Williams Urged to Overhaul D.C. Libraries

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 17, 2006; 5:24 PM

The District should spend more than $450 million to create a new headquarters library and rebuild or completely overhaul all 26 neighborhood branch libraries, according to a task force appointed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D).

The draft report -- commissioned after years of citizen calls for an improved library system -- describes the public libraries as badly neglected and barely functioning. It says the system needs to buy at least 400 more computers, replace half of its book collection and expand and reorganize staff in order to better serve its patrons.

The task force released the report today, hours before the first of nine public "listening sessions" to solicit feedback from members of the public. Tonight's meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Washington Highlands Public Library, 115 Atlantic Street, S.W.

Although the report does not say so explicitly, Williams and the current library board of trustees have endorsed building a new central library as part of a mixed-use development on the former site of the Washington Convention Center.

"We're five decades behind where we should be," said civic activist Terrance Lynch, a District father of two who served on the Mayor's Task Force on the Future of the District of Columbia Library System. "Fifty years of deferred maintenance and our kids are going to their grandmothers' libraries in the computer age. It just doesn't work anymore."

Initially, the community meetings were billed as an opportunity for the public to weigh in on the six "prime service priorities" the task force had proposed for the library system -- basic literacy, best sellers and hot topics, homework help, information literacy, lifelong learning, public spaces. But in the face of public criticism, the task force decided to release its draft report, emphasizing that its recommendations are not final.

"I don't want people to think that it's done and completed. That's my only concern," said task force chairman John W. Hill, who is executive director of the Federal City Council, a civic group, and was recently appointed to head the library system board of trustees. Hill said he changed his mind because "when you don't provide information that people are asking for, then they think something else is happening. It will be a distraction."

But the decision did little to mollify longtime critics of the library system, who have been skeptical of the task force since it was created last year.

"Procedurally, this is ridiculous," said Leonard Minsky of the D.C. Library Renaissance Project, after reading the task force report at www.dclibrary.org. "This is a 37-page document, in small print. It would require not only time to read it, but some time to digest it and maybe some time to discuss it, which is not being given. From our perspective, it's a meaningless exercise. It shows real contempt for the public and for real public input."

But Lynch, who like Minsky has pushed for change for years, said Williams is committed to changing the system, and that issuing the draft report is the first high-level step in doing so.

"Before, it was people sort of here or there, calling for a service at this branch library or that neighborhood . . . versus a comprehensive, top-to-bottom overhaul," Lynch said. "That's what we're getting here, versus piecemeal, patchwork, which I think every other effort has been to date."

In addition to tonight's "listening sessions," the following public meetings are scheduled in coming weeks:

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