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D.C. Libraries: Ready for Their Makeover, Yet Stuck in Neutral

Ginnie Cooper, the energetic and optimistic new chief of the District's sadly neglected public library system, says she knew exactly what she was getting into.

"I could work 80 hours a week for 100 years and still have things left to be done," she says of the sorry state of a library system that suffers from startlingly low book circulation, dilapidated buildings, a thin collection, insufficient support from the District government, and a lack of popular consensus over how to fix the system or where to put new resources.

Depending on whether you share Cooper's optimism or prefer to focus on the deep troubles of the system, you could frame the city's library story in one of two ways:

---The positive spin would emphasize the fact that Cooper has already opened two of the long-promised interim branch libraries to replace the four branches that were shut down more than two years ago in a bizarre bit of political grandstanding designed to show that the system was on the road to recovery. ("In hindsight," Cooper says, "I don't think there's a person who doesn't think it was a mistake" to close those branches without permanent replacements ready for construction to start.) The other two interim branches, in Shaw and Benning Road, are set to open in June. Already, the Anacostia interim branch is a big success, with 431 people getting new library cards in the first three weeks of its existence--that's almost double the number of new cards issued at any other branch in the city that month.

--The other side of the coin pictures the totally-unresolved future of the main downtown Martin Luther King library, as both Mayor Adrian Fenty and the new Council seem to have abandoned ex-Mayor Tony Williams' plan to make a new central library the focal point of the redevelopment of the old Convention Center site. And the permanent branches to replace the four shuttered libraries are still stuck in the early planning stage, thanks in part to an unresolved debate over the role that public-private partnerships should play in the funding and building of new facilities.

Cooper professes to be largely agnostic on that crucial question, and the D.C. library trustees last week approved a new policy that's neither here nor there. "While the Board of Library Trustees acknowledges the potential value of mixed-use projects, at this time DCPL will not solicit mixed-use project [sic]," the policy reads. "However, it will evaluate unsolicited proposals from other city agencies as well as private developers where there is demonstrated community interest and potential benefits to both DCPL and the community." Weaselly enough for you? (Cooper at least seems open to a proposal for a public-private partnership at the Tenleytown branch, though not at Benning Road.)

With guidance like that from her bosses, Cooper can only muddle through, and luckily, she seems committed to doing just that. She's quick to point out that she--and she didn't say this, but I should add: unlike our former mayor--has actually bought a house here. She intends to make this work. It is rough going: "It's hard to recruit people to this library because it doesn't have a good national reputation," she says. She cannot pay for potential employees to visit the city or for them to move here, and the library is still captive to the District's woeful procurement system.

Still, she's proud that she is about to sign a deal to position a bookmobile near the burned-out Georgetown branch as a temporary measure; she'd like to find a storefront for an interim library to serve that neighborhood for several years before the fire-swept library can be rebuilt, but given the expense and lack of available properties in Georgetown, that sounds like a real longshot.

Cooper wants the new branches to show Washingtonians how dramatically libraries have changed in the many decades since the District was in the library-building business. The new branches are likely to include coffee shops, reading areas where you can actually sip a drink and talk, extensive computer services, and light, airy architecture. Now that a new central library appears not to be in the cards, Cooper is trying to make the King Library usable. She's replaced all the ceiling lights in the dank and gloomy lobby and repaired elevators that hadn't been working in five or more years. And she'd love to do something about the weird temperature swings in the Mies van der Rohe-designed building (Cooper's office in the building often feels like its thermostat is set at 120 degrees, she says.)

The D.C. libraries are about to get some national attention, as the American Library Association holds its convention in Washington in late June. As part of that gathering, the trade magazine Library Journal will donate an interior makeover of one D.C. branch, the 85-year-old Southeast Branch, which will get new furniture, a new floor plan, renovated bathrooms, shelving, new ceiling, and books and computers too.

Cooper says she is "mostly having fun. I don't think it's a done deal yet that we're on our way. But I hope so." And then she added, "I want this to be the library the District deserves," and her voice caught on her passion as she said those words. A librarian who gets choked up about how libraries can transform lives is precisely what this city needs.

By Marc Fisher |  May 31, 2007; 7:43 AM ET
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For an interim Georgetown branch, there is a large vacant building just down Wisconsin Ave. at Q Street. It formerly housed the Reed Electric Co. store but has been empty for many months with no sign of life. Very convenient to many bus lines including the Circulator, several 30's routes, and the D2/D6 routes from Dupont Circle metro. It also has a substantial parking lot, a rarity in G'town.

Posted by: Chris | May 31, 2007 9:29 AM

Its only been two weeks, and there's already been issues with the new elevators in MLK.
With new lights in the lobby, the problems of the building are now in full view of everyone who walks in. It will be pretty embarrassing when the conference is in town, I think.

