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The Vote: A New DC Library?

In the waning days of Anthony Williams' mayoralty, several of his most ambitious projects are hurtling toward one resolution or another. The standoff over how to develop the land surrounding the new baseball stadium appears to have been resolved in favor of expediency, with little regard for how the neighborhood might blossom. The District finally pulled off the land swap that could soon result in another new stadium along the Anacostia River, this one for the DC United soccer team. A rewrite of the city's basic planning document may yet be approved, cementing Williams' vision of a city with a denser population and more retail and residential development around Metro stations.

And today, a committee of the D.C. Council is set to vote on one of the mayor's most controversial proposals--vacate the city's main downtown library and build a new, state-of-the-art library on the site of the old convention center.

At the moment, it looks like a 3-2 vote and it's anybody's guess which side will prevail. But if three council members from the group of Kathy Patterson, Marion Barry, Carol Schwartz, Phil Mendelson and Vincent Gray can put the interests of the city and its current and future library users first, they'll go for the mayor's plan. (Patterson and Gray are considered likely Yes votes, Schwartz is opposed, and the other two will make this interesting right up to the moment of the vote. My money's on the former mayor-for-life, The Situationist himself, to cast the deciding vote in favor of the project.)

Here's what's at stake: The development of a big, extremely valuable and important space in the center of the city. A failed and embarrassing library system in a city that desperately needs a new way to make a real difference in the lives of children who are poorly served by public schools, as well as in the lives of the unconscionably large number of adults who lack functional literacy. And an opportunity to join other American cities that are discovering how central libraries can take advantage of the Internet age to become a public gathering space in a time when too many people live ever more atomized lives.

The old convention center site has been slated from the start for a public use. A plan for a National Music Center appears to have faded away, but the idea of a new central library as part of the redevelopment has gained strength. The site plan now calls for about 700 housing units, 20 percent of them reserved for low and middle income families; offices; an open plaza; retail space; and the library. Schwartz wants to give over the library piece of the land to more commercial development, which is always a worthy goal in a city that is woefully short on retailing (and definitely needs the tax revenue).

But great downtowns also need people magnets that serve a deeper purpose than shopping. Such improvements can attract the foot traffic that could then support more and better retail outlets. There is both economic and social wisdom behind the notion of mixed use development, and the experience in other cities is that the new breed of central libraries bring together people of all social and economic strata.

Some defenders of the old Martin Luther King library site on G Street NW say it would be cheaper to renovate that sadly neglected building, and it would keep an important institution in a historic piece of architecture, the black box designed by Mies van der Rohe. But the famous architect always thought of buildings such as the King Library as spaces that could be used for almost any purpose, and there's interest in converting the MLK Library to offices, museum space or some combination of private and public functions. What it's clearly not suited for is to support the many functions--study space, reading, performance space, meeting halls, social gathering spot--that a modern library fulfills.

Nobody is calling for the MLK building to be torn down; under every proposal out there, it would be preserved and renovated.

For many people, this choice comes down to money. It's always hard to find anything approximating truth in studies comparing the costs of public policy actions, and especially in this case, where the relevant studies were conducted by or for groups with a vested interest in one or another outcome. But the estimates the District has come up with say that a new library and a renovation of the old would each cost about $290 million, or half a baseball stadium. And it's a given in the money-raising business that it's much easier to raise cash for a new project than it is for a rehab of an old building.

As the council's committee on education, libraries and recreation reports in its study of the library decision, the relatively close cost figures for the two options mean that the choice should be based on which facility would support the most ambitious and creative programs. That makes this a slam dunk for a new downtown library. The transformation of Washington during the Williams years is by no means complete, and there are important gaps in his overall list of accomplishments, but this mayor will go down in history as one of the most visionary leaders of a big city during this period, and a new central library would be a crowning achievement indeed--and a chance to have a real impact on the yawning and unacceptable gap in success that keeps Washington a divided city.

