Whoever said “without libraries, you have no civilization” had obviously never confronted a D.C. public library circa the early 2000s. Odd-smelling places, many of them, and not in a musty literary way but in a stinky dog pee way, with curling carpet and yellowy leaking ceilings, and the sense that whatever book you sought might be on the shelves, or might be propping up a window air-conditioning unit. Walking into a branch felt less like entering a monument to knowledge than like entering a semifinished basement in need of a good wet vac.
“I think the biggest day” in recent library history, says John Hill, president of the D.C. Public Library Board of Trustees, “was the day that Ginnie came.”
Ginnie Cooper, the chief librarian of the District’s public library system, who announced her retirement on Wednesday, spent seven years mucking out the libraries of the nation’s capital. Under her guidance, 14 neighborhood branches were either constructed or renovated. Out with the mold, in with community meeting spaces and regal glass walls. In with the optimism, freshly painted. In March, Cooper was honored with a Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture for her leadership in transforming these public spaces.
“People bring their friends and relatives in to see the new library” on Benning Road, says Cooper, of a neighborhood that previously had no library.
But oh — don’t make her choose her favorite project. She loves the cupola on the Petworth branch — it had been included in the original plans, back in the 1930s, but was never constructed until the location’s 2011 renovation. And she loves the Georgetown location, burned to a shell in 2007 and then resuscitated with a multimillion-dollar facelift. And the spruced-up Mount Pleasant location, with its rich children’s programming. And —
Are you sure you’re ready to retire, Ginnie?
“I don’t even know if it is time to step down,” Cooper admits, in a voice still full of Minnesota, despite a career that has taken her from California to Oregon to Brooklyn before her D.C. tenure began in 2006. “But I am 67, and I’m excited that at this point in my life I have the opportunity and ability and health” to see what it feels like to slow down. Her husband lives in Oregon; they’ve been managing a bicoastal relationship for half of their 18-year marriage (the wedding took place in a library).
“He asked me, ‘What are you going to do?’ ” in retirement, Cooper says. “I said, ‘I’m going to read romance novels and eat bonbons.’ He said, ‘But what are you going to do on Tuesday?’ ”
“I’m very sad about” Cooper stepping down, says D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the former chair of the council’s library committee. “She has overseen the renaissance of D.C. libraries. We’ve been fortunate to have one of the best city librarians in the country.”
Wells remembers the time in 2011 when there was a proposal to eliminate Sunday hours from the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown and how passionately Cooper spoke of the need to preserve them. Wells visited that location on a Sunday. “I walked the line of everyone waiting to go in,” he remembers. “There were students working on papers, there was a dad taking in his two kids, there were people from out of town — she was exactly right that Sundays were important.”
During Cooper’s tenure, the number of books checked out from the library system increased from 1.2 million to 3.7 million annually; library program attendance increased from 192,000 to 259,000. But her immediate legacy will probably be the buildings — the homes for tomes that reinstated a sense of dignity to local libraries.
There is still work to be done. The MLK Library — that boxy homage to questionable 1970s sensibilities — has been on the list of renovation projects for years; Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s proposed 2014 budget included $100 million dedicated to the endeavor. Cooper plans to stay on for several months as plans are forwarded and her replacement is found.
“I hope in the future what people say is, ‘Yes, she started this,’ ” Cooper says of her legacy. “ ‘But the next person is who really took us there.’ ”