D.C. Libraries: Ready for Their Makeover, Yet Stuck in Neutral
Ginnie Cooper, the energetic and optimistic new chief of the District's sadly neglected public library system, says she knew exactly what she was getting into.
"I could work 80 hours a week for 100 years and still have things left to be done," she says of the sorry state of a library system that suffers from startlingly low book circulation, dilapidated buildings, a thin collection, insufficient support from the District government, and a lack of popular consensus over how to fix the system or where to put new resources.
Depending on whether you share Cooper's optimism or prefer to focus on the deep troubles of the system, you could frame the city's library story in one of two ways:
---The positive spin would emphasize the fact that Cooper has already opened two of the long-promised interim branch libraries to replace the four branches that were shut down more than two years ago in a bizarre bit of political grandstanding designed to show that the system was on the road to recovery. ("In hindsight," Cooper says, "I don't think there's a person who doesn't think it was a mistake" to close those branches without permanent replacements ready for construction to start.) The other two interim branches, in Shaw and Benning Road, are set to open in June. Already, the Anacostia interim branch is a big success, with 431 people getting new library cards in the first three weeks of its existence--that's almost double the number of new cards issued at any other branch in the city that month.
--The other side of the coin pictures the totally-unresolved future of the main downtown Martin Luther King library, as both Mayor Adrian Fenty and the new Council seem to have abandoned ex-Mayor Tony Williams' plan to make a new central library the focal point of the redevelopment of the old Convention Center site. And the permanent branches to replace the four shuttered libraries are still stuck in the early planning stage, thanks in part to an unresolved debate over the role that public-private partnerships should play in the funding and building of new facilities.
Cooper professes to be largely agnostic on that crucial question, and the D.C. library trustees last week approved a new policy that's neither here nor there. "While the Board of Library Trustees acknowledges the potential value of mixed-use projects, at this time DCPL will not solicit mixed-use project [sic]," the policy reads. "However, it will evaluate unsolicited proposals from other city agencies as well as private developers where there is demonstrated community interest and potential benefits to both DCPL and the community." Weaselly enough for you? (Cooper at least seems open to a proposal for a public-private partnership at the Tenleytown branch, though not at Benning Road.)
With guidance like that from her bosses, Cooper can only muddle through, and luckily, she seems committed to doing just that. She's quick to point out that she--and she didn't say this, but I should add: unlike our former mayor--has actually bought a house here. She intends to make this work. It is rough going: "It's hard to recruit people to this library because it doesn't have a good national reputation," she says. She cannot pay for potential employees to visit the city or for them to move here, and the library is still captive to the District's woeful procurement system.
Still, she's proud that she is about to sign a deal to position a bookmobile near the burned-out Georgetown branch as a temporary measure; she'd like to find a storefront for an interim library to serve that neighborhood for several years before the fire-swept library can be rebuilt, but given the expense and lack of available properties in Georgetown, that sounds like a real longshot.
Cooper wants the new branches to show Washingtonians how dramatically libraries have changed in the many decades since the District was in the library-building business. The new branches are likely to include coffee shops, reading areas where you can actually sip a drink and talk, extensive computer services, and light, airy architecture. Now that a new central library appears not to be in the cards, Cooper is trying to make the King Library usable. She's replaced all the ceiling lights in the dank and gloomy lobby and repaired elevators that hadn't been working in five or more years. And she'd love to do something about the weird temperature swings in the Mies van der Rohe-designed building (Cooper's office in the building often feels like its thermostat is set at 120 degrees, she says.)
The D.C. libraries are about to get some national attention, as the American Library Association holds its convention in Washington in late June. As part of that gathering, the trade magazine Library Journal will donate an interior makeover of one D.C. branch, the 85-year-old Southeast Branch, which will get new furniture, a new floor plan, renovated bathrooms, shelving, new ceiling, and books and computers too.
Cooper says she is "mostly having fun. I don't think it's a done deal yet that we're on our way. But I hope so." And then she added, "I want this to be the library the District deserves," and her voice caught on her passion as she said those words. A librarian who gets choked up about how libraries can transform lives is precisely what this city needs.
By Marc Fisher |
May 31, 2007; 7:43 AM ET
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