By Marc Fisher |  November 21, 2006; 7:22 AM ET
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As a person with a PhD in Library Science and more than 30 years experience in Libraries, I support a new library building. The function and role of libraries has changed enough to make this necessary. However, we have learned from the other library that maintenance and support is as important as a brand new building. We need trained staff and maintenance money for the future. Any good plan will have provisions for both or at least funding from the private sector to support future use.

Then we will have a library the nation can be proud of.

Posted by: Gary Masters | November 21, 2006 8:46 AM

$290 million to build or to renovate? Maybe they could get another bid and then use some of the savings to maintain it when its done...

Posted by: jan | November 21, 2006 9:27 AM

Should be interesting to follow this debate as so many people against the new baseball team screamed about schools and libraries being neglected. Will those same people scream and yell about $290 million for this project just because they like to scream and yell? Or will people actually get behind a project to help raise the city's median quality of life instead of continuing to cater to the least common denominator?

Posted by: ryan | November 21, 2006 9:32 AM

I certainly agree about the need for a new library--both central and the branches. My local branch, in Chevy Chase, is in pathetic shape.

After the gazillions of our tax dollars being poured in the maw of professional baseball (which can and should support itself), civic refusal to spend half as much on a public library would indeed be pathetic. I would rather see my city taxes go toward libraries than baseball, but since that decision was already made, the least we can do is spend at least some of our money responsibly.

Posted by: Phil | November 21, 2006 10:02 AM

I screamed and yelled about the stadium because it seemed to me like the money DC would have earned from concessions at a cheaply renovated RFK would have paid for a new library.

Now the concessions at the new stadium will pay for the bonds to build it, and we'll have to borrow more money to pay for a new library.

Seattle and San Francisco are both losing major league sports teams over their populations' unwillingness to use tax money for new stadiums. And I bet they have nicer libraries than DC has or will have, too.

Posted by: Jim in DC | November 21, 2006 10:09 AM

I'd much rather we have a better library, preferably in a new building. The van der Rohe building can and should be made a viable private building, if for no other reason than to help people forget about the disastrous library it once housed.

We desperately need a revamped DC library system. I live a few minutes' walk from my branch library and, even though it's been renovated recently, it has horrible hours. What good is a library to a community -- and especially to the thousands of children in our neighborhood -- if it closes at 5:30 in the afternoon four days a week?

Posted by: dirrtysw | November 21, 2006 10:34 AM

What makes anyone think that this library will see any more use than the old one (or others in the city)? It will just become an expensive shell for a severly underfunded program, and a de facto shelter for the homeless. Just like the old library.

I'd much rather the old convention center space be used in a way to draw more people into the city. A library won't do it.

Posted by: NW | November 21, 2006 10:48 AM

I have a lot of problems with the Mayor's effort to replace MLK, but there are a couple that stand out. First of all, the current advocates of a new central library were largely silent when the Mayor was cutting the budget for the libraries and turning the city's adult literacy program into a pet project of UDC. The fact that they have missed every deadline that they set for themselves to replace the four branch libraries they closed also weakens my confidence in getting this much more complicated fiscal and physical project done. Almost half of the money for a new library is supposed to come from philanthropy and Federal funds, none of which have shown up yet. It is becoming clear that the plans for a new library cannot work, although we will have leased the MLK building by the time we realize it.

Posted by: pleasant | November 21, 2006 11:05 AM

Building a new Martin Luther King Jr. Library sounds like a good idea. So does rebuilding four branch libraries. And there's the rub: unfortunately, the library has a credibility problem. In 2004 four branches were closed for rebuilding. After the community was presented with 100% designs for new state-of-the-art libraries, the project appeared to come to an abrupt halt. No libraries were rebuilt. Not a brick was removed. No libraries reopened. Instead the District ended up with four derelict eyesores.

Is is prudent to let the library risk 300 million dollars for a new main library before it's made good on its commitment for the four new branches? As decrepit and disheveled as the Martin Luther King Library is, it's still too essential an asset to risk being in mothballs indefinitely because of another botched construction project.

The land for the proposed main library is now a parking lot. Clearly there's been no urgency to redevelop it. Why rush now to commit to a legacy for an outgoing mayor? He's been in office for 8 years and had chance enough to revitalize the library. Why burden the next administration with an initiative that he clearly didn't prioritize himself?

