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The Library Wars

The D.C. public library system -- an ugly monument to municipal indifference, the decline of civic involvement and the dominance of anti-intellectualism in far too much of urban America -- has been a horror show for decades. The buildings are sinking into disrepair with every passing year. The staff, despite some stellar librarians who fight for quality against all odds, includes far too many leftovers from the Barry years who have no business working around books. The board that runs the library system has, until recently, shown little interest in pushing the system up into the bottom tier of American libraries. Yes, I said up into the bottom tier, because the system as it exists now is so dysfunctional, so lacking in advocates either among its users or the larger public, that it can barely be called a collection of libraries. It is instead a series of rotting buildings with books that haven't been updated or replenished since mid-century, physical plants that are as ill-kept as Soviet facilities in the 1980s, and an attitude toward the community it's supposed to serve that makes other D.C. agencies seem like a corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley.

And now the fix is purportedly at hand...

After spending a load of cash and many months visiting other libraries around the country, the leaders of Mayor Anthony Williams' task force on the library system is ready to report on its plan. Sort of. The panel this week begins a series of ten public "listening sessions," which sadly are the latest in the Williams administration's efforts to look like they are holding public hearings, when actually they are merely pretending to do so. These sessions , which start tonight at Washington Highlands branch library, were hastily arranged and are taking place before anyone around town has had a chance to look at the task force's report. Indeed, before Dorothy Brizill of D.C. Watch pushed them into releasing their report, the task force intended to keep the document tucked out of public sight.

But now that it's here-- there's a one-page summary here -- we can see that the task force, led by former D.C. Control Board chief John Hill and longtime Georgetown developer Richard Levy, intends to build a new central library downtown to replace the Martin Luther King library, wants to refurbish all of the branch buildings, and seeks to remake the libraries as computer-rich centers for improving literacy, lifelong learning and homework help. There is precious little attention paid to providing a deep collection of books for research. Rather, this is a video-age vision of a library, with lots of technology and a heavy emphasis on remedial services for those who have not learned well in school.

That latter goal is all well and good--indeed, it hits directly at one of Washington's most pressing problems, the dearth of literacy in far too many neighborhoods. But the task force seeks to build up the libraries in those functions at the expense of the traditional role of the library as the window to discovery and the gateway to the life of the mind. Countless great Americans in almost every field have written lovesongs to the public libraries of their youths, to places where they escaped the narrowness of their homes and schools, discovering intellectual riches.

The task force has an expansive view of the library's new purpose in a high-tech age:

People use public libraries to: get homework help and support their formal educational efforts; learn to read; pick up a best seller, a DVD or CD; browse for new and classic publications; experience the joy of story hours; obtain information for themselves for personal and business pursuits; learn how to use a computer; access the Internet; get away from it all; be around other people; attend programs; view art and other exhibits; participate in meetings; engage in group or individual learning activities; read newspapers and magazines; or just relax.

But the report is shockingly complacent about the condition of the libraries and their ability to serve the city's residents. Far more accurate and compelling accounts of the libraries' conditions can be found from Ralph Nader's Renaissance Library Project and from stories we published in the Post a few years ago. (The original Post series from May 29, 2002 is apparently no longer on our site.)

Sadly, the D.C. libraries board, the task force, the Friends of the Library group and the Nader project do not get along. Not that this is a shock in D.C. government, but the squabbling and mutual suspicions threaten to undermine a vital and urgent effort to fix something that should never have been allowed to deteriorate to this extent.

Will any of the mayoral candidates make the libraries a top priority? Hardly likely. Will the city's residents rally around an institution that has served them so poorly? Why would they? Support for this project will come only from non-profits and individuals who understand what libraries can do to lift people out of desperate and unfortunate circumstances, and from visionaries within the government who finally realize how far down the library system has been permitted to spiral. Public pressure will help, but it cannot be brought to bear through cynical ventures like these "listening sessions." Only a real effort to show the city's residents what they are missing and what the D.C. libraries can be would help spark such support.

