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As Aged Building Breaks Down, Readership Is Up

Volunteers, Staff's Can-Do Spirit Help Ward 1 Library Meet New Challenges

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2004; Page DZ08

Semret Yacob and her daughters, Herani, 7, and Alem, 8, sit at a table in the second-floor children's section of the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Library. They are engrossed in Alem's math homework. Across the room, Joel Munoz sits by himself, reading "Escape From Earth, Voyages Through Time." The fifth-grader, who wants to be an astronaut, likes books about space. "I just love reading," he says. "Like, it's not just the book. It's the future."

It is quiet now in this high-ceilinged room with tall windows, a fireplace and a dingy green carpet. The marble staircase leading to the first floor has an oak banister and is very narrow -- made for Americans with the leaner, shorter frames of 80 years ago. Henry Nyanchoka is at the circulation desk checking out books. D.C. library police officer Karen Leach, responsible for the building's security, helps Nyanchoka when a line forms. Behind them, a sign reads: "No Loitering. No Sleeping. Se Prohibe Dormir. Se Prohibe La Vagancia."

Kindergarteners from Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Charter School listen as English teacher Imogene Love reads to them. (Ryan Anson - For The Washington Post)

Upgrades Set At Some Sites

After decades of neglect, the city is rebuilding four of its most decrepit neighborhood libraries: Anacostia, Benning, Tenley-Friendship and Watha T. Daniel/Shaw. They were selected for replacement because they had the most "deferred maintenance" among the city's 21 neighborhood libraries, according to Monica Lewis, library spokeswoman. The Deanwood kiosk, a one-room structure at 4215 Nannie Helen Burroughs Ave. NE, will also be replaced by space in the new Marshall Heights government center.

Library officials hope to rebuild the entire system over the next 10 years, but there are no separate plans to renovate the Mount Pleasant Branch Library.

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Back in her cluttered office, branch librarian Ellen E. Kardy sits at a government-issue metal desk that is so old it has a cabinet for storing a typewriter. Her matching filing cabinet is missing a handle, and her chair was donated by her father. Her fax machine is the biggest, heaviest one she could find at the government supply office -- a deterrent to thieves, who'd snatched her previous fax.

Kardy is conferring, as she often does, with Sheri A. Brady, president of the Friends of Mount Pleasant Library, a volunteer group that Kardy calls the understaffed library's lifeline. "If it wasn't for the Friends and the volunteers, we'd be dead," she says.

Meanwhile, Herbert Corbin has popped in to say hello. The D.C. protective services officer tells Kardy that he chased away four men sleeping on the library's front steps last night. She tells him about the break-in two weeks ago during which library computers were vandalized.

All morning long, no one has given a second glance to the yellow bucket and black wastebasket collecting drips from the ceiling between stacks No. 4 and No. 5 in nonfiction. That's because they are used to it. The leak has been there all summer.

A Mainstay for All

It's a typical day at Ward 1's only public library. Located at 16th and Lamont streets NW, the Mount Pleasant Neighborhood Library is one of 27 libraries in the District, nearly every one in need of maintenance or renovation.

After years of funding shortages and cutbacks, the libraries have moved into the limelight this year, with plans to relocate the Martin Luther King Jr. main library to the site of the old convention center and to rebuild four branch libraries.

Mount Pleasant is facing change of a different sort, serving two ethnically diverse neithborhoods -- Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights -- that themselves are rapidly evolving.

Immigrants who once flocked to these densely populated areas for low-cost housing are being joined -- or pushed out in some cases -- by young professional couples starting families. But for both sets of newcomers, as well as the estimated 3,000 children who attend neighborhood schools -- the library is a mainstay.

Mount Pleasant has the seventh-highest circulation of the city's 27 public libraries, trailing the central Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and branches in Chevy Chase, Cleveland Park, Georgetown, Palisades, and Tenley-Friendship. Circulation is going up. The number of books taken out in June was 13 percent higher than the number taken out in June 2003.

Mount Pleasant also issues 200 to 250 new library cards each month, more than any other location except Martin Luther King Jr.

Typically, books checked out of D.C. libraries are split evenly between fiction and nonfiction. Mount Pleasant's check-outs are 90 percent nonfiction, which Kardy attributes to its "huge population of adult learners . . . trying to better their lives."

The Mount Pleasant library, a Renaissance revival building, was built for $225,000 in 1925 -- most of it ($200,000) from Andrew Carnegie's philanthropic foundation. The building features murals of tuxedo-clad monkeys, dancing and tumbling, painted in the alcoves of the children's section by the late Aurelius Battaglia, a local artist and children's book illustrator.

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