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D.C. Panel to Advise On Library Reforms

Williams Taps Local, National Leaders

By Manny Fernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2004; Page B04

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams yesterday named several prominent business, political and library leaders to a commission designed to help revamp the city's struggling public libraries.

The 32-member commission was unveiled during the mayor's weekly news briefing at the Wilson Building. The list includes two men who helped breathe new life into New York's libraries in the 1980s and 1990s, former New York Public Library president Vartan Gregorian and former library board chairman Marshall Rose.

Richard Levy, a member of the new library commission, takes part in the media briefing with Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who will chair the panel. (Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)

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Others come from prominent Washington institutions, including the Rev. Leo J. O'Donovan, former Georgetown University president, and Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television.

Local leaders include D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D) and D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey. Business representatives include John Hill, chief executive of the Federal City Council, a group of influential business executives, and Donald E. Graham, chairman of The Washington Post Co.

Williams said he had invited first lady Laura Bush, a former librarian, to join the commission. Gordon Johndroe, the first lady's spokesman, said no decision had been made. "We are looking into it right now," Johndroe said.

Among those panelists with library expertise are James H. Billington, librarian of Congress, and Martha Hale, dean of Catholic University's School of Library and Information Science.

Williams (D) said the District's 27 public libraries are ill-equipped to help tackle the capital's adult illiteracy and high school dropout rates. He said he wanted the commission to help him create "a library system that is a vibrant cultural institution." He said that he was prepared to back up the recommendations with funding but that he would like to see the commission help raise private funds for the libraries.

The mayor's announcement came one week after the library system lost out on $45 million proposed as part of a financing package for the new baseball stadium. The D.C. Council eliminated that commitment in an effort to reduce the amount businesses will have to pay for the stadium.

The loss of the funding was a blow to many backers of the library system, which has suffered from budget cuts, staffing shortages and crumbling facilities for decades.

Buildings have leaky roofs, poor plumbing and faulty heaters. Hours have been cut to trim costs. Of 77 large cities nationwide, the District recently ranked 60th in Hennen's American Public Library Ratings, an annual assessment of libraries based on funding, staffing, visits and other criteria.

Some members of the new commission said that revitalized libraries could serve as community linchpins.

"It is about books," said developer and commission member Richard Levy, who joined the mayor at the briefing. "It is about learning. But it's also about the vitality of the city."

The commission will have four goals, said Williams, the panel's chairman. It will assess the state of the libraries, evaluate and revise the mayor's plan to build a new central library downtown and redevelop branch libraries, make recommendations on how to implement the plan and monitor how the plan is executed.

Library supporters applauded the commission, though some expressed concern about the amount of input that residents and library staff members would have. "I think it's got great potential," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who fought for the $45 million.

Leonard Minsky, director of the D.C. Library Renaissance Project, a nonprofit group founded by Ralph Nader that has boosted the libraries' political clout, said the commission "shows that the mayor intends to really address the issue of the libraries in a substantive way." He said he was disappointed his group was not represented on the commission.

Also not represented are library staff members. Three members of the D.C. Public Library's board of trustees are on the panel. The mayor's spokeswoman, Sharon Gang, said more members might be added later and might include library staffers.

The commission plans to issue a report on its assessment of the library system and recommendations in September.

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