Posted by: logo | May 31, 2007 1:18 PM

Marc,

Looks like the DC folks are really interested in the topic today: two posts (not counting this one).

Libraries were always a place for me to escape my problems and immerse myself in a good book. Kids now days don't even bother, what with the idiot box at home and cars available to joy ride in.

It is going to take more than computers and coffee bars to increase the interest in going to a library. What is needed, I don't know.

I, for one, miss the times I spent in libraries. My kids never went there just for fun when they were younger, and now that they have careers and kids of their own, they don't have the time.

Times are changing as technology advances, and not all the changes are good.

Posted by: SoMD | May 31, 2007 1:46 PM

This is not to say that we don't need libraries. But what does the average user get out of a library that he can't get from the internet? I tend to think that the answer is not much. From that standpoint, the library of today should be much different than the library of yesteryear. While that is great that ~400 people signed up for library cards, a better stat would be to observe how many people are using the library on a daily basis. I would suspect the numbers would be miniscule.

Posted by: Nathan | May 31, 2007 4:39 PM

Just read Fisher's chat and had a few comments about two topics that came up:

1. Windmills
I think it is particularly disconcerting that the most vehemous objections to the windmills come from the biggest power wasters out there. There are people who drive large vehicles that consume huge amounts of gas, emit large amounts of destructive emissions, have large or old homes that are poorly insulated and spend vast amounts of power heating/cooling/ powering them. Then when we try to find alternative sources of power that don't build onto the problems they are contributing to, they whine. Folks, get over it. Somewhere we have to stop the destruction. I think that you should put a tiered power structure in. The first 1000 KWh or the first 100 Therms are one fee and then the price per KWh or Therm goes up based on usage. And even though it would hurt me in the pocketbook, adding taxes to the gasoline prices might make people consider more fuel-efficient cars. The taxes could be used to support the needed transportation infrastructure expenses that we have trouble funding now (e.g. Metro upgrades, highway repairs, LightRail, etc). People don't care, because they don't have to care. They abuse the situation and whine about the consequences because they don't care. They want problems to be solved without any sacrifices on their part.

2. The high-speed chase
I'm always surprised that with license plates the way they are designed that the MVA doesn't create license plates with imbedded transceivers (like the ones that get put sub-dermally into pets to help find lost pets) that can broadcast just the plate number. It doesn't need to be anything more than the plate number. It could be something that is activated by a radio pulse from a gun. The police just need to send a pulse to the plate, it starts broadcasting, they pick up the signal, get the plate number. And then, police could get the plate number from a distance even if they couldn't see it. This would mean that they wouldn't have to have a high-speed chase, they could track the person down from their license plate. It would be expensive in infrastructure to set up but it would be very beneficial in the long run. Although the initial cost would be high for equipment, the subsequent costs would not be that much. The transceivers themselves are not that expensive.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | May 31, 2007 4:49 PM

Just read Fisher's chat and had a few comments about two topics that came up:

1. Windmills
I think it is particularly disconcerting that the most vehemous objections to the windmills come from the biggest power wasters out there. There are people who drive large vehicles that consume huge amounts of gas, emit large amounts of destructive emissions, have large or old homes that are poorly insulated and spend vast amounts of power heating/cooling/ powering them. Then when we try to find alternative sources of power that don't build onto the problems they are contributing to, they whine. Folks, get over it. Somewhere we have to stop the destruction. I think that you should put a tiered power structure in. The first 1000 KWh or the first 100 Therms are one fee and then the price per KWh or Therm goes up based on usage. And even though it would hurt me in the pocketbook, adding taxes to the gasoline prices might make people consider more fuel-efficient cars. The taxes could be used to support the needed transportation infrastructure expenses that we have trouble funding now (e.g. Metro upgrades, highway repairs, LightRail, etc). People don't care, because they don't have to care. They abuse the situation and whine about the consequences because they don't care. They want problems to be solved without any sacrifices on their part.

2. The high-speed chase
I'm always surprised that with license plates the way they are designed that the MVA doesn't create license plates with imbedded transceivers (like the ones that get put sub-dermally into pets to help find lost pets) that can broadcast just the plate number. It doesn't need to be anything more than the plate number. It could be something that is activated by a radio pulse from a gun. The police just need to send a pulse to the plate, it starts broadcasting, they pick up the signal, get the plate number. And then, police could get the plate number from a distance even if they couldn't see it. This would mean that they wouldn't have to have a high-speed chase, they could track the person down from their license plate. It would be expensive in infrastructure to set up but it would be very beneficial in the long run. Although the initial cost would be high for equipment, the subsequent costs would not be that much. The transceivers themselves are not that expensive.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | May 31, 2007 4:49 PM

I have suggested this plan to the library system in DC many times. When I worked in Arlington County I did the following every single Monday for about 2 years:
1. I went to the Arlington county website and placed a hold or request that a business theory/management CD set be sent to the local branch
2. I received a computerized phone call on my cell phone that the Management Book-On-CD was ready
3. I listened to the cds on my commute to and from the district
4. I returned the CD when the next CD set arrived.
5. I completed my GMATs using some GMAT study books from the Arlington County Library
6. I got admission to the Johns Hopkins University Executive MBA program.

