-wise, the adult collections are all located on the first floor of the library now. Previously, the collections were divvied between the front part of the first floor and most of the library’s downstairs section.
Nine public computers are available for use on the main floor as well, with the Falls Church history room also being moved from the basement and into the back area where the children’s programs were once held. The history room — which was only open by appointment prior to the renovations — will be open to the public for 20 hours throughout the week: from 1 – 5 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, and open from 5 – 9 p.m. on Tuesday.
Other operational changes include the removal of late fees and free loaner laptops.
A staircase has been moved from its covert alcove right by the main desk to lining the library’s left wall. But what’s at the bottom of those steps is where the real draw is for Little City families. The vast, kid-friendly section of the library takes up the entire lower level, with colorful couches, murals and images of butterflies dotting its walls.
There are small and large conference rooms that line the central area with the seating and the shorter (height-wise) book shelves. One of the large conference rooms is used for programming, while a secluded den right by the staircase is the Teen Room for the adolescent library goers.
Moving the kid’s section from the rear of the upstairs to the entirety of the downstairs was done for space — it’s three times as big as what they were working with before — but also for safety reasons. Chief Mary Gavin with Falls Church police and former fire marshal Tom Polera recommended children be in the lower level to safeguard against “natural and man-made disasters,” in Carroll’s words.
In a natural disaster, there’s sufficient room to shelter in place for kids and families. In case of a man-made disaster, such as the presence of a threatening individual in the building, “you have to have an intention to come down here,” per Carroll. Meaning adults can’t just wander into the kids section “without a reason. They’re supposed to be accessing the children’s collection for one of their own kids, or they have a question for the staff.” (Putting the kids down below also insulates the rest of the library’s visitors from the noise they create.)
One key to making the library experience fulfilling is the programs it offers. Carroll mentioned that Preschool Storytime, one of its many draws, hasn’t been held in a long time. They’re also looking to host more frequent Community Conversations and work with Falls Church schools to host programs involving the local history room — though that’s dependent on having the proper staffing. Even though the library has added 6,600 sq. ft. in additional space (from 19,100 to 25,727 in the revamped building), they’ve only hired one additional employee — a part-time custodian.
Along with adding another hour to when the library is open to the public, there’s some heavy lifting to be expected among the current staff. “I think it is going to be a challenge,” Carroll said. “Our programs are very popular. And so there’s demand for more programs. So that means more staff.” Those programs are going to be used by more than Falls Church City residents as well.
A recent agreement by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments allows anyone with a library card in Fairfax and Arlington counties, along with Alexandria City, to access the library’s collection and programs.
Carroll was tasked by the library’s board to do an assessment on staffing needs. Her early assessment as of now is “a library doesn’t run itself.”