Leesburg leaders have largely agreed over the years that the town has something special in the Thomas Balch Library, a destination for historical and genealogical research. However, that asset appears to be in need of some help.
Alexandra Gressitt, director of the library, appeared before the council during its Monday work session for a briefing on the library’s needs.
The town assumed ownership of Balch from Loudoun County July 1, 1994, and five years later undertook an extensive renovation and expansion of the library facility. In the past decade in particular patronage of the library has exploded, with Gressitt reporting a 243 percent increase since 2010. Seventeen years ago, a staff report notes, fewer than 1,000 patrons per year visited the library. That annual visitor number now stands at more than 35,000. The growth of its collection has nearly kept pace with that number, growing 211 percent in the last decade. Programming has also increased more than 150 percent during that time.
What has not kept pace with the growing customers and Balch’s large collection, however, is the staff that serves and manages them both, not to mention the library’s total budget. Gressitt noted that the two library positions cut during the town government reductions in force in 2010 have never been replenished. This means that a current library staff member is, on average, responding to 11,000 reference requests on an annual basis. The budget for Balch has remained relatively flat over the past decade-and-a-half, increasing less than $50,000 since 2005.
The building itself is also strained, with Gressitt pointing to the small number of parking spaces and restroom facilities to serve patrons, particularly during popular programming events when standing-room-only accommodations are the norm. The building size also limits the amount of collection space and workspace available to patrons.
The library staff is in the midst of drafting a strategic and succession plan to further hone in on some of the library’s resource needs. Also up for consideration is whether acquiring land for an expansion of the library is possible. Library Commission Chairman James Hershman said the most attractive expansion area would be directly to the west, where the library could house a two-story building with a large auditorium, with seating for over 100, on the first floor to accommodate programs and perhaps even musical or theatrical performances. The second story could serve as additional library space.
Hershman said Leesburg has reached another critical milestone in Balch’s history, “where we really need to decide where we want to go with this to match the needs of this town.”
“The library really has achieved what council envisioned back in the 1990s. Now we need to move forward with those achievements,” he said.
One big endeavor library staff hopes to undertake could hinge on whether Balch receives its requested staff position for fiscal year 2021. The Thomas Balch Library Foundation has committed $60,000 towards the implementation of a library catalogue and conversion from the Dewey decimal classification system for the library’s collection. While that project has a one-time cost of $65,000, it will also require $26,000 in annual costs and, Gressitt said, the restoration of a reference librarian position lost during the economic recession. That full-time position, at a cost of just under $50,000, would oversee the catalog administration and conversion. Neither the staff position or the recurring costs for the project have been included in Town Manager Kaj Dentler’s proposed budget. For fiscal year 2021, a 2.1 percent, or $11,321, increase is proposed, largely for increases in existing staff salaries and benefits, and increases in the cost of subscriptions and publications.
“I’ve spent 16 years robbing Peter to pay Paul … getting basic work that needs to be done. I can’t do the basic work that needs to be done [for the conversion project] without having a person,” she said.
Hershman also pointed out that having a small staff makes some organizations less likely to dole out grants to the library in fear that they don’t have adequate staffing to carry out the funding. The library has been very successful, however, in obtaining smaller grants.
While council members made no guarantees about including more funding for the Balch in the upcoming budget, some were clearly surprised by how much the library staff has accomplished on a seemingly shoestring budget.
“Watching the budget from 2005 to 2020 it’s remarkable that the increase is so minimal, not to mention lacking additional staffing,” Councilman Neil Steinberg said. “[Balch] is indeed a resource to the town. I suspect it’s time we start treating it like that.”