Library Darts and Laurels
More than two years ago, the District, in its infinite wisdom, shut down four neighborhood libraries. The libraries had been neglected and looked shabby, but they had books and computers and valuable resources for kids and adults. But the city said they had to go because spanking new branch libraries were all ready to be built for those four communities--Anacostia, Shaw, Benning Road and Tenleytown.
Of course, the new libraries were never built. Their designs were never even approved. And the neighborhoods have gone without any libraries. The old buildings sit padlocked or surrounded by chain link fence, monuments to colossal failure on the part of the city.
Now, there are signs of both progress and further dysfunction in the District's troubled library system. In Tenleytown, the one neighborhood among the four that has the least urgent need for a library (seeing as how it is by far the most affluent of the four areas, and is sandwiched between decent libraries in Cleveland Park and Chevy Chase), the city has opened an interim library. It's a small storefront, but the inside is brightly lighted, comfortable and reasonably well-attended. There aren't exactly a whole lot of what we used to call "books" in this interim library, and on my most recent visit Saturday, ten of the 25 computer terminals were blocked off with signs declaring them to be ailing or otherwise unavailable, but it's something.
And that's a whole lot more than the other neighborhoods have, which would be...nothing. The Anacostia interim branch, which library director Ginnie Cooper had promised would be open by the end of 2006, isn't. But it's at least nearing completion. The other two interim branches are not yet close enough even to have an opening date.
If the new interim library is any sign of what D.C.'s new libraries will eventually look like, I'm not sure it's worth the wait. This facility is very heavy on pop culture--lots of new Hollywood movies on DVD, with barely a single classic film in the bunch. A heavy concentration on bestsellers and pulp fiction, again with awfully few of the classics that you'd turn to a library for. The reference section is very sparse (a single World Book encyclopedia, a few basic business references, not a whole lot more.) The periodicals section has a sign saying that the newspapers and magazines are on order but haven't started coming in yet. The children's nook is pleasant and inviting, but the three parents on hand Saturday afternoon were complaining about how few chapter books are stocked. The emphasis instead is on computers, certainly an essential service for libraries these days, but not the end-all and be-all. The library's own press material on the interim branch boasts of "a retail look and feel," as if that were a good thing; I guess the D.C. library has given up on the bookish, quiet, lush sensibility--the warm, welcoming atmosphere found at its own classic branch buildings in Petworth, Georgetown, or Takoma--that has stood libraries in such good stead for hundreds of years.
Circulation in the D.C. system was pathetic and sinking even before this wholesale dumbing-down of the collection. From 2002 to 2005, according to the system's own reports, circulation dropped eight percent systemwide and a stunning 32 percent at the central library downtown. Compared to other systems around the country, according to the American Library Association, the District's circulation rate of 1.9 items per capita per year is shockingly below the U.S. average of nine items per person.
Mayor Adrian Fenty's 100-Day Plan promises that by the end of March, he will "announce the locations of the four storefront libraries and expedite procurement of construction for the four permanent neighborhood libraries." We're almost midway toward that deadline, with no apparent progress.
And far from making any move toward going ahead with the new central library that was one of Anthony Williams' last big projects as mayor, the new leadership of the city seems cool to that concept. And the new boss of the library system seems downright uninterested in the idea that gummed up progress on replacing the four shuttered neighborhood branches--whether to fund those new projects by partnering with developers on mixed-use retail/residential projects on the new library sites.
At a recent community meeting in Cleveland Park, libraries director Cooper said the system might go along with such mixed-use plans, but would not lead the way in that direction. The vision for a revived branch library system that would be intimately connected with the communities it serves is dying fast: In Marshall Heights, the community development corporation that proposed to build affordable housing over the new Benning branch library building now under design has caved in to pressure from some anti-development residents and withdrawn its plan. "It appears that the community is not in support of this project, therefore, we are going to keep our word and bend to the will of the community," project manager Kahlil Gross said in a letter to residents.
That kind of setback is becoming routine for library director Cooper. According to an account by Ed Cowan, a former New York Times correspondent who now writes a neighborhood newsletter on city affairs, Cooper told the audience that she has "learned a lot" in her first months on the job, including the fact that "just about every system in the library, and in the city, is designed to make it hard to make change." Among the obstacles, she said, are the structures governing library procurement, finances and personnel.
Cooper has achieved Sunday opening hours for the libraries, an excellent move. And she's intent on making the downtown Martin Luther King building more attractive, even if it is doomed as a central library. Watch for a Starbucks-style coffee facility to open there, along with other improvements.
But the city remains at sea over the future, purpose and function of its libraries, and as that struggle continues, the District's readers--and more important, its non-readers--suffer the consequences.
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