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The D.C. Libraries Mess: Four Years And Counting

Four years after the D.C. library system demolished four of its neighborhood branches, promising prompt construction of state-of-the-art replacements, residents finally have some pretty architectural drawings to look at, but little hope of seeing actual functioning libraries anytime soon.

The pictures the library system is now distributing ahead of community meetings in the Benning Road, Tenleytown, Anacostia and Shaw neighborhoods depict variations on glass boxes--a far more transparent and modern feel than the dark, brick facilities that were torn down.

But the architects' work, ambitious though it may be, masks the fact that potential users of those libraries have been given little if any sense of just how the next generation of libraries will differ from what came before, or why a generation that seems to prefer video to reading and Borders-style megastores to public libraries should be expected to use these new D.C. branches.

Robin Diener, who heads Ralph Nader's D.C. Library Renaissance Project, has taken a close look at the plans for the new branches and wonders if this is "really the best we can do, after decades of neglect, after four years of messing around with plans, not to mention lives? Youngsters who entered the seventh grade in 2004 will have gone their entire high school careers without a neighborhood library by the time new ones open in late 2010. Are these the state-of-the-art buildings we were promised? Will they deliver the services communities want and need? Do they even qualify as twenty-first century? The chance to build a new library doesn't come around often -- every half a century or so."

The primary reason for the years of apparent inaction on the libraries front is political: The District transitioned from Anthony Williams to Adrian Fenty and in doing so lost a major advocate for libraries. The last mayor cared deeply about the libraries and wanted to create a new downtown main library as a people magnet and a hub of his revitalization of the center city. Williams put extensive executive energy into remaking the city's sadly neglected libraries. Fenty has merely paid lip service to the need to do something about the rundown Martin Luther King headquarters library downtown.

In the neighborhoods, progress toward replacements for the demolished branches has been slowed by an endless, bitter and unresolved debate over whether and how to embrace the idea of public-private partnerships. The Nader group has been very wary of any involvement with developers who might want to take over library sites and build condos or retail, paying for access to that land by agreeing to carry some of the cost of a new library as part of a larger complex. The new libraries director, Ginnie Cooper, has meanwhile moved ahead with plans for stand-alone libraries.

In the case of the Benning Road branch, a developer proposed a land swap in which the city would get a new library as part of a town center retail and residential development. But the library system basically ignored the proposal and moved ahead with its design for a library only slightly larger than the one the neighborhood lost. There's a good deal of unhappiness among library activists in that area (some of them even sued the city over the planning process, though they lost that case.)

In Tenleytown, similarly, the library system has moved ahead with a design for a small library at a corner immediately across from a Metro station, even though the District's economic development office has continued to entertain ideas from developers about a partnership that could result in a new building for Janney Elementary School, a library, and residential units on what ought to be a thriving intersection at Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle Street NW.

Top city officials repeatedly say that they intend to make certain that a larger development happens in Tenleytown despite the protests of a small group of anti-growth residents, but the political standoff has resulted instead in stalemate.

The library director is now moving to break that stalemate by going ahead with a series of community meetings, starting tomorrow.

Residents will have a chance to comment on the design of the buildings, which the federal Commission of Fine Arts earlier this year found generally pleasing. But just as the commission warned that the planned redevelopment of some of the sites, especially at the Benning Road branch, could be reason to go back and consider a different kind of design, residents may want to raise questions about just what these new buildings are supposed to be.

Does it make sense to build structures designed mainly to house books and computer stations? Is the library system right to respond to community demands for cafes in their branch libraries by saying that perhaps there will be a coffee cart? The Williams administration's extensive study of new libraries in other cities found that the most successful efforts look almost nothing like a traditional library, but combine the feel of a books megastore, a college student union, and a museum--designed with lots of space for socializing, as well as private places for study (but with the ability to sip coffee and even eat while reading.)

Cooper has created successful new-era libraries in her previous jobs, and she seems open to new concepts of the library. But this process, almost hopelessly tied up by the competing political forces that have paralyzed the D.C. libraries for decades, is not communicating a clear message about what neighborhood branches should or could be in the next decades. You only get to build new libraries once or twice a century--it would be good to know what they were being built for.

By Marc Fisher |  June 4, 2008; 8:06 AM ET
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Just another reason why DC you never have home rule or voting members of Congress.

Time to repeal home rule for DC and return the city to the control of Congress.

Dick Cheney will be out of job on January 21, 2009 perfect opportunity for both him and the city. He can be the city manager appointed by Congress!

Posted by: Anonymous | June 4, 2008 8:25 AM

first, whoever posted the home rule comment above is an idiot. what the hell does this have to do with home rule. please, shut up.

second, marc, they weren't all brick buildings. the shaw library was a brutalist fortress. a concrete monolith. a spiritual sibling to the christian science church at 16th and I downtown.

Posted by: IMGoph | June 4, 2008 9:50 AM

Thanks for shedding light on yet another travesty of DC gov't. How the city can tear down libraries without concrete (ha!) plans for new ones is beyond me.

As for home rule, however incompetent DC government is (and it is quite), Congress is even worse. Home rule is truly the lesser of two evils.

Posted by: ah | June 4, 2008 10:36 AM

The latest entry on the D.C. Library Renaissance Project website is dated Wednesday, April 11. 2007. That does not inspire confidence.

Posted by: Mike Licht | June 4, 2008 11:15 AM

Why not just relocate Watha Daniels down to the convention center. Most of the north side those storefronts are vacant, so it would bring a lot of activity to a real dormant street.

Posted by: DC | June 4, 2008 4:44 PM

Posted by: Mike Licht
The latest entry on the D.C. Library Renaissance Project website is dated Wednesday, April 11. 2007. That does not inspire confidence.

Agreed. I've noticed that too when Marc Fisher has referenced the project before. I assumed the project was defunct. Libraries for the Future ( has caught my eye, and there's always the American Library Association and related groups that are surely addressing these issues.

I like the idea of shifting the concept of libraries to keep up with changing times, but lately I've been wishing that we'd also work to keep most parts of libraries quiet. Some patrons who come in only for the computers have no idea how to comport themselves in a library, which is damn distracting when you're trying to work or read. When I mentioned this to a DC librarian last week, she said I should tell security if someone is noisy. Security? No more librarians going "sshhhh!" I guess.

Posted by: Tracy | June 8, 2008 3:03 PM

I have more than my fair share of DC Library Horror stories. But I must say that things are getting better.

I don't think this is the whole story. It seems like if you are gonna quote this Robin lady, you should have done some kind of attempt to get the Library's side. With that dead website, I don't know what to think. The library seems to actually have more updated content.

It just seems like some west of the park lady is trying to build a name for themselves east of the river.

Posted by: Brian | June 10, 2008 4:37 PM

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