In recent months, the city has shut down four branch libraries with little prospect of their reopening. Not one of those neighborhoods rose up in protest. Perhaps the only way to make people notice and care would be to take one of those neighborhoods and give it a model, contemporary library, just as a taste of what could be. People around the rest of the city would take notice. A little jealousy could go a long way.

By Marc Fisher |  January 17, 2006; 1:31 PM ET
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I usually read Marc because his observations on DC are sharp and thoughtful. But, I don't understand why his column heading is "Salmonella-Laced Tidbits Selected Just for You". That's like fingernails on the blackboard. Perhaps editors think we all need to have ironical-hipster-cynic bloggy things to get us to pay attention, but we don't.

Posted by: P. Walters | January 17, 2006 3:57 PM

I'm sorry to say that I am not very surprised that the closing of neighborhood libraries has not been widely protested. One of the major themes that I have noticed during my time as an ANC commissioner is that, what should be treasured public assets, have been and are being allowed to fall into such disrepair that they are devalued in the community's eyes. This is often followed by the lease, outright sale, or some other sort of privatization of those assets, often in what appear to be political or insider deals. Shame.

Posted by: Mark | January 17, 2006 4:09 PM

Your column is on point except for one major comment I take issue with. I've been an employee for more than twenty years with the library system, and although there are a number of workers with an "I'm just here to collect a paycheck" attitude, the vast majority of employees in the system care deeply about the library's collection and the public we serve. To be so dismissive of the majority of the library's 400+ workers is unfair, and dare I say, mean-spirited. I personally love my job and public service, as do most of my colleagues. We can only play the hand we are dealt. Library employee's have been clamoring for years for funds to improve the collection and the physical buildings, yet this city still spends less per capita on the library's budget than practically any comparable city in the United States. My question to the task force is "where is the 450 million coming from when so little has been invested up to this point?". And no real desire on the part of the District government to improve our system has been shown before; that is until the recent real estate boom, which makes the value of a lot of the property the libraries sit on that much higher, and also makes one wonder why four branches were shut down long before any real plan was in place to replace them.

Posted by: t | January 17, 2006 6:58 PM

Excellent question--the rush to close those branches and dispose of their holdings was as mysterious as it was unseemly.

I do recognize the talent and drive of many library employees, but I hear from a good many of them and their first point is almost always that the system is undermined by an outrageous number of workers who do not have any interest in library work and ought not be there.

Posted by: Fisher | January 17, 2006 9:03 PM

Excellent timely column, thank you! it's for stuff like this that I look at the Post.

Posted by: Gutting | January 18, 2006 8:15 PM

I skimmed parts of the mayor's task force's report: what a joke of boiler plating. They recommend across the board, one size fits all solutions including new, single story branch libraries throughout the system, further, located at the center of the community they serve, with plenty parking. Did these dodos actually visit any of the neighborhoods currently served by branch libraries? If they had they would have noticed current branches (some historic Carnegie ones) located on tight sites with no open space anywhere close bycalling out for suburban-like branches. How can we take these 'recommendations' seriously? They have no basis in reality.

Posted by: j.capen | January 20, 2006 11:52 AM

You paint a bleak picture of the District's Library system.

You can throw every arrow in your quiver at the problem (put together a surreal $450 million budget, replace the entire Library management, do something about a union that seems to promote anything except customer service), but if, as you seem to suggest, the community doesn't see the importance of a vital public library, why would anyone bother?

In light of this perceived apathy, has anyone seriously proposed just doing away with the District's Library system?

Perhaps its assets could be distributed across the District and each library building could be run by the community to offer the Library services they want.

Sort of like the charter schools.

This way, community that cherishes reading can manage a library that focuses on buying books (imagine that!), communities that value technology, can tear down bookshelves and put it lots of computers, and communities that rely on foreign-born nannies to raise their children can ask their libraries to offer lots of ESL programs.

Without having to serve the diverse gamut of needs in the District, each Library can make its meager resources go further. I'm not sure from where would come the resources needed to sustain these resources, but charter schools manage, so why couldn't these?

Just a thought.

Posted by: Bibliophile | January 20, 2006 12:24 PM

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