The $2 Million D.C.'s Libraries Couldn't Spend
For years, the rap on the District's decrepit library system was that they'd been systematically starved into a state of disrepair and dysfunction. With insufficient money and lousy management, the buildings and services declined to such a degree that city residents simply went elsewhere--to good, clean suburban libraries--or did without.
But now, even as a new libraries director finally spiffs up the buildings and ratchets up the programming, and even as that same director announces that the system may have to shut all its branches on Fridays to make ends meet, the D.C. library continues to sit on a $2 million bequest donated expressly to improve the offerings at two of the system's neediest branches.
Elizabeth Holden, a Washingtonian who worked for nearly 40 years as a secretary at the Agriculture Department, died in 1997, leaving an estate worth $6.5 million. She had inherited and invested some family money, virtually none of which she spent during her lifetime. (See the end of this item for a note on the unusual roots of that family money.) "She lived like a hermit and a miser," says her nephew, a Virginia lawyer named Alonzo Naylor. "She'd occasionally splurge and give away $100." Holden never married or had children. She died at 87, just three months after completing her will.
In that document, she directed Naylor to give $956,000 each to her neighborhood library in Southeast--the Francis Gregory Branch--and to the Woodridge Branch in Northeast, two libraries she knew were in great need. The rest of her fortune went to other charities, including an organization that works to cure and alleviate Down's syndrome. Her instructions to each of the receiving groups were clear: She wanted her money spent promptly and fully on programs that would help people. She did not want her money to replace ordinary spending or to be invested for the future. She wanted all of the money to be spent within ten years.
Nine years later, the Down's syndrome group has a new library at its headquarters, and the other charities have also made good use of the Holden money. But the two D.C. public libraries are still sitting on the bequest, which has grown through investment.
Even as the library system struggles for funding in a tight city budget, "Woodridge library has received almost no benefit from this bequest," Verna Clayborne, secretary of the Friends of the Woodridge Library, testified before the D.C. Council last year.
Today, Naylor says, "I've been disappointed. They seem to be struggling over how to use the stuff. This was supposed to be something special for these communities, over and above any money the D.C. government would otherwise spend on the branches. I've gone to a lot of meetings with them, and they always seemed to be afraid to spend the money."
D.C.'s Chief Librarian, Ginny Cooper, says the Holden money has nearly doubled in value while the city has sat on it. She attributes the long delay in spending the gift to the lax management that characterized the system for so many years. Cooper, who has been in charge for almost two years, says she has begun to spend the money. The Woodridge branch has added a meeting room, the first in the system to be equipped with an infrared loop, a system that amplifies sound for the hard of hearing. At the Gregory branch, the one Elizabeth Holden spent a great deal of time in during her lifetime, a new manager is looking for proposals to spend the money, Cooper says. The system is about to select an architect for a new building to replace that branch, and some Holden money could be used to add special features to that new structure.
Cooper has asked the Holden family for permission to set the gift up as an endowment from which the library would spend five percent a year. Naylor says he has reluctantly agreed to that change in his aunt's bequest. "I'd rather see them come up with some creative project for the people who live there now," he says. "Spending five or ten percent is better than spending zero percent, but I'd like to see them use this for people who need it right now--these are poor neighborhoods."
Whether it's literacy programs, tutoring, job training, guest speakers, movie nights, writing seminars, or additional librarians to keep the building open into the evening and through the weekends, there are plenty of ways to improve services in neighborhoods that crave the uplift that libraries can provide. It's one thing for the city's libraries to plead that it cannot afford to replace buildings that have been left to rot for decades on end, but it's not acceptable for millions of dollars to sit unused simply for lack of imagination and effort.
An aside: Elizabeth Holden's inherited money came from her father, Jonathan Holden, who late in life changed his last name to Holdeen. It is under that name that you can find records of a monumental and legendary court battle in which Holden apparently sought to avoid paying federal taxes that had been levied on him on the theory that he had set aside his fortune in trusts that would pay out in preposterously distant times, like 500 or 1,000 years. All of this somehow tied in with Holden's theory of the future, as spelled out in books such as "The Futurite Cult" and "Cult of the Clan," books that did well enough to land their author on the cover of Time magazine.
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