The True Value of Public Libraries: Perspectives from Craig Gill-Walker


I recently met up with Craig Gill-Walker, the Northside Public Library’s most devoted Dewey Decimal disciple. Living across the alleyway from the library, I had noticed that it was closed for quite some time. The rumor mill only brought up bits of information that had something to do with a burst pipe and a damaged interior. I knew that I was not the only person in the community that had a book they needed to return, and I could only imagine that there were a few who needed a bit more from the library than a formal statement from the manager. I was forgiven for keeping ‘The Stand’ by Stephen King for two years.

“So what if it’s closed for a couple of months?” I could just drop a book in the drop box and jump in my car to go to any of the other Richmond Public Libraries. As long as I check the internet before I go, I should be able to just drive down and get another book I may only half read.

But that’s what I can do. That does not mean that every person in Northside is at the same level of comfort, regardless of how recently I may have attained it or how gaudy I feel in it. There are those at home with no internet, a phone with low or no service, no job. And the only prospect of getting a job in today’s day and age is to be able to go to the library. I know. I’ve been there.

When a library closes in a community, it is felt at every level. Family game night stops. Sororities and fraternities have to find new meeting spaces to organize charitable drives. Poor expectant mothers cannot easily access a computer to read up on what’s next. The guy who lives a few doors down, who talks to himself at the coffee shop, can’t print out a football schedule. Homeless people cannot escape the heat while they read the newspaper. Writers cannot meet to discuss ideas and learn from each other. This is good because Richmond creatives have a contagious misanthropy and hopeless existential dread that makes them nearly unpalatable socially. They don’t make ladders tall enough for us to get over ourselves.

I talked with Craig about many things, and I wish that it made sense to put it all here, but it was really just us fawning over the delicious food we are lucky enough to have in Northside. Craig is a jovial spirit, or maybe a lightly social man who is in a quiet space all day. Either way, this recent Richmond transplant lives by the philosophy of “If it’s above 75, your boy is at the river.” After speaking with him, I was sure the city had once again chosen a giving heart to bring into the fold.

I’m here with Craig Gill-Walker, Branch Manager at the North Avenue Public Library. The North Avenue Main Branch Library is up and open. Tell me a little about why it closed.

Oh, I can tell you exactly why we closed. On Christmas weekend, when the Arctic blast came through the city, the library was one of the city buildings affected. We had a big water pipe burst, and it just ruined our books, our carpet, a few things within the wall. It actually caused way more damage than we thought it did.


Yeah, it was like every week, when the construction guys were coming in, they were finding new issues. Every week, I was like, “How much damage can water cause?”

Oh, yeah. Once it gets in there, it’s everywhere.


How many months were y’all closed for?

We were closed from Christmas weekend, and we finally reopened on May 22nd.

I knew it was a long time because I’m right across the way, and I’ve been looking to see when y’all are open to get that book back. (Laughs) I refused to do the drop box. I was like, “I’m gonna hand it in in person and say my apologies.”

It’s okay. You were forgiven. And honestly, it’s just because they kept finding things. They also used it as an excuse to renovate some stuff. We got a new roof, new electrical systems, a new HVAC system. They used the opportunity to provide some new upgrades while we were closed as well, so that was nice.

I feel like that’s a proper use of city money, to allow longevity to the building itself instead of making it a quick fix.

Yes, it was definitely a nice upgrade, renovation, and refresher to the library.

Alright, we’re gonna give one point to Richmond City. One point. (Laughs)

One point to Richmond City definitely goes to that. There was a bunch of stuff that was renovated that needed to be.

What resources, other than books, are denied a community when a library closes?

I would definitely say one of the biggest ones is free Wi-Fi usage. People don’t understand how many homes in America are without Wi-Fi. When you first start working in libraries you’re like, “This many people don’t have Wi-Fi?” And then you’re like, “Oh my, Wi-Fi is a class thing?” There are resources for people to get free Wi-Fi, especially if you have children. For a lot of people, it’s just kind of inaccessible, or too expensive to be accessible. You have to choose between rent or [Home Wi-Fi]. So, I would say Wi-Fi is definitely one of those resources.

It really is a class thing, access to Wi-Fi or a computer itself.

Oh, the computer especially. A lot of people just do stuff on their phones, but once you get a computer, it’s a whole different world. You talk to people about their access to computers [and the obstacles to them], especially older generations that didn’t grow up with them in schools and all of that.

Right. So, how, on a more granular scale, does the North Avenue library help the community of Northside?

When people realize we’re here, we’re definitely a hub. Before we closed, every weekend, from January to April, was filled up in our community room with activities, events, meetings, etc. It was like four days a week our community rooms was being used for at least an hour, hour-and-a-half by an organization.

Before all of this happened, you had a pretty steady interaction with the community itself established.

Yeah, we definitely want the community to know. We’re open. Come and use us. We’re here. We’re free. Whatever you need to do, as long as it is not for profit, we’re available.

