The sign at the entrance to the building promises Athens Drive High School in Southwest Raleigh "at its B.E.S.T."—the B short for "being respectful." Off the lobby, though, the library is open on a Sunday afternoon, unlike at most schools, and inside a mix of students and neighborhood residents are peering into the computers, catalogues and bookshelves in search of, well, the many different things a public library offers.
Jonathan Elmore, for example, is looking online for a part-time job. He's 37. Mohemod Suiffi, 39, who has a job with a car dealer, is checking his e-mail. Neither owns a computer.
Emily Brown, a senior at ADHS, does. But with one last paper due before graduation—for her sports medicine class—she's writing it, as usual, in the library, "because it's quiet and it helps my concentration." Becky Burcham, a 54-year-old computer programmer, is another regular who typically buries her nose in a book or magazine. Just now, though, she's searching the Web for truck parts. "My truck failed inspection," she says, almost laughing about it.
Burcham's not in a laughing mood, however, since the subject of the day is whether the Athens Drive library will survive as Wake County's only shared school-and-community library—and the only public library for miles around.
"I find it a tragedy," she says, "if they're going to shut it down, because it's a very nice neighborhood library. And what are they actually saving by shutting it?"
That's a good question. In Wake County's budget, the Athens Drive Community Library is a $212,000 line item, which is the amount the county pays the Wake school system under a management contract that leaves the facility under the high school's control, but also helps to staff and stock it—48,000 volumes worth, plus a double complement of computers—as a neighborhood library.
The library is open to students and the public Monday through Friday during school hours and evenings and on Sunday afternoons, a total of 61 hours a week.
But as county commissioners struggle to balance the upcoming fiscal year budget without a property tax increase, they are considering axing the contract, which would leave a standard-issue high school library in place, but cost the residents of the Athens Drive-Avent West (west of Avent Ferry Road) community their best, and really their only, cultural gathering spot.
If that should happen, says Suzanne Newton, a fiction writer and a frequent writer-in-residence in the Wake school system for some 30 years, it would mark the end of an experiment that made great sense when it began but for bureaucratic reasons has just never caught on. Shared school-community libraries, Newton thinks, "are the greatest idea that nobody likes."
When Athens Drive High School opened in 1979 with its community library (and public tennis courts), it culminated a decade-long push by the late Raleigh City Councilwoman Miriam Block, who represented Southwest Raleigh and was the council's first outspoken neighborhoods advocate. Block thought public support for the schools would come more easily if their facilities were opened up, both because regular folks would enjoy using them and because having a single library, say, rather than two, would save the taxpayers money.
It was a great idea then, says Yevonne Brannon, and it still is. Brannon volunteered in the library as a young mom, and her kids virtually lived there, she says. So when Brannon was elected a county commissioner in the '90s, "I kept asking, why don't we extend the model to other schools?" There was never a good answer, she recalls acidly, "only that the school system didn't want the county running their (school) libraries, and the county didn't want to pay for libraries it didn't control."
"It was a ball that was bounced back and forth," she says, "but there was never any leadership for it on the two boards, or at the staff level, for that matter."
But it's one thing not to extend the model, Brannon adds, and another to close the only one that exists in order to "save" the salary of one of the librarians, two clerks and some books. "Hundreds" of people have been in touch with her to complain, she says. "The facility itself is almost free to the taxpayers, and it is literally the heartbeat of the community. Closing it would be an atrocity."
In the Avent West community, a set of older neighborhoods as diverse as any in Raleigh, growing immigrant and low-income populations mingle with college students, recent graduates and their middle-income professors. It's a place known for its beautiful trees and parks. But it's also one that developed before the era of malls and "mixed-use" centers, with their bookstores-slash-cafés and other cultural amenities.
There are no bookstores, let alone any art galleries or museums, in Avent West. The nearest public libraries are in Cary and Cameron Village, each about four miles away. In short, this one library in a school is it.
The inconvenience, not to say absence, of alternatives is one point City Councilor Thomas Crowder made when he led a contingent from Avent West to the Wake commissioners' budget hearing last week. Another: The community's been "rejuvenated" of late by an influx of young families with small children—but the children need a library.
"My point is, look at the demographics," Crowder says. "The 27606 ZIP code (the high school's address) is the most affordable one in Raleigh. We have a lot of older people who don't drive, and young families, including the Hispanic neighborhoods, who are a 40-minute bus ride from Cameron Village—with a [route] change downtown.
"These are exactly the kinds of partnerships that we should be creating for the future," Crowder adds. "Cities succeed because they're efficient. This is $212,000? How much would it cost to build us a new library?"
The answer, says Tom Moore, director of the Wake County library system, is $5 million-$8 million to build the typical neighborhood-scale library holding between 25,000 and 65,000 books.
Moore says he doesn't want to close any libraries, and fought to pare the list of five originally prepped for the budget slicer by his superiors to just two, plus a bookmobile and $800,000 whacked from his budget for acquisitions. (Duraleigh, a small library near the site of the bigger Leesville Road library, now under construction, is the other one still on the list.) "This is a money thing," Moore maintains, "not a library thing."
But Moore doesn't support more shared school-community libraries, he acknowledges. "The obstacles to overcome are much greater than the benefits you derive," he says.
Moore says the biggest one is that the schools really don't like letting the public enter their buildings without close scrutiny—a problem Brannon says could be overcome with separate entrances.
And Newton, the writer, says the county's been trying to wriggle out of its deal to support the Athens Drive library virtually since the day it opened. She wrote her first public letter in defense of the library in 1983, she recalls. Told about Moore's comments, she forms her lips into a word that begins with the letter B. "That's bull-oney," she says. "That simply is not true."
Newton echoes what the Athens Drive librarians have said, that it's not only the community which benefits from the shared facility, it's the students, too. Her writer-in-residence work has taken her to many of the county's schools, she says, including numerous high schools where the libraries were "empty."
"This library," she adds, "is always busy. It's never empty."
Why? Newton's two children grew up in the neighborhood and graduated from ADHS. She thinks their experience is typical. They started using the library when they were little. They kept using it all through school. They saw adults using it, too.
Somehow, she says, the library's "unique connection" with the community persuades students that it's an important place—where in other high schools, libraries are an avoided place.
It's also a well-stocked place, with a full supply of school-library books, public-library research materials and the popular fiction that's the trademark of the Wake library system. A few years ago, an interning University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill graduate student in library sciences compared the reading habits of Athens Drive students with those of students from another nearby high school that librarian Betty Williams tactfully declined to name. ADHS students read more for pleasure, Williams says, probably because of their easier access to popular books.
Williams has worked at Athens Drive since 1985. It's grown steadily from modest beginnings and was tops in book circulation figures among the county's neighborhood libraries in April, she says. As she talks about its value to children, students and the adult community, Williams chokes up a little. "I might sound silly," she says, "but it just hurts my heart to think of it closing."
On Monday, Wake commissioner Stan Norwalk included $212,000 for the Athens Drive library as part of his proposal to add $8.5 million to the county's planned 2009-10 budget. The rest of the money would be for the public schools and social services. Debate on Norwalk's proposal is continuing. If the budget goes into effect July 1 without amendments, it would cut spending from current levels by some $34 million, leaving the county's property tax rate unchanged.
Correction (June 11, 2009): The interning library sciences graduate was a student at UNC-CH, not NCSU.