Why D.C. Needs a New Library

By Anthony A. Williams
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

District of Columbia residents have a rare opportunity to replace our downtown central library with a beautiful, welcoming, clean and modern building that can stand as an emblem of everything good and inspiring about our city. This new library would serve everyone and be a place that raises our expectations about how a visit to a library ought to feel.

But here's the rub. Some of our residents are afraid of building a new library. They've lived with the awful conditions of the current Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library for so long that they can't envision something bolder and better. These opponents talk about renovating the downtown library -- even though that could mean four years of terrible disruptions for patrons and still leave us with a library that falls short on every front.

I write today because this week the D.C. Council will hold a critical hearing on my library proposal. It's essential that District residents who believe in the idea of a better library attend the hearing and make their views known to council members.

Here is my plan:

I propose that we vacate the current library. It is poorly suited to be a place of learning, has little architectural significance and would be far more valuable if turned over to the private sector. By leasing the building -- which would include protecting the exterior and basic shape -- we could bring in more than $60 million, a good step toward the creation of a new library. These ideas were developed in part by my Blue Ribbon Library Task Force and would be carried out in part by our new system director, Ginnie Cooper, who helped make the library systems in Brooklyn and Portland, Ore., among the best in the country.

To replace the present library, I'd propose building a new one on the site of the former Convention Center -- just two blocks north of the current spot. I believe we still ought to name it in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But instead of a brooding, run-down mess, a new library could be sunny and airy and filled with the latest technology -- from WiFi and digital access to a large and welcoming space for new moms, young children and students. We'd have an extensive collection of all media, from DVDs and CDs to research material and business resources. We're looking at incorporating artwork, a coffee shop, a garden, and even a pleasant gift or flower shop -- all sharing space in a clean new building.

Even more important: A new space would also include an expanded collection in Washington, D.C., history, African American history and the history of the civil rights movement. It would truly be a library befitting Dr. King's legacy, and it would help us maintain an extensive collection devoted to the unique history of our great city.

With funds from the old site, along with private donations and federal contributions, we could build a library that would also reach out to our residents who want a place to learn. Our illiteracy rate is too high -- fully 62 percent of our residents are at the bottom in reading proficiency. Despite all the progress we've made in every other area, we won't truly advance as a city until we can bring more of our neighbors, friends and family members along with us.

A new library would be a centerpiece of our collective statement on how we value learning -- a place of educational enrichment that could serve everyone from new immigrants to graduate students at our colleges and universities.

Our plan doesn't stop there.

At the same time that I asked the council to consider the plan for a new library downtown, I asked for approval to spend as much as $170 million over the next few years on upgrades at our 25 neighborhood libraries. That money would go for everything from new windows to new books to increased operating hours.

With improvements in all our community libraries, and a new, state-of-the-art library downtown, we would have a library system that we could be proud of for years to come. I urge District residents to stand up and embrace this library system blueprint, a plan that would enhance our quality of life for decades. We need your voices to move forward.

The writer is mayor of the District of Columbia.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company