D.C. Library At The Cutting Edge?
Normally, that's a headline you'd expect to find on a piece about budget cuts or service reductions at the ever-beleaguered D.C. Public Library. But as Raw Fisher moves through its final week here on the big web site, there's good news to report about one of my biggest hobbyhorses over the nine years I've been writing the column in The Post: The sorry state of the District's public libraries.
For the better part of the last decade, I've been hammering at the city government over its failure to invest in turning decrepit, pathetically underused libraries into the kind of essential community resources that, for example, Fairfax and Montgomery counties have created in recent years. But ever since D.C. libraries director Ginnie Cooper came to town two years ago, the sorry state of the city's libraries has started to show real signs of life. New buildings are being planned and built, interim libraries are up and running and attracting larger crowds, and what had been an unimaginative and plodding bureaucracy has been refashioned to try to capture some of the leading edge of the information world.
There are still serious questions to be asked about the system's future--Should there be fewer, larger branches rather than the 20-plus collection of smaller facilities that the city probably cannot afford to maintain? Is there enough of a commitment to books and especially to classics in this era of technological change? What exactly is the role of a central downtown library and how much of a people magnet and development engine can it be?--but in the meantime, there are some new signs that the city's library is thinking big, and that's good news indeed.
You'd hardly know it from walking into many city libraries, where the prevailing atmosphere is oh-so-very 19th century, but there are some D.C. library folks working on figuring out how best to share and spread information using the latest technologies. The library is running a photo contest comparing Washington then and now, using pictures from the library's terrific collection of local history materials that are in the public domain and available here.
There, for example, is the fabulous Blaine Mansion at Dupont Circle, one of my favorite D.C. buildings. Lots more cool pics where that came from.
And you can read about the new ideas the library's staff is cooking up on their blog, Amino, where it's evident that Cooper has assembled a group that is thinking much like those of us in the old media are: Exploring every avenue of the new communications matrix to figure out how to capture new eyeballs, how to ferret out what's useful and discard what's merely fashionable, and how to expand the rich and deep resources of what was into the frenetically changing universe of what's becoming.
Like many users, I still visit the library primarily to find books, and the danger exists that libraries will get too fixated on new toys and lose touch with the central mission. But it's also essential to use the new tools to bring the next generation inside the tent, where they too can lose themselves in the gems and glories of the world's assembled knowledge. It's nice to be able to step away from the column game with some good news about an area of coverage that's caused so much frustration over the years.
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