Now it's Fenty's turn to try, if he cares to. He's blessed with a new library director who could do wonders to reverse decades of neglect and undercapitalized attempts to rejuvenate the ailing library system. Give this new director a chance to show that this rundown system can indeed turn around; then let her have at $300 million to make some magic happen. God speed!

Posted by: Saying my prayers but not holding my breath | November 21, 2006 11:05 AM

When I moved into the city, one of my first stops was the MLK library. I've not seen anything more depressing since.

How about selling the land to developers and using that money to help build the new one?

Posted by: Ron | November 21, 2006 11:06 AM

I remain angry and disillusioned that the library folks are so short-sighted as to reject lucrative cooperation from developers to make vibrant branch libraries in buildings that contain housing and retail too. What is a city about? There are very few places in the city that redevleoping should be done with one-or two-story standalone buildings. We simply cannot afford it. Perhaps that is why the board has stood still for two years after closing the branches -- they're trying to turn themselves around to a point of view they have opposed for no practical reason. I favor a new library downtown, with the MLK building leased to provide revenue. But I decry the plan for the branches. The library board and the branches -- as well as the NIMBY neighborhoods -- must grow up.

Posted by: Sharon | November 21, 2006 11:33 AM

I worry that in the rush to insert a library into a mixed-use building on the old convention center site that we're going to end up with a main library that's stuck in the basement of a larger structure (i.e., something worse than what we have now). It's not like DC has a great track record of negotiating with developers over projects like this.

Posted by: Moose | November 21, 2006 11:38 AM

Is there any reason to believe that a new and better main library would make an appreciable difference to the quality of education in the District or teach many illiterate adults to read? I doubt it. It would be a better library for people who use libraries. That is a worthy thing, but you vastly overstate the likely benefit here.

Posted by: Stan Horowitz | November 21, 2006 12:33 PM

Public-Private partnerships such as was successfully implemented with the Oyster School in Woodley Park should be the model for certain branch libraries around DC, such as in Tenleytown.

Posted by: Maia | November 21, 2006 12:36 PM

It won't happen, but what about this:

Our schools, including their libraries, are in desperate need. Rather than have two parallel library systems, one for the schools and one for everybody else, why not strengthen the schools' libraries and use them also as public libraries. There would need to be some accommodations made to allow public access to the school buildings, but consider the advantages:

1. More efficient use of tax dollars.
2. Better quality libraries.
3. The libraries are put where people and students need them -- in their neighborhoods, not downtown.
4. People in the community develop a greater stake in, and involvement with, their schools.
5. Instead of an expensive central library for research purposes, cut a deal with the Library of Congress -- a resource other big cities don't have -- for access for DC residents, and transfer some of the DC libarary's research holdings to the L of C to the extent feasible. Duplicate material can be sold off.
6. Maximize the revenue/tourist potential of a downtown site more suited to commerce than to libraries.

But it won't happen. And, in light of that fact, I would be in favor of a new central library after the branches are fixed and after we start seeing improvement in our schools. Not before. Because what we could end up with is a $250 million homeless shelter and nothing to show for it anywhere else.

Posted by: Meridian | November 21, 2006 1:09 PM

1. "Public access to the school buildings" is a bad idea, unsafe for students.

2. School libraries also are and should be designed for children. Not all content available at your public library should be available at your public school.

3. I think part of school improvement IS a good central library system. It's appalling the number of children who think they can do all of their research online.

4. DC absolutely needs a central library befitting a capital city.

Posted by: mizbinkley | November 21, 2006 1:59 PM

If anybody thinks DC public school students are going to schlep downtown to use the library they are fooling themselves.

Library of Congress, the largest library in the world, accessible to all with great metro access, is not exactly awash with DC public school students clamoring to use it regularly. Why would we think a DC central library downtown would be any different.

Better to invest in neighborhood libraries.

And in the age of everything being on the internet, the suggestion that a main downtown library will be a main front in educating city youth is probably not a sustainable idea.

