Magazine article American Libraries

Capital Improvements: The D.C. Public Library Is Poised to Overcome Decades of Neglect

Magazine article American Libraries

Capital Improvements: The D.C. Public Library Is Poised to Overcome Decades of Neglect

Article excerpt

In a democracy, all sides should be heard. In our nation's capital, the home of our democracy, that determination to allow broad participation in decisions has been an obstacle to moving the District of Columbia Public Library System forward. Other components of the system's longstanding impasse have been the perennial lack of funding committed to the library and what a blue-ribbon report called "revolving leadership" that has led to what some identify as a lack of vision on both the District side and the library side.

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However, a new mayor, a new library director, and input from that blue-ribbon task force point to possibilities for a turnaround of the troubled system. The library has been underfunded for as many as three decades, through administrations of multiple mayors and city councils and several library directors.

The central facility, the 35-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, is deteriorating physically and is inadequate in today's technology-driven world. However, its origins as the only building in the District designed by architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe give it protected status in the eyes of preservationists.

The 27 neighborhood branches, the oldest built in 1911 and the most recent in 1988, are in varying stages of disrepair. Four of them were closed in December 2004 with the promise that they would be rebuilt as models of technology-enhanced library services. That promise has not been fulfilled.

Which should be the first priority: to upgrade, renovate, and replace the neighborhood libraries or to create a new main library? One faction believes that the District deserves a monumental main library. Others point to the fact that the District is chock full of "monuments," so it would be better to concentrate on the neighborhood libraries. Or can both goals be accomplished?

Last year, shortly before his term ended, Mayor Anthony Williams made efforts to convince the city council to vote for a mixed-use complex, including a new main library, on the site of the old convention center, at an estimated cost of $275 million (AL, Sept. 2006, p. 17). To help offset that cost, and to appease the factions that don't want to see the Mies building destroyed, he proposed leasing it to commercial interests for $70 million over 99 years. Some local observers believe that plan will resurface before the end of 2007.

In 2002, after reading a scathing report on the decline of the public library system in the Washington Post, consumer advocate Ralph Nader formed the D.C. Public Library Renaissance Project. In the March 2003 American Libraries (p. 30), he described the District of Columbia in a way that prophesied the difficulties faced by efforts to improve the situation:

"Washington is a city of two layers (local and federal) straddling three jurisdictions (the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland). It is a city tensed between private affluences and public squalor.... But libraries? They should be an easy cause, a ready commitment, an obvious mission."

The project's mission statement proposes "to generate community, political, private, and foundation support to improve the D.C. library system to a world class standard." Nader envisioned a six-month undertaking of grassroots efforts ("people with ladders and paint") to improve the sadly-neglected neighborhood branches. According to Robin Diener, director of the project, the effort was hampered by regulations about gifts and pro bono donations to public institutions in the District of Columbia.

A Nader-sponsored hearing on the libraries in 2003 created great citizen response that resulted in the city council reversing the $1-million cut to the library budget instituted by Mayor Williams and adding $500,000 in capital funds. Today, Nader expresses concern that realtors are involved in policy-making capacities, making decisions about library locations and property use. …

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