Overhaul Urged For D.C. Libraries

The report suggests replacing the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library with a facility that would anchor the old Washington Convention Center site.
The report suggests replacing the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library with a facility that would anchor the old Washington Convention Center site. (By The Washington Post)
By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

More than $450 million is needed to properly fix the District's public library system, a task force said yesterday, because the buildings suffer from years of neglect and should be almost entirely rebuilt.

The draft report released yesterday marks the launch of the public phase of an effort by Mayor Anthony A. Williams to change the face of the frayed library system.

It calls for adding at least 400 computers in the city's 27 libraries, replacing half of the books in the next three years and expanding and reorganizing staff. The decision to release the report hours before the first of a series of public-comment meetings drew fire from critics.

The task force, appointed last year by Williams (D), said that a new library headquarters was needed and that most neighborhood branches should be rebuilt as large, single-story facilities attractive enough to draw in passersby. Every library should have wireless and high-speed Internet access, a major step for a system in which mailing out overdue notices is unheard of, the group said.

The report (viewable at http://www.dclibrary.org ) does not detail how funds for such an ambitious overhaul would be raised, although panel members said the city would seek private and public funds. It calls for expanded library-based tutoring for the 37 percent of adults in the city who are functionally illiterate, larger bestseller collections and improved public gathering spaces and children's programs.

"We're five decades behind where we should be," said civic activist Terrance Lynch, a District father of two who served on the panel. "Our kids are going to their grandmothers' libraries in the computer age."

The report also proposed adding such amenities as cafes and bookstores to some branches to increase visibility and popularity.

"It increases the total experience that people have when they come to the library," said task force Chairman John W. Hill, chief executive of the Federal City Council, who was recently named head of the library board of trustees.

Both Williams and the library board want to replace Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, with a facility that would anchor the redevelopment of the old Washington Convention Center site. The task force estimated the cost at $280 million.

But some preservationists and community groups say it would be cheaper and equally effective to renovate the flagship building.

Williams appointed the panel to survey libraries across the country and draft a blueprint for remaking the D.C. system. He included such respected people as Vartan Gregorian, who led the rebuilding of New York's public library system, National Geographic chief librarian Susan Fifer Canby and Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald E. Graham.

But skeptics questioned whether those luminaries played a significant role in the panel's work and said the 37-page summary report -- lofty at times in rhetoric but short on specifics -- gave little evidence that they had.

"I could have written this report in a week, and it would have been every bit as good as this and better," said Leonard Minsky of the D.C. Library Renaissance Project, a group started three years ago by consumer advocate Ralph Nader to call for changes in the system.

Minsky blasted the task force's decision to issue its draft report hours before the first of 10 scheduled "listening sessions" through which the panel hopes to glean public input before completing its report. The task force, he said, should have held such community forums at the start of the process, then done its work and reported back.

"It's all backwards and upside down," Minsky said. "It shows real contempt for the public and for real public input."

Initially, Hill had not planned to release the draft report, saying members of the public might wrongly assume its recommendations were final. But in the face of public criticism, he relented.

"When you don't provide information that people are asking for, then they think something else is happening," he said.

About 30 people showed up for last night's meeting at the Washington Highlands library in Ward 8. All but seven were members of the task force or library board, or employees of the library system or city government.

Dorothy Brizill, executive director of DCWatch, which monitors District government, said building a solid reference collection was her top priority, far more than books on the latest fad or fancy meeting spaces. Phillip Pannell, a longtime Ward 8 activist, said stacks of new books would mean little without more weekend hours.

"It doesn't matter if you have all the wonderful bestsellers if folks can't get to them," he said.

D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who sat on the task force and chairs the council's library oversight committee, said before the meeting that "the whole exercise is a rethinking of what libraries can do and be."

"Where there's a lot of consensus, frankly, is that we really need to do something different," Patterson said. "I don't think there's any disagreement about that."

Staff writer Allan Lengel contributed to this report.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company