New Library Chief Left N.Y. Job Early

By Elissa Silverman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 25, 2006

The new chief of D.C. public libraries said that an extraordinary opportunity to build a 21st-century library in the nation's capital, not controversy kicked up by stories in the New York media, is what compelled her to pack up 18 months earlier than expected from Brooklyn's library system and head south to Washington.

Ginnie Cooper, 60, was approved as executive director by the D.C. Public Library Board of Trustees in a unanimous vote last week.

"The job in Washington is so compelling that I'm coming here instead," Cooper said in a telephone interview. "This is the only job I could imagine applying for that would make me leave Brooklyn."

Cooper said she wasn't looking to prematurely end her five-year contract in Brooklyn when members of Mayor Anthony A. Williams's blue-ribbon commission on libraries came to visit last year. Williams appointed the group to advise him on how to overhaul the beleaguered system and to make recommendations on his controversial proposal to build a central library on the grounds of the demolished convention center.

Cooper has her own share of controversy stemming from her D.C. salary, the temporary closing of a branch in New York and foreign travel for library staffers there.

But board trustees said Cooper's record rebuilding major library systems made her stand out. "This is not just running a library," said John W. Hill Jr., president of the library board of trustees. "It is rebuilding an entire library system and managing an infrastructure project that could cost as much as $400 million."

As head of Multnomah County's library system in Portland, Ore., Cooper oversaw the complete renovation of a central library built in 1912. In January 2003, she trekked across the country to head the Brooklyn Public Library, which is the fifth-largest system in the country.

In her 3 1/2 -year tenure, Cooper said, she emphasized literacy programs and customer service. In an age when large chain bookstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble compete for the hearts of bibliophiles, Cooper said she worked hard to make visiting the library an enjoyable experience for everyone and made things such as signing up for library cards as easy as possible.

She also instituted innovative programs including one that encouraged reading to babies.

Cooper's leadership also has been the subject of debate. After a library staff member severed her pinkie finger trying to break up a fight among teenage patrons outside the Brownsville branch in March, Cooper decided to shut down the neighborhood library for four days. New York media quoted Mayor Michael Bloomberg calling the move an "overreaction."

"I'm sure from his perspective the message that was sent about the city of New York was not one that he wanted to send," Cooper said. But she said a concern for the safety of staff and patrons drove her decision.

Williams and Cooper share an interest in travel and libraries. The mayor took a trip to London to visit its library system. Cooper proposed taking three staff members to a conference in Hong Kong and Singapore. Brooklyn's library board of trustees decided not to approve the expenditure, which had been given a $20,000 price tag in news reports.

Cooper's D.C. salary of $205,000 also has attracted attention. The library's last full-time executive director, Molly Raphael, had a salary of $122,000.

Cooper is taking a cut from her $218,000 salary in Brooklyn. But she said the unique challenge is worth it. "I look forward to planning the library of this century -- not the last century," she said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company