Williamson Road Library Introduces New Art, Layout

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Sheila Umberger is director of library services in Roanoke City.
Sheila Umberger is director of library services in Roanoke City.

by Gene Marrano

The entire library system in Roanoke city is undergoing a transformation process, as neighborhood branches are modernized and services are added. The latest evidence of that was at the Williamson Road branch last week, when Phase I improvements including a new children’s library that has been moved, a relocated teen center and striking artwork on the front windows were unveiled.

New movable shelving can make way for bigger programs and $25,000 has been spent on books and DVDs.  Five more computers and another for preschoolers are also recent arrivals. All of the computers now access the internet via wireless, which means they can be moved to accommodate special events or changing layouts at the branch.

Sheila Umberger, director of library services for the city, said a $50,000 donation from Friends of the Library made Phase I improvements at the Williamson Road branch (3837 Williamson Rd.) possible.

“This branch has the highest door count…besides the main library [on Jefferson],” noted Umberger. A door count of 90,000 annually and a circulation that has gone up fifty percent over the past five years attests to the popularity of the branch, which abuts a large residential neighborhood in Roanoke city.

Three teen Scrabble teams from the branch advanced to a tournament last week that was also a fundraiser for the Blue Ridge Literacy program. “We have a very active teen program,” said Umberger. Artwork on end panels, in the new children’s library area, was designed by someone who moonlights for Disney Pixar.

The Williamson Road library is also a community center, something that improvements will only make more of a reality. “We have a lot of support,” said Umberger. The “walkable community” around the corner and its position on one of Roanoke’s busiest corridors gives the branch plenty of visibility. “Everyone’s real excited about it,” said Umberger of reaction from the Williamson Road community.

The Phase I project includes Japanese-style wood cut prints on the windows, artwork created by Hollins University professor Jennifer Anderson, her students and youngsters at Breckenridge Middle School. Umberger asked Susan Jennings, the city’s public art coordinator, for her help in bringing art to Williamson Road.

“This helps fulfill [facets] of our arts and cultural plan, which was newly passed in August by City Council,” said Jennings of one goal, which was to work with local schools and colleges to produce and display public art.  “I like to encourage local talent,” added Umberger. Jennings was looking to place a public art project anyway, noted Umberger, “so it worked out perfectly.”

Hollins students created the larger portraits; 8th graders at Breckenridge contributed the smaller “bubbles,” which Umberger said constituted “their hopes and dreams.” Sixth grade students who saw it now want to do their own bubbles, according to Umberger. The artwork is in the teen area, which now includes graphic novels and video games that can be checked out.

Roanoke City Arts Commission Chairman Nathan Harper was on hand for the official unveiling: “being able to bring so many different groups together [for the art project] … was really a wonderful collaboration. There are a lot of great opportunities to fulfill principles of the arts and cultural plan.”

That plan called for collaboration by many groups to move arts in the region forward. Harper also liked that art students at Hollins University were able to work with Breckenridge Middle School teens on their wood cut bubbles. Harper said he was intrigued by the story behind each of the black and white vignettes.

Roanoke City libraries shelved plans to build a “super branch” on Peters Creek Road and instead are plowing the $13 million slated for that project back into remodeling of its current neighborhood outlets. A new branch in the Countryside neighborhood is also on the drawing board.  Renovations at the branches should start this summer; Umberger presented a plan to City Council earlier this year.

A doubling in size of the current footprint at Williamson Road is on the way but that could take 2-3 years. A drive through service and more parking are part of those plans too. The modest Phase I improvements funded largely by donations are a first step. “What we’re trying to do is make it the best we can,” said Umberger, “we just keep plugging away.”