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D.C. To Close Five (Mini) Libraries

The D.C. Public Library, struggling to redefine itself and deal with a collection of old, declining buildings, will close all five of its neighborhood kiosks, four of them by the end of this year.

The kiosks, plexiglass and metal booths that were built in the 1970s to bring books and after-school homework help to some of the District's most impoverished neighborhoods, are all located in the eastern part of the city. They are the least used of the District's libraries, yet after their closing, some residents will have to travel between one and two miles to the nearest branch library.

The decision, approved last night by the library's board, was "driven mostly by the services we are not able to provide" in buildings that are smaller than your average 7-Eleven, said Ginnie Cooper, director of the city's library system.

The move will reduce the number of libraries in the District from 27 to 23 (one of the kiosks will remain open until a new, larger, temporary facility can be opened in a retail storefront. That kiosk, the Parklands-Turner branch, is one of only two libraries in Ward 8 in Southeast; the main Ward 8 branch, Washington Highlands, is scheduled to close to make way for a complete rebuilding of the library. Rather than leave the ward without any library services, the system will open a storefront interim branch similar to those now in operation in Georgetown and Tenleytown.)

Cooper says the main problem with the kiosks is that they aren't big enough to hold more than a few computers or a book and media collection of enough size to attract and satisfy customers.

"It's always more fun to open new buildings than it is to close anything," Cooper says. And she concedes that some people will end up farther away from the nearest library. But "I don't know how much people are getting from those libraries as they are now," she says.

For the library system, closing the kiosks will save some money, mainly the $100,000 or so that it costs to heat and cool the buildings. The 11 staffers who work at the kiosks will be redeployed to other branches, which Cooper sees as one of the main benefits of the closing. The city's libraries have been struggling to maintain sufficient staffing to keep all branches open for enough hours to serve both schoolchildren and adult users.

Cooper expects to hear some sharp criticism from neighbors of the kiosks. "People so love the idea of a library, even if they don't use it," she says.

In fact, people really don't use the kiosks that much. The kiosks each circulated between 6,000 and 10,000 books and other materials over the past two years, whereas full branch libraries are much more intensely used: The Anacostia branch over the same period has 43,000 items circulate, the Takoma Park branch circulated 103,000 items, and the Southeast branch had 133,000 items circulate.

The kiosks were the invention of a Washington area entrepreneur, Fred Goodman, but the mini-libraries didn't catch on around the country. Now, with computer access, multi-media materials and community meeting space being at the center of redesigned libraries, it's not possible to offer the full range of services in such a small space, the library's directors say.

The closing of the kiosks is a first step toward a redesign of the system that could end up with fewer but larger branches across the city, Cooper says. And that's likely the only strategy that could lead to a big boost in library quality in a city that seems unlikely to invest much money in its libraries. Mayor Adrian Fenty hasn't shown nearly the interest in the libraries that his predecessor, Tony Williams, displayed, so if the libraries are going to try to compete with their far-better funded suburban counterparts, the resources are likely to have to come in good part from within the system.

It's not clear what will happen to the kiosk buildings or the land that they sit on. Those decisions will be in the hands of the District government, not the library system.

By Marc Fisher |  November 20, 2008; 7:45 AM ET
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I find it sad that we have to talk about "competing" with suburban systems and circulation as the only solid measure of performance. These kiosks served communities with very low literacy rates, high unemployment, and high drop-out rates. Shouldn't the library system try and contribute to raising the quality of life instead of just focusing on sharing materials with already well-educated people?

The Public Library has made this decision unilaterally without consulting with the DC Council, ANC Commissioners, Civic Associations, Friends groups, school administrators,... anyone!!! Doesn't DC Law require consultation with the ANC when making changs to District services in a community? They also seem to be ignoring the Library Enhancement, Assessment, and Development Act (LEAD Act) which requires the proceeds on distribution of any library property to go into a library development fund.

Posted by: lioncub12 | November 25, 2008 1:44 PM

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