D.C. Public Library’s chief librarian, Ginnie Cooper, wouldn’t do what she does if she didn’t have an appreciation for books and the effect they have on others. Books have influenced her life so much that she and her husband, Rick Bauman, were married in a library in 1995. Instead of throwing rice, their guests threw pages from romance novels.
Before becoming chief librarian in 2006, Cooper was library director for the Brooklyn Public Library System in New York. Since her move to the District, she has led her staff in transforming the city’s library system to encourage residents to utilize what their neighborhood libraries have to offer. Her work in libraries stretches back more than 40 years.
“At almost every place I’ve been able to work, it’s been about making change. In part that’s because — look at how libraries have changed — just think of the last 10 years, the last 20 years. We used to not be the place where technology lives. We used to be a box that held things, and now people come in for our technology.”
On March 20, Cooper was honored with a 2013 Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture for her leadership in transforming D.C. libraries. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, where Cooper’s office is located, is one of the libraries under construction. Upon completion, one section of the library will be a digital common area with conference rooms and at least 70 computers.
Cooper sat down with The Washington Post recently to discuss ongoing changes in the D.C. library system.
The D.C. Council has considered extending library hours and authorizing Sunday hours. How do you think extended hours would impact the community, and what effect would it have on the library system?
We are thrilled with the council’s interest in doing this, and I’m glad they passed legislation to say that it would happen if funded, so we’re waiting to see if it’ll be possible to fund those additional hours. It would mean adding staff. It would mean adding about 150 employees. We would be increasing hours . . . something over 400 percent when you look over — when you look at every hour at every location because, as you can see, the number of hours we’re open is directly related to the number of staff we have. People don’t come in just to be in a building. They come in to check out books, to talk to a children’s librarian, to find out how to use a computer — all of that stuff, and that all takes staff.
How does improving a library’s design increase interest and enthusiasm in a community?
I’m going to give you two answers for that, one about [the MLK] building and one about what we’ve seen at our neighborhood libraries. . . . This is our landmark building. It’s one of the foremost architects of the last century and this building’s skin, we might be able to improve it. We might be able to do something about that energy issue with enough money, but it’s going to be this wonderful . . . building, and what we do inside is find a better way to invite people to come into the building and see what’s possible here. See a reason to come upstairs — [it’s] not easy to find an elevator even in this building, much less stairs. The reason I’m saying that so carefully is I’m well aware this is a landmark building. I’m well aware that there are people here who love it, and I’m not about to suggest we make it a different building on the outside and even some of the landmark spaces inside. The first floor has a degree of landmark protection.
I’ll tell you what we’ve seen at the neighborhood libraries. We have said let them be beacons in their community. . . . Let them be places where people of all ages can come and be comfortable and learn and enjoy what it is that’s happening, and we’ve seen them used in exactly that way. And I think that that is what architecture does to invite people into a building. . . . They’re all places that stand out in their communities. That’s true for the historic ones just as it’s true for the new ones. . . . Those beautiful libraries draw people in.
What library would you say has undergone the most changes, and which developments are you most proud of?
Our work with very young children is very different and quite wonderful now. I was at a meeting earlier today where they were talking about the very small Southeast library, which is getting overflow from Northeast because Northeast is under construction right now. We’re doing three story hours a day at that library, and we can hardly keep people out. . . . It’s a great way to teach families to get their children ready to learn.
I think we’re doing an even better job of buying what people want to read, so we’ve seen the doubling of downloadable-items use each year for the last two. . . . I read something the other day that said the number of kids who read on a device doubled in the last year, and I think that tells us something about our future. . . . I’m proud of the fact that we’re getting the books and other materials that people want, the downloadable stuff that I talked about, DVDs that people want, the downloads that you might need if you don’t speak English well, and you’re trying to cook or do a car repair or something else. All of those are things that I am especially proud of — that people use their library as gathering places formally and informally.
There are 26 libraries in the District. How do you manage to focus on the needs of all of them equally?
I got really good staff. That’s one thing, but in truth though, there are differences from location to location. There are more similarities than you would think. At every neighborhood, whatever the income level, you’re going to find people who need to use a public access computer. You are definitely going to find people who need to use our robust Wi-Fi. Helped with some stimulus money we’ve had and some work we’re doing within the District to make sure that really robust Wi-Fi is available everywhere around our libraries. . . . We’ve got really good branch managers at locations, and we hear from them and we rely on them and on our friends groups. We have friends groups at about two-thirds of our libraries to let us know what they care about the most, what’s missing and what do they want.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you have faced in terms of transforming the library system?
I’m trying not to just say money, but that’s the first thing that comes to my mind. I’d love for us to be the kind of library that has a consistently good book budget, and ours has gone up and down quite a bit, and that’s been a challenge because we want to tell people that we are the place that has what you want. We’ve got to be very strategic and careful in making sure we’re buying what it is that people are going to come in looking for, and what we need to have so that they have it available for them forever.