Privatizing the DC Public Library

Mayor Williams and his developer pals have long lusted for control of the District’s most valuable real estate, especially sites occupied by schools and libraries, in order to feed the industry’s insatiable desire for profits at public expense. In recent months, Mayor William’s plans have been materially advanced by new legislation passed by DC Council that encourages the sale of publicly owned real estate, and the promotion of so-called “mixed use” development through which developers can purchase “air rights” above or beside public buildings, thus effectively submerging or compromising public ownership and control of these properties in favor of private ownership.

For the libraries, what is immediately at issue is the sale of Library property – in fact the sale or ostensible lease of the present Martin Luther King building located between 9 and 10 ST NW, on G Street. The Mayor has adopted a plan – more than a year in gestation – that would require a new Downtown Library to be built on the Old Convention Center site, with the sale or lease of the Mies building as the means of generating capital for either the construction of a new building or the reconstruction of the branches.

Legislation to facilitate this (and similar) transaction(s) is embodied in Bill 16-49, aka the “Library Enhancement, Assessment and Development Act of 2005” which states that the legislation “would create an organizational structure and process for developing public-private partnerships to renovate and modernize public libraries in the District of Columbia. Second, the legislation would designate revenues, generated primarily from the use of assets of the District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL) system, to finance the partnerships and improve library facilities.”

At this moment (Wednesday, February 8), it is clear that the Wiliams administration is orchestrating a broad campaign to gain support for the sale of the public property to developers. The recent Bush administration announcement of 30 million dollars to the DC Library system is being interpreted by Williams as support for his plan to sell off the Mies building and other library property, while Linda Cropp ( a strong Williams ally on Council) has introduced legislation that would extend the provisions of Library Bill 16-49 to embrace the schools.

The DC Library Renaissance Project is opposed to Mayor Williams’ plan to sell or lease the Mies building first, because public property should not be alienated from public use, and second because we do not believe that the Mies building can be profitably renovated by a developer given the costs of removing asbestos and reconfiguring the interior spaces in the building. Thus, we believe that the plan to lease or sell the building as a means of retaining it as an example of Mies architecture is a cynical ploy designed to remove some objections to the removal of the Library to a new building at the Old Convention Center site, while, in due time, the plan is to raze the Mies building to make way for new development.

Maintenance and the DC Public Library

The DC Library Renaissance Project

A City Divided

By Leonard Minsky

At the founding of the DC Library Renaissance Project in December 2002, Ralph Nader observed that the district is really two cities – a black city and a white city, a wealthy city and an impoverished city, a literate city and an illiterate city. In many ways, the defining issue for the District is the existence of these two disparate and unequal cities. Ideally, in a city so divided, the Public Library would serve as a bridge to serve all communities. .

Thus, in the City Divided, the affluent can afford to buy the books they need, own home computers and know how to use them, and can pay for private schools, tutoring, and supplemental educational activities. Others have small incomes, or none, do not have access to computers, may be marginally literate or illiterate, and utterly depend on this frayed, battered, and decayed resource to boost a sub-standard education. Their reliance on a broken system assures their continuing marginalization.

There is, however, equality in this: too many of DC’s Library buildings, including the central downtown library (MLK) are so dingy, dank, and dangerous that people simply do not use them. This is not a partisan perception. On the subject of the brokenness of the Library system there is near universal agreement, including Mayor Williams’ own description of the Library as being “in severe disrepair.” Not to belabor a metaphor but if the Library were a bridge, you wouldn’t want to put your weight on it. Unfortunately, some people have no choice but to lean on it, no matter how broken.

Resources for public institutions are of course limited, and choices have to be made. As regards the Public Library, those in power have made some key decisions about repairing the system that, in our opinion, will not best serve those most in need of a bridge. We think that the choice of rebuilding the entire system, just announced, will create at least a three year gap in library services that will fall most heavily on the poor.

The publication now of this segment from a larger Report is prompted by four different, but related, decisions of the Board of Trustees:

• the cancellation of plans to demolish and rebuild four libraries closed since December 2004, and now rendered unusable.

• the statement of intention to rebuild the entire system, instead of repairing it

• the plan to put Public Library holdings up for sale to finance rebuilding, and

• the cancellation of long-promised renovations for the historic Georgetown branch for a process of re-examination.

These points suggest a plan under construction by the Board of Trustees that (it is reasonable to infer) currently exists. Other evidence for this assumption appears later in this Report, but there are additional indications of on-going discussions about the Library’s future, also held in secret, by an appointed “Task Force” that has few roots in the community. It is troubling to note that the Commission’s closeted activities are paid for with taxpayer dollars, and that the Board of Library Trustees has also deliberately cut itself off from public input or scrutiny by a little publicized schedule of branch-based meetings – too often difficult to reach by public transportation.

This is top–down planning, and always risks resistance from communities that are inadequately consulted, or that feel manipulated through carefully controlled amounts of discussion that take place. Options emerging from such a closed process raise serious concerns. Thus, the decisions to first close, then delay rebuilding four branches as promised, had already sown seeds of distrust. When the Library Board subsequently announced its plan to scrap all four planned and funded libