Don’t Send in the Clowns

According to Mayor Anthony Williams, residents are “afraid of building a new library.” This is a bizarre, and essentially unserious, argument in favor of his plan for a new main library. It would be accurate, however, to say that citizens are afraid of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial library, because of the frightening state into which it has fallen — a condition for which Mayor Williams, as chief city caretaker, is ultimately responsible.

In the seven and a half years he has been in office, Williams has done nothing — not a thing — to improve the public library system of the District of Columbia.

A year and a half ago, he allowed four libraries to be closed for rebuilding with no plans

for interim services (children in these areas are facing the second summer without access to a neighborhood library). Then, he allowed his appointed Board of Library Trustees to cancel the publicly approved plans for rebuilding them. The Mayor’s net effect on the library system, after seven and a half years in office, is a negative. DCPL is down by four.

Having demonstrated a complete lack of interest in improving the library system, Mayor Williams now asks to be given permission to build a new central library.

Building the main library as planned by the Mayor would be a step backward to a smaller facility, in an inferior location, sandwiched into a mixed use complex, funded by leasing air rights. And apparently the Mayor and Trustees don’t feel that learning is its own reward; the new library they envision will be enhanced with jugglers and restaurants and, of course, shopping.

A library is a storehouse of the treasures of civilization, and thus on its own merits a highly diverting place. Let’s not send in the clowns.

Perhaps, like most citizens of D.C., the mayor probably doesn’t use the library. Those who have the option travel to the very adequate libraries maintained by tax dollars of surrounding jurisdictions such as Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery counties. Or they use the Internet in the comfort of their homes, offices or local cafes.

Fifty years ago, the city fathers conceived of a new central library as an engine of economic revitalization. Congress appropriated money specifically for a central library (raising the question of whether we are even legally able to move MLK). The architect was renowned Bauhaus master Mies van der Rohe, known for his maxim, “God is in the details.” Yet, as is the way with city fathers, the details were shortchanged from the beginning in favor of the bottom line. Banks of elevators were cut, the marble facing was deleted, a fifth floor never built. Even so, the library opened to accolades.

Over the 40 years since MLK opened, and while the city around it gradually came back to life, the library was left to deteriorate, its original vision compromised from the outset.

What reason is there to believe that a new library will fare any differently?

Indeed, the area around MLK has prospered. Our pioneering iconic building

is now perfectly located to provide maximum enrichment to the life of the city. Now is the time to thoroughly renovate the building to fulfill the vision of the architect, to honor the legacy of Dr. King and to show our children what it means to take care of things.

As deteriorated as it undeniably is, the claims that MLK is unsalvageable and terminally sick are false. A through renovation of MLK, addressing the problems patrons and librarians have identified over forty years of use, was in fact proposed six years ago by the Urban Design Committee of the American Institute of Architects. Since it was proposed in 2000, there have been many requests from Library Trustees, the Committee of 100 and ordinary library-going citizens to have this study “costed-out.” Mayor Williams has steadfastly refused.

Perhaps the mayor’s greatest failure in terms of the library was the rejection of this study.

Everyone wants a better library. Many disagree with the mayor about the best way to get one. The community has been kept out of the process of determining what exactly would make a better library and thus they have many questions about the advisability of what the Mayor has planned.

After nearly eight years of his neglect, Mayor Williams simply has no standing when it comes to the library. His legislation should be dismissed out of hand.