Now, if you go to DC's online catalog they created phony entries for books on cd and listed them at the Tenley branch. there is no Tenley branch. I talked to a librarian who explained that books WERE ENTERED INTO THE ONLINE DATABASE as things they WISHED to obtain and they PUT THE BRANCH AS TENLEY WHEN THE SYSTEM DID NOT OWN THE BOOKS!!!

In other words, their online catalog does not reflect their holdings at all.

I reserved books and never heard from the library system that they arrived. I was told to expect A LETTER IN THE MAIL IN 2006 when they would arrive! NO EMAIL OPTION! NO TEXT MESSAGE OPTION. NO COMPUTER VOICEMAIL OPTION. When I explained to the librarian how Arlington County worked I could tell that she thought I was lying. True story! She stood there and told me she "didn't think it really went that smoothly." Ha!

Besides their collection of post-college education and certification books on CD is woefully inadequate. However when I used that to educate myself in business enough to get into an MBA program? Why wouldn't the libraries change their plans to educate adults?

There is MUCH room for library systems in the internet age, but they much successfully compete against Amazon.com.
Arlington County's system is superior to Amazon.

Posted by: DCer | May 31, 2007 5:25 PM

Many prospective DC library users stay away because our libraries are de facto day centers for the homeless and mentally ill. This is a bad fit, chiefly because libraries lack shower facilities and mental health professionals who can track medication use. Library users are quick to see the ensuing problems but have yet to make common cause with advocates for those other underserved populations.

Posted by: Mike Licht | June 1, 2007 8:14 AM

Nathan said, "But what does the average user get out of a library that he can't get from the internet?"

I get 6 books, mostly novels, from George Mason Regional Library in Annandale every 2 to 3 weeks. There is no way in the world that I could afford to buy that many books. Granted, most people don't read anywhere near that many books, but if you read or listen on CD to one book a week, that still adds up quickly.

Yes, there are e-books, but I get eye strain and a sore wrist from working on a computer all day. The last thing I want to do when I get home is stare at a computer screen some more.

Posted by: WMA | June 1, 2007 10:07 AM

To DCer: The reserve system at DCPL does not send out paper notices in the mail when a book is ready for patron pickup. It only sends out an email, and that's only if you gave us an email address. Sometimes we type in the email address wrong, so if you've not been receiving hold pickup emails, then verify your info.

Second, I'm not sure where the librarian got that those items were "wish list" items. An item has to be ordered before it makes it into the online database. Whether or not the item is ever received is another (long) story.

Also, there is a Tenley Interim branch. Books that are there come up with a Tenley location in the catalog.

Posted by: librarian | June 1, 2007 4:22 PM

The DC library system is so poorly funded that it is almost like the government is intentionally trying to keep the kids there as dumb as possible.

How hard is it to understand that a community that has a vibrant library where kids can go to read and study is one that values learning and encourages kids to think for themselves?

Libraries are even more important in inner cities where kids often have few options for places where it is safe to simply sit and think and learn and mature their minds.


Posted by: Scott | June 1, 2007 6:08 PM

The latest issue of the professional publication "Library Journal" has a feature article on DCPL in anticipation of the upcoming American Library Association conference being held in DC in a couple weeks. It presents an interesting view of the various struggles DCPL has experienced, including conflicts with Nader's group. The article is available online at the LJ Web site.

As for the earlier question of what libraries provide that the Internet can't, the writer answered their own question. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone has access to the Internet from home or work. Public libraries provide free Internet access to large chunks of the population (the ones who most need it), who use it for everything from e-mailing family members to finding tax forms (the IRS is no longer sending most libraries and post offices paper forms in an attempt to get everyone to file online) to applying for jobs that require an online form (for manual labor positions). They provide research experts -- a.k.a. librarians -- to members of the general public, including those who most need assistance filtering the tons of information out there, differentiating a legitimate news source from something published by some guy living in his mom's basement. They can help find books as well as contact information for someone to help the vet getting the runaround from the VA. For the disenfranchised, the public library may be the only place to read a newspaper or for a child to look at a picture book. They provide a quiet place for an ESL tutoring session, safe havens for kids with unsavory home lives, a place where lonely senior citizens can interact.

Posted by: Lynne | June 7, 2007 1:41 PM

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