This is the most critical moment in the history of Washington's libraries since Andrew Carnegie gave the money to build the District's finest library buildings nearly a century ago.

If the city makes the right moves now, it could have a new central library and 21 new or totally renovated branches, all within eight years, according to a proposal by city planners, new library board member Richard Levy and downtown business improvement district executive Joe Sternlieb.

The library system has the chance to hire a new director, purge the board that let the libraries fall apart, take advantage of private support for new buildings and -- most dramatically -- put a new central library into the retail, residential and cultural mix planned for the old convention center site along H Street NW.

The proposed remake of the system would use not one cent of general fund money. Instead, the $170 million project would raise funds by selling off the decrepit Martin Luther King Jr. library, selling air rights over a new central library, raising donations from foundations, corporations and individuals, and selling bonds.

But there are serious questions about the numbers in that plan, and both D.C. Council members and Ralph Nader's D.C. Library Renaissance Project are wary of selling off the King library and about putting a new library at the old convention center site.

Still, in a city with a 37 percent illiteracy rate, a school system that seems impervious to reform and libraries that are an insult to anyone who bothers to enter them, the need for quick action is palpable.

In the two years that I've been writing about the plight of the city's libraries, much has happened. Nader took up the cause and got the mayor's attention. D.C. planners awoke to the nationwide revival of urban libraries -- and to their potential both to bridge the literacy gap and to attract people to a revived downtown.

Mayor Tony Williams began to shake up the library board, adding a higher caliber of needed expertise. Still, a search for a new director has so far found no qualified candidates; like the city's schools, the libraries' plight scares off good executives.

A few weeks ago, the mayor showed that he means business when he and City Administrator Robert Bobb showed up to meet with library trustees. Bobb has been a big library booster in other cities he's managed.

The enemy here is the complacency, conservatism and fear of some who purport to advocate for the libraries.

The very same volunteer groups and trustees that stood by while the system slipped into pathetic uselessness now oppose the creative moves that have given cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York libraries that attract children and adults alike with technology, inviting buildings and well-stocked shelves.

A reflexive opposition to anything that smacks of commerce drives some library activists to reject public-private partnerships, such as one proposed in Tenleytown, where, immediately across Wisconsin Avenue NW from a Metro station, architects are charging ahead with a design for a library worthy of a hamlet in Idaho.

Last summer, the city had a chance to slam the brakes on a small-scale replacement of the Tenley library. Developers offered to put a mixed-use project -- with a virtually free library -- on that extremely valuable corner.

But neighbors intent on preventing the city from recouping taxpayer investment in the Metro system rebelled against the notion of a larger building.

A mayor who really sought to strengthen the tax base would consider the zone around a Metro station to be urban gold. He would do anything it took to make certain that such locations are built up to the max.

But this mayor caved to a handful of change-averse NIMBYs who pretend that they live in Mayberry R.F.D. The mayor's planning office has given in to a loud minority, giving up on turning Wisconsin Avenue into the vibrant, dense corridor it should be.

Williams could still stop the Tenleytown project cold and insist that the library be replaced with a larger building including retail and office space suitable to a location adjacent to Metro.

Send that message, and the other pieces will fall quickly into place.

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