Specifically, what kind of community engagement was happening?

You know, it was really surprising, because it is such a wide range of groups. We were going to have a will seminar, getting your will and affairs in order while you’re still alive with the local funeral home. HAN was coming by to do health screenings. We had them set up on a monthly basis with our health screenings. Then, you know, you have different community projects. Churches. Churches love using our space just for different events. Fraternities and sororities will use our space for their meetings, and the community help they have going on.

So, say that you were back to business as if the library had never closed, in what way would you have thought that community engagement could have grown? What other groups would you have liked to see? Like chess clubs, etc.

We did have chess clubs on Monday nights during our late hours that we were slowly getting people to come up and go to. When we have our late hours, which is extended to 8, on Mondays we had chess club and then on Wednesday we had family game night, with a bunch of board games that were sadly lost to the water that we’re trying to get back. People were just coming to watch movies and play board games, and we had jazz going on in the background and all of that.

I guess a question in my mind then would be what hours are quiet hours at the library?

Quiet hours at the library. I can’t give you a solid answer on quiet hours at the library because no two days are the same. And that goes for every library in America. No day in the library is the exact same.

Because you get every kind of person coming in.

Which is why I love working in the library. You get every single kind of person coming in. From every background and demographic. There’s no discrimination on that aspect.

As a career restaurant professional, I have a certain degree of professional respect for you right now as I’m viewing you as this bartender of knowledge.

I love that phrase! I’m gonna start telling my friends that.

Are public libraries the knowledge dive bar? (Laughs)

Kind of, yeah. Especially in the sense that everyone is welcome to come in. With a dive bar, you’ll have people in suits, you’ll have people that just came in off the street, etcetera, those are libraries. We want everyone to come in and experience the library.

Absolutely, a place where people can positively interact with each other.

Yeah, the best way to think about libraries, in my opinion, is it is the last place in America you can go hang out for free. I want you to think about where you can hang out for free right now.

I’m just gonna sit with that.

Think about where you can hang out for free.

The cemetery.

Maybe, depends on if it’s a private cemetery. They might kick you off. If you really think about it, libraries are the only place that you can just go in. You don’t even have to talk to us. When I worked in Roanoke, there was a man that would check out books every week through our self-checkout and holds list. I would see this man every week. He did not interact with any of us. Not a librarian, no one in the library, he just came in, got his books, and left. Beautiful. You can do that.

You can become the librarian’s best friend. I know people’s entire life stories. It’s just a place for everybody. For free. It’s the last place you can go for free, next to like a park.

I heard that, well, we spoke yesterday about library programs that incentivize reading and literacy. Can you tell me a little more about those programs?

Yes, actually. One of the things we are trying to get back at the library is our GED program that we had going on. We had GED preparation classes.

Are these free classes?

Through the program, there are free classes. With the library, it should be completely free signing up with us. So, if they’re not free, someone please tell me. (Laughs) That’s the one thing I like people to remember is that if it is not free at the library, especially the Richmond city library, talk to one of the branch managers or someone above us, because why not?

Why is it not free? Is it because it’s with a private company? And going back to incentives, IT’S JUNE, SUMMER READING TIME IF YOU HAVE CHILDREN! (June-10 through August) We are trying to get back our accelerated reading. And getting people coming in and assisting the patrons with the computer and reading, which we had going on. Just through volunteers with the library when we were open, but sadly, it’s been five months so I’ve got to hunt those people down and get in contact with them again.

Right now, computer literacy and literacy are the things we want to promote. Whether infant literacy, or adult literacy. And when I say literacy I don’t mean, like, being able to read. I mean being able to comprehend and understand. Not be confused when you read paperwork or look at a form. It’s something that as a country, we need to get better at.

The city of Richmond, especially the libraries, it’s something that’s in our big five-year plan. How do we get children to read more and feel more literate and how do we get adults to feel more literate and more confident when it comes to reading and computer usage.

That’s a program we’re going to bring back at North Avenue as soon as humanly possible. My goal is the fall to open. With regular classes for adults, who can come in in the morning, have someone who can help them with the accelerated reading and digital literacy.

Have more book clubs come through the library. Book clubs are a great way to help literacy, because you’re understanding what’s going on in the book. Just programs like that are just things that most, if not all, libraries around the country offer that I feel like, maybe we’re just too busy to have to hunt down. And I want to help promote them in this community. Cuz it’s tough out here, ya know?

Though it may be tough out here, Craig Gill-Walker and the Richmond Public Library are here to help. You can help too, and the North Avenue Library is open and ready for it. You can drop book and board game donations off at 2901 North Ave, Richmond, VA 23222. If you live in Northside (or not) and would like to volunteer to help with digital and conventional literacy, call the library and discuss the eligible time frames for you and a pupil.

Support your public library, it’s the only reason I’m writing this article.

George Wethington

George Wethington

George Wethington is a master of the interviewing process and a connoisseur of collegiate admissions. He likes to spend time in nature. It is his nature.

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