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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.

By Marc Fisher |  July 29, 2008; 8:49 AM ET
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

This is one thing about living in Washington that drives me crazy -- that people don't think creatively and everyone suffers as a result. We have smart people in this city, but NOTHING ever seems to change for the better.

How difficult can it be for a public library system to decide how to spend $2 million? It's apparently a stumper within the boundaries of Eastern, Western and Southern avenues.

Maybe the family should take the money back and directly invest the money itself in the neighborhoods around the libraries. That would cut down on the risk that the money would be stolen or lost for another decade or so.

Posted by: dirrtysw | July 29, 2008 9:56 AM

LOL I can just SEE it comin! Within a couple of years, the public will find out that some high level person decided hey, let's invest this money, stretch it out for a couple of years and we can first and foremost skim off the top so that we can buy cars houses and material crap, take major vacations that we can't afford on our 6 figure salary, make few trivial upgrades and no one will be the wiser. kinda sounds like how the dc tax scam was thought up.

either way her will states NO INVESTMENT. that money should either be spent on the library or revert back to the family.

i can guarantee it wasn't spent within the time frame specified in order to skim off the top. probably have been for the past couple of years

Posted by: NALL92 | July 29, 2008 11:17 AM

This isn't hard to figure out. When you have blacks making the decisions the thinking process does not include buying books or improving other resources inside the libraries. It would be like someone leaving me a million dollars to improve my garden. I wouldn't have the slightest idea how to do it.

Posted by: Jay | July 29, 2008 11:32 AM

Fantastic....only three comments before someone sallied forth with a (not even VEILED) remark implying that government competency is somehow conferred (or, in this case, lacking) due to the color of your skin. Congrats, Jay!

As if there haven't been white city governments across the country, both now and in the past, that haven't been completely worthless (yes, I know...the DC gov't is not worthless...that was not my implication).

I wish I could say that I don't believe this story, but having lived in the District for 6 years and now in VA for 5 years....I do.

And while it would be great to spent a large portion of the money on books, it would be even better if at least some of the money could be used...well...
unconventionally, I guess, to seed programs that draw more users into the library. Or improve access for those with disabilities.

At least we can be sure it won't be used as a slush fund. DC gov't/organizations have given us enough of THAT over the past few years (I'm looking at YOU, teacher's union and tax office!).

Posted by: BobT | July 29, 2008 11:49 AM

BobT -- your reply shows you're a calmer person than I am.

And WPost, forgive me. I tried emailing you to report the offensive comment but the email was automatically returned -- it seems isn't accepting emails. So the following is my attempt to get Jay's offensive and racist comment pulled.

Jay -- you're a racist, nasty miserable excuse for a thinking person. Considering how small your mind has to be to even think the way you do, it's incredible you're able to type in complete sentences. What's the matter? Did you have a crush on a black girl once and she laughed at your pasty ass? Or did you lose your own girlfriend to a stronger, much better looking black guy? Oooh, even better -- were you passed over for a promotion because the other candidate - a black man -- was smarter, more experienced, and infinitely more liked than you?

You're a pitiful and pathetic loser.

And you probably smell :D


So WP -- enough to get the comments pulled?

Posted by: Lola | July 29, 2008 12:03 PM

What do you expect from a library that notifies users of due dates using the following highly insulting language:
"'Notice of items about to be overdue' The following Library materials will be overdue very soon."

Posted by: lu | July 29, 2008 12:11 PM

I live less than a block away from the West End library in DC. It's one of the reasons I initially chose to live in this neighborhood. Sadly, my first and only visit to the library was a huge disappointment: the place was full of street people. Despite a very helpful staff and an otherwise attractive facility, I couldn't get past the smell, the literally dirt-caked patrons, and all the other sights and sounds of untreated mental illness and addiction.

As long as we continue to put our psychotics out on the streets, rather than into effective treatment, I'm afraid our city public libraries will continue to be places that are profoundly unattractive to most citizens.

Posted by: Dan Saunders | July 29, 2008 1:33 PM

Lola: I feel your pain. In the absence of anything other than Jay's drive-by swipe at black people, I felt that restraint and pointing out the ridiculousness of the comment would bear more fruit than assume that Jay is the guy who created Jesse Helms' Senate ad.

But I admit that while I deplore the comment, since I am white it doesn't sting me personally. I do, however, find it offensive and am led to believe that the person who posted it is a racist.

I would also hope that the comments are more closely vetted for these types of statements, though I understand that Marc, as a reporter/columnist, doesn't necessarily have the time to do it himself.

If they just hadn't had another round of buyouts, I'd suggest an assistant. Or Comments Intern!

Posted by: BobT | July 29, 2008 1:52 PM

I do try to keep an eye on the comments, though that's not always possible. And readers will always be quicker and, I believe, more effective than any in-house censor might be in responding to and, when warranted, denouncing wild, over-the-top posts. As you all have proven here today and in many other instances, those who pollute the comment boards with nasty remarks are generally put in their place by other readers, and that's as it should be. As a reader, I want to see the full range of commentary, as ugly as it might be, and I don't want an editor deciding which comments I will be allowed to see. Others, including some editors at this here web site, disagree, but that's my view.

