Libraries Could Get Federal Funding

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 6, 2006

President Bush today will propose $30 million in funding for the District's aging library system, a major infusion of federal money that D.C. officials said would help replace the central Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library with a new facility two blocks away.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) wants a new headquarters library to anchor the planned redevelopment at the site of the District's former convention center, 10 downtown acres where the city plans hundreds of new apartments, offices and shops.

But many civic activists and library advocates are reluctant to abandon the existing library named for the civil rights leader, which is a badly neglected but architecturally significant building designed by famed modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

A task force Williams appointed last year to study overhauling the library system estimates the cost of building and endowing a new central library at $280 million. The mayor and the library board, which he also appointed, say a top-quality public library would draw people to the new neighborhood. They also say the existing headquarters facility lacks the openness and flexible programming space that are the hallmarks of 21st-century libraries, and that it cannot be renovated and rewired to adequately serve today's patrons.

"Besides being depressing, and aside from all the deferred maintenance, the Mies building is a very inefficient building," said developer Richard Levy, who heads the library board's facilities committee. He said the city would get more value for its libraries by selling or leasing the Mies building as office space and putting the proceeds toward library improvements elsewhere.

The decision to move the central library -- which aides to Williams say would still be named for King -- must be approved by the D.C. Council.

Library board President John W. Hill said the city asked the White House for $50 million a year for three years to fund capital improvements to the library system. In addition to building a new headquarters library, the task force has recommended rebuilding or substantially renovating all 26 neighborhood branch libraries, at an estimated cost of $170 million.

The $30 million allocation in the president's budget, which must be approved by Congress, would be offered as matching funds for capital dollars from the District budget, city officials said. They said they hope the funding level could be maintained or increased in coming years as the rebuilding effort moves forward.

"There's no guarantee, but we're certainly hopeful that more is coming," Hill said last night. "This is something of national importance, and the president giving us $30 million in his budget indicates how important it is."

The chronically underfunded D.C. library system is plagued with cramped, poorly maintained buildings, a lackluster book collection and few modern technological amenities. Williams has discussed the system's needs repeatedly with first lady Laura Bush, a librarian by training, and her spokeswoman said the campaign to rebuild D.C. libraries has won her strong support.

"This is something that's very important to her," said Susan Whitson, press secretary to Laura Bush. Residents of and visitors to the nation's capital, Whitson said, should "be able to enjoy all the services that a really good library offers."

The District has allocated $70 million in its own capital budget to rebuild or renovate branch libraries. Four libraries were closed in December 2004, but plans to rebuild them have been postponed because the designs were deemed inadequate.

The task force report on libraries said funds to overhaul the system should come both from the public sector and from private foundations and benefactors.

Williams spokesman Vince Morris said the federal money should shore up support on the council for a new central library on the old convention center site and help the city launch a private capital campaign.

"Just the fact that they're willing to make that commitment, especially with all the spending cuts that are also in this budget, is pretty astounding," he said.

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