The DC Library Trustees should heed the controversy over changes to New York City’s flagship Fifth Avenue Library. Plans there to dismantle the iron and steel stacks, which both house books and provide structural support for the building’s beautiful, iconic Rose Reading Room, have already led to two lawsuits. The plans address much needed upgrades but, if they fail to value what the library-going public finds important, they are the wrong plans and should be redrawn.
To be sure, the situation regarding renewal of our central facility, Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, has not yet progressed to that of New York City, but the disconnect between what library users value and what library decision makers are pursuing will deepen in DC if Trustees do not move to prioritize citizen input to planning for the long-awaited and much-desired overhaul of MLK.
Despite hundreds of letters, DC Council refused to prioritize planning for MLK in the reporting requirements of the Budget Support Act, listing public input last after design, financing and construction timelines. The Act also called for an examination of public/private partnerships but did not require assessment of the needs of public facilities such as the DC City Archives or other public uses that could be co-located with MLK. By prioritizing private partnerships, Council tacitly approved downsizing the library to a portion of the current building. In an era of digitization, this may seem right intuitively, but in fact library use in DC and around the county continues to rise by every measure. We are also experiencing significant population increases, keeping DC on a secure financial footing that far outpaces any other US city, according to the Urban Land Institute.
Libraries are the ultimate institution of public access to information. Public input to planning for such an institution is fundamental and must come first. It is worrisome that the DC Council does not understand this.
Further distressing news is their confirmation of Neil Albert to the Board of Trustees last week. This means plans are already being made to privatize at least parts of the MLK central library building without public consent. Albert helped put together the West End Parcels deal (which cheated the city of a potential $100 million in land value) and oversaw the Tenley Library debacle (which engendered years of divisive community backlash). After leaving city government, Albert went to work at Holland and Knight, the city’s leading land use firm, the same one that originally represented the West End developer EastBanc in the Parcels deal.
With so many examples of what not to do, it is unfortunate that we can’t learn from them. How easy it would be just to involve everyone from the beginning, especially with the $3.8 million planning appropriation that the Council has given the Library.