June 6, 2013

THAT THE EXPECTATIONS were low for D.C. libraries hit home to Ginnie Cooper soon after she took over the troubled system and made headlines for getting the elevators in the downtown library to work . Her ability to fix things was notable, but far more important was her belief that Washingtonians should expect more than just new light bulbs and elevators that work. She raised the bar on what public libraries should deliver, turning what was widely seen as the nation’s worst system into what is now a model for modern urban libraries.

Ms. Cooper’s announcement that she will retire this year after seven years as the city’s chief librarian brought appropriate accolades about her transformative role in remaking a system that had seen decades of public disinvestment. A hallmark was the major building program that saw 14 branches renovated or rebuilt, some with designs so stunning they have brought international acclaim. Circulation and library patronage increased as Ms. Cooper initiated programs and adapted the system to technologies that gave renewed purpose to the role libraries play in education, work, entertainment and human fulfillment. Of all the statistics chronicling the library’s progress, Ms. Cooper is most proud of the 12,000 young people who each month attend a library program.

It wasn’t always easy going. She faced blow-back when she forced out staff and brought in new managers. Some building ideas met with stiff neighborhood resistance. At times there wasn’t enough money to keep the doors open or expand the collection as much as she would have liked. Nonetheless, Ms. Cooper would probably be the first to tell you she benefited from political leadership spanning several administrations, starting with former mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) who formed a blue-ribbon library commission.

At a time when many jurisdictions are slashing funds to public libraries, the District is adding money. The budget submitted by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and recently passed by the D.C. Council not only provides funds for expanded hours (including Sundays) but also capital funds to undertake the long-deferred remaking of the central library. Ms. Cooper will stay on long enough to ensure a smooth transition once the library board names her replacement, who, we hope, will represent another chapter in the success story of D.C. libraries.