And a new library is only as good as it's employees. If you have rude, surly employees then the library experience will still suck, even if it's brand spanking new.

Posted by: Hillman | November 21, 2006 2:27 PM

Hillman writes: "And in the age of everything being on the internet, the suggestion that a main downtown library will be a main front in educating city youth is probably not a sustainable idea."

I guess it's also appalling the number of ADULTS who think they can do all of their research online.

FYI: The Library of Congress doesn't want kids there, so they can clamour or not all they want.

Posted by: mizbinkley | November 21, 2006 2:36 PM

I want to echo the concerns shared here by several that DCPL is not equiped to build a new central library when it cannot even rebuild four branch libraries. What I would like to suggest is that Adrian fenty look outside of the box for a completely new colution... lets forgoe a downtown central library and distribute the collections into the community where they can be used more effectively to educate and empower residents.

Open a business library downtown (like NYPL's SYBL), place collections in underutilized libraries or excess school spaces and place the "central office" functions in warehouse spaces along NY Avenue. We currently waste a ton of money on grand offices downtown for catalogers, maintenance managers, and storage... how can that make any sense???

Focus on the residents and you'll get a much better library system that shows real success. Building an edifice will leave the city poorer in more than just money.

Posted by: libleader | November 21, 2006 3:06 PM

I just want to say how sad I am that this issue is left to a columnist like Mr. Fisher instead of to the investigative journalists that the Post used to have. Instead of reporting, we get a knee-jerk opinion based on Mr. Fisher's hatred of the activists that try and keep this community's public servants honest.

I pity the folks that depend on the Post for news... when all they get is columnists that spout off like Marc. Your function is no service to the community, Mr. Fisher, and I hope you know how discouraging it is that your employers leave important issues of the future of DC to you and your opinion.

Posted by: Circleresident | November 21, 2006 3:11 PM

The city needs a new central library, although it does not have to be huge or elaborate. The current library is an architectural disaster, regardless of what historians may think, and very unpleasasnt to visit. The claustrophobia inducing stairs make you feel like you are vulnerable to assault, and the bathrooms make you feel like you need a shower just for walking in. People will go to a central library if it provides a clean, friendly space. Why are book stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble usually mobbed, even though you have to buy the books? Because the space is inviting! The same can be true of a library, be it a central or neighborhood location. It is a shame that the main library in the capital of the United States would embarrass a third world country.

Posted by: Cerulean | November 21, 2006 3:47 PM

Just in: The council committee scheduled to vote on the central library proposal today met and without any public discussion voted 3-2 to table the plan, meaning that it won't be considered again at least until the new Council convenes next year.
Vince Gray (Ward 7), Carol Schwartz (At Large), and Marion Barry (Ward 8) voted to table the proposal. Kathy Patterson (Ward 3) and Phil Mendelson (At Large) voted in favor of the central library project. For about 20 minutes prior to the vote, Schwartz and Barry met with Gray in Gray's office.

Posted by: Fisher | November 21, 2006 4:04 PM

I stand corrected on my point about Library of Congress. From the link provided by another poster, they clearly discourage high school student use. I was not aware of that.

But I do stand by my internet point. The vast majority of high-school level research can be carried out from internet-based searches and resources, supplemented by school libraries and resources.

I'll admit I'm not a daily library user, in large part because nearly every time I have a basic research question the internet has been sufficient.

But the times I've been to DC's downtown library (mess that it is), it's hardly been overrun by DC public school students. A new one won't be either.

Posted by: Hillman | November 21, 2006 4:48 PM

i've worked for the library system for more than twenty years, and this is one of the few things williams has proposed (i'm not much of a fan of the current mayor) that i'm not against. but, this city has neglected the present library system forever! what's to say a wonderful new building won't be crumbling down in short order as well. i hope there's an ongoing maintenance plan in place as well, before the building begins.

Posted by: t | November 21, 2006 5:38 PM

Fisher - Thanks for the posting on what happened on the library issue. You and the developers will be unhappy of this vote but I think that this terrific news! We need to have the Martin Luther King library fixed, repaired and updated, not turned over to another outside interest. We need to keep the name and spirit of MLK alive in DC. We need to maintain out public buildings and allow people the wonderful opportunity to learn via visiting the MLK central library.

