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D.C. Libraries Mired in Political Dithering

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, July 10, 2008

What's happened in the four years since the District shuttered four of its neighborhood libraries, lost another one to a fire and launched an endless debate over whether to renovate or get rid of its main branch downtown?

Fairfax City conceived, built and opened a spectacular, state-of-the-art library as the cornerstone of its downtown redevelopment; Arlington County worked out an innovative deal with Signature Theatre and built a striking new Shirlington library that's also home to one of the region's top arts groups; and Montgomery County planned, built and opened its largest library, the centerpiece of Rockville Town Square, a public-private partnership including 650 residences and more than 170,000 square feet of retail.

Meanwhile, in Northeast, community activists continue to wrangle with the D.C. library system over whether a new Benning Road branch ought to be built on the site of the demolished library or as part of a shopping complex down the street. In Shaw, plans to move ahead with a new library have been delayed because of a dispute with Metro. And in Tenleytown, in upper Northwest, the city is at war against itself: The library system charges toward building a modest replacement branch while Mayor Adrian Fenty's administration promises to trump the library's plan and work with a developer on a more ambitious library-housing-school combination.

The difference between swift action in the suburbs and frustrating paralysis in the city is not money; the District has set aside plenty to revamp its depressingly outdated libraries.

It isn't a sense of purpose, either. An energetic and creative new libraries director, Ginnie Cooper, has injected the D.C. system with sharp new librarians and managers; she has also made palpable improvements to programs and physical conditions.

Cooper's initiatives are demonstrating that libraries are not relics of a dying print media world but vital doors to education, careers and achievement: Circulation, a key indicator of a library's health, is up 20 percent over the past year.

No, the problem that stymies the libraries is, as so often happens in Washington, politics. Plans for new libraries of the same size as the old ones were all set, but then politicians, always on guard against neighborhood agitators, learned about protests around the city.

In Ward 7, a group led by activist Sam Jordan joins Ralph Nader's Library Renaissance Project in pressing for consideration of a developer's proposal to incorporate a new Benning library into a retail complex at Minnesota Avenue and 40th Street NE.

"The new library could be the focal point of a new shopping area like in Shirlington and Rockville," Jordan says. "But the library says they have to move immediately on building on their own site. What's the harm in exploring this alternative? Would they rather build a library that could be instantly obsolete?"

Across town, activists in Tenleytown push in the opposite direction, urging Cooper to build a standalone library directly across from Metro at Wisconsin Avenue and Albemarle Street. Supporters of Cooper's plan are eager to fend off Fenty's economic development office, which is seeking to add much-needed density to that intersection by joining with a developer in a project including an apartment building, a library and an expansion of the adjacent Janney Elementary School.

"Development is necessary and good, but I don't think this site is right for it," says advisory neighborhood commissioner Anne Sullivan, who argues that a more ambitious project would delay restoration of library service and leave Janney students with less outdoor play space. "You need to keep every inch of land there because the children come first. This is not development vs. NIMBYs, and I'd take a polygraph on that."

Fenty lacks the passion for libraries that his predecessor, Tony Williams, demonstrated. But both Fenty and Ward 3 council member Mary Cheh campaigned on a promise to stand up to anti-development activists who manage to paralyze so many projects.

Will they act on that promise? The answer is complicated by Cooper's drive to open new branches as fast as possible. She is eager to show that a system many have given up on as hopelessly decrepit and dysfunctional is now embracing the new.

Cooper says she's close to persuading her staff that new libraries should allow patrons to eat and drink, as they would while handling library books at home. She has vastly improved the system's Web site, which now offers everything from live homework help to downloads of movies and music. And new books, which used to take months to get to library shelves, are available at the same time as they show up at bookstores.

Cooper's not averse to public-private partnerships, but says it's more important "to get a building or two up to show some success on the ground and say, 'See what's possible?' "

Wouldn't the District be better served with fewer and better branches, libraries more like Fairfax City's, with its soaring ceiling, banks of computers, extensive local history collection, and polite, helpful librarians?

Cooper loves the Fairfax, Shirlington and Rockville facilities -- she hired the librarian who planned the Rockville branch -- and she'd eventually like D.C. libraries to be part of commercial developments. But Cooper believes the District isn't ready for that degree of change.

"Eliminating some neighborhood branches has to be part of the conversation," she says, arguing that it's more important to push ahead on existing plans for smaller buildings. "We have so little credibility with the people we serve."

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