Posted by: Fisher | July 29, 2008 2:07 PM

Thanks, Marc, for posting that. I had wondered if you screened your remarks, though the evidence seemed to indicate that you did not.

I agree with your belief that it is better to see everything, warts and all, than to have a self-appointed censor decide what is and is not inappropriate/offensive. While that policy allows the possibility of some sort of flame post war, it is true that you could always step in and put a stop to that.

The thoughts and feelings of people, no matter how good, bad, or ugly, add to the conversation that you start with each post.

Posted by: BobT | July 29, 2008 2:37 PM

Good story. I live in Brookland which is served by the Woodridge neighborhood. I would not define my community as poor considering the stable black middle class there. I would also hesitate to call the neighborhood around the Gregory branch poor either.

I actually think that the idea of using an endowment is a better approach. It allows the money to grow for a longer period of time and ultimately serve more with its interest.

I am also glad that DCPL is looking at doing something with the money. Nine years seems like a long time. I can imagine this not being the highest priority thought. It seems like Cooper is turning a big ship around. And I would rather wait for it to be done right than thrown into a tornado.

Posted by: Jason | July 30, 2008 7:24 PM

Seems like every time the library takes a step forward there are new challenges to address. I bet Cooper wonders when all the skeletons will finally be shown so she can make the system better.

The upside is that the crazy people in the past did not touch the money. It managed to double without their hands on it. I wish the money could be put towards the budget shortfall but in the long run I would prefer the institutional challenges of making an adequate city budget be dealt with first.

Not giving up hope yet. Progress takes time and I can deal with the frustration of progress.

Posted by: Travis | July 30, 2008 7:31 PM

I am not buying this story on its face. Those two neighborhoods with libraries have been bedrock black middle class areas since integration. People like Judge Moultrie and Pearl Bailey lived near Woodridge for years. Poor, I doubt it. I bet that the friends know that their neighborhood of detached homes isn't indeed poor.

So NOW the friends are up in arms about this money? Doesn't seem to make sense since they have been around for the entire time the endowment has existed. I am sensing a different agenda here. I would put money on my feeling that the "friends" don't feel as important since Cooper has arrived.

If I were Cooper, I would not let the "friends" come to close to the money either. They stood by for years while the system fell into neglect. With "friends" like that, who needs enemies.

Posted by: Katherine | July 30, 2008 8:29 PM

I have to take issue with Katherine's indictment of the Friends of the Woodridge Library. That group has worked tirelessly for years to help the Woodridge Library and the community it serves. They have been advocating for the spending of the Holden Bequest since it was given to DCPL. They have simply been ignored (or worse, placated) by District officials without a vision for their neighborhood.

The Friends don't have a desire to feel "important." They want to see both tax dollars and private gifts working in their community. Ginnie Cooper is working with the Friends of the Library... and the DCPL Foundation (where the Holden Bequest is managed) to create a working relationship for residents to help their library.

Finally, while the neighborhoods around the Woodridge and Gregory Libraries aren't poor, there are poor people nearby that need the help of a public library. This money needs to be spent helping residents find jobs; learn to read; and get more out of life through entertaining and educational programs.

Posted by: Richard | July 31, 2008 9:52 AM

How about more suggestions for a solution instead of shots on the errors. Why not try doing two good things at once. The summer jobs program is having problems. Why not hire public high school honor students to run reading and math programs during the summer for young kids in these neighborhoods. During the school year the same kids could be hired to work after school tutoring home work sessions and reading programs for young ones, maybe even have Its Academic type contests between the neighborhood kids. We need to get the good high school kids involved as well as the ones that need help to build this community spirit of learning.

Posted by: Ray N Rockville | July 31, 2008 11:49 AM

At least 3 years ago, while Fran Buckley was interim director of DCPL the Friends of the Woodridge Library offered various proposals on spending a portion of the Holden Bequest. These proposals were never acted upon. The proposals were then resurrected and given to Ginnie Cooper upon her installation. One proposal was to incorporate a business center (ala Hotel Business Center) within the branch. The expansion of that proposal was to create a distance learning center within the branch. That would enable programs and instruction to be carried in digitally to various audiences in a meeting room at the branch. In a phrase these were shot down because the focus of the current administration is children. These proposals would have served the community, children included.

Further when Ms Cooper came in, the Friends were shut out of meeting with the Mr. Naylor (we had been promised that we would be included) and the terms of the bequest had been renegotiated without our knowledge. Months after the meeting the Friends were provided with information regarding the renegotiation.

Your reporting states that, "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." If this was accomplished with Holden Bequest monies as is implied, the Friends of the Woodridge Library we not made aware.

Also, to put things in perspective, the Holden Bequest monies, going back to early January, made up the bulk of the monies in the Library Foundation coffers. What is the Foundation doing to raise money? Yes, this situation is a travesty.

Posted by: S A Turner | August 1, 2008 9:24 AM

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