You know, there are some people who don't believe we need a central library. They are some of the same people who say we are winning in Iraq and that the war was a good thing, even if they had it to do all over again.

Put a new super market at the new convention site. That will help create a living downtown and it will generate revenue. People gotta eat.

Posted by: Paul | November 22, 2006 12:57 AM

Do not bother subscribing to the Washington Post if you live in Lexington Park, MD.

I have not had a paper delivered for the last two weeks, the delivery subcontractor does not acknowledge or return phone calls, and neither does the Washington Post.

Don't waste your money paying for a product not delivered.

Posted by: Don't Bother | November 22, 2006 9:36 AM

I would like to respond to Mizbinkley's points, which took issue with my post recommending consolidation of most neighborhood libraries with school libraries rather than investment in a new central library:

"1. Public access to the school buildings" is a bad idea, unsafe for students."

Obviously, security arrangements and in some cases physcial changes would need to be made to school buildings. It would be cheaper than building new libraries, though. And we allow public access to schools for voting. Properly supervised, more adults in the schools might make them safer. As it is now, at least in the high schools, it sounds like the adults are outnumbered by the students and are struggling to keep control.

"2. School libraries also are and should be designed for children. Not all content available at your public library should be available at your public school."

If that is so, your next point makes no sense. If we want to send the kids to the public library, where you would place the content that they supposedly shouldn't see, then what's the difference in bringing that content into the school? And just because content is in the school building doesn't mean it has to be available to all kids -- some can be restricted to adults, just as is currently the case in many public libraries.

"3. I think part of school improvement IS a good central library system. It's appalling the number of children who think they can do all of their research online."

In a perfect world, I agree. But in DC"s world of limited dollars and decrepit schools, I say put the money in the schools and then get more bang for the buck by making those facilities more widely available.

"4. DC absolutely needs a central library befitting a capital city."

This is one of those "status" arguments to which one resorts when all else fails. And if you want to make comparisons with capital cities, the apt comparison is with London's British Library and Paris's Bibliotheque National, not their municipal libraries. Our entry in that contest: The Library of Congress. I would also add that more energy, and perhaps some money, might be put into making the libraries of the cities major universities available to DC high school students, thus overcoming the L of C's aversion to kids. Those universities are nonprofits and receivee significant government aid. We are not without leverage.

Finally, while it is true that not every research project can be accomplished online, more and more can, and the amount is growing exponentially. We should look to maximize that potential before investing in a huge bricks and mortar project.

Posted by: Meridian | November 22, 2006 9:49 AM

A response to Meridian:
1. "We allow public access to schools for voting."
-Yes, and the schools are closed then. We do not allow public access during the school day with children there. Public libraries by their very nature are well, open to the public. I don't want every pedophile or criminal, for example, to have access to children in school. It simple isn't safe. Any system to make it safe would involve turning people away from a public library or keeping the library separate from the school. Which seems to be not your point.

2. Regarding content that should not be available in schools: Probably the best example is the internet. Schools use filtering software to limit exposure to inappropriate sexual content. I think this is appropriate in a school but not in a public library. Yes, children could also see inappropriate content in a library but I consider this an acceptable risk to allow adults access to this content.

3. "I say put the money in the schools and then get more bang for the buck by making those facilities more widely available"
-Again, I reject the premise that you can turn school libraries into public libraries.

4. The Library of Congress is not a public library. Are the British Library and and the Bibliotheque National public?

5. Regarding your suggestion to make major universities libraries available to DC high school students, I think that's an excellent idea.

Online Research: it is absolutely possible to do all of your research online. My point is that you shouldn't. There is a wealth of books, articles and primary source documents not available online. If nothing else, children need to learn these research skills before they go off to college.

These skills are so important that teachers often mandate that projects can only cite a certain number of reference sources like encyclopedias, a certain number of websites, and require a certain number of primary source citations.

Posted by: mizbinkley | November 22, 2006 11:28 AM

It is not possible to do all research online simply because not all research relies on the equivalent of looking up a fact in an encyclopedia. And much of what is posted on the Internet is not reliable. Although I am not a teacher, I imagine teachers have to do a great deal of work in educating students about what constitutes reliable Internet data, how to separate useable sources from bad ones, and so forth.

Moreover, not all books ever published have been digitized. And there are copyright issues that block a lot of information from being available online. You can learn a lot from books that only are available in a library. I remember reading Paul Murray Kendall's beautifully written The Yorkist Age while I was a senior in high school. Nothing available online so vividly and effectively captures daily life in 15th century England as that book, which was published in 1963. There are many out of print books with content that remains useful that you only can access for free by going to a public library.

As to the Library of Congress, according to its chief, it "serves as the research arm of Congress." Its collection includes many rare books, more so than a regular public library which, when it loses books can more readily replace them than could the LOC. The nature of its collections, and its proximity to the Capitol, require tight security. I used the Library of Congress when I was doing my graduate studies. Back then, if you were a grad student, you could get a stack pass and even a desk in the stacks. Those days are long gone, now. Security was tightened well before 9/11. As I recall, the Library discovered some thefts (wasn't it a case where photos or maps were removed from some rare books or folios?) well before then and closed the stack areas to researchers around 1992.

Under certain circumstances, high school students can use materials at the Library of Congress. See
Of course, for them, as for the rest of the general public, items can only be used while you are in the public reading room. Unlike in public libraries, materials do not circulate; you cannot check them out. That in itself makes the Library of Congress different from your public library.

Posted by: Interested observer | November 22, 2006 3:04 PM


The sentence which included the phrase "wasn't it a case where photos or maps were removed from some rare books or folios" should read prints rather than photos. I didn't re-read it carefully enough before posting. I haven't looked up the news stories but my recollection is that the books from which items were removed were old, perhaps even predating the earliest use of photography in the 19th century

Posted by: Correction from Interested Observer | November 22, 2006 3:15 PM

I don't live in the District, but I was thinking about DC libraries yesterday as I reread the letters of the late Isaac Asimov in the book "Yours, Isaac Asimov." Asimov was one of Ameria's top science and science-fiction authors and wrote more than 500 books. Here's what made me think about our city's libraries now:

"During my childhood as a member of an ambitious but very poor immigrant family, I did all my reading and obtained nine-tenths of my learning in the public library. It frightens me to think what I might have become--and I might have failed to become--without one."

I don't care what the city does with the library mothership, so much as that the library system as a whole provide good books, long hours, open, safe stacks, and reopened branches. What can all of us in the region do to make that happen? Children's minds are too precious to waste.

Posted by: Fairfax County | November 24, 2006 1:49 PM

I just want to comment about doing research on the you know where to find the best research? Are you using Google effectively? Guess what? A lot of libraries are now teaching advanced research skills. While classes are currently being taught at the current MLK library for new computer users, a new library with a larger computer lab could accomodate more advanced classes. That's what a 21st century library is all about. Oh, and a place to plug in your laptop to use the WiFi. Mies didn't exactly think about how important outlets would be in the future.

Posted by: LG in DC | November 25, 2006 10:15 AM

Why not sell the land to developers for a multi-use "destination" project - upscale shops, hotel, condos - and use the money to rehab the MLK library and make IT a draw as well?

DC has a rare opportunity to turn this prime piece of land into a downtown icon. The location near Metro Center and 395 couldn't be better. Imagine what could could be done if they relaxed the (absolutely silly) height restrictions a bit and for once allowed architects to design and build something that's not the same height and style as everything else around it - with its own Metro access, plus abundant parking to boot.

Developers would BEG for the right to build and people and businesses would pay good money to live and locate in DC's tallest and most distinctive complex.

But I know I'm dreaming, given DC's historic resistance to change. By the time all the "activists" and "leaders" get in their two cents' worth, we'll have just another downtown tissue box whose only claim to fame will be its proximity to Metro.

Posted by: CEEAF | November 27, 2006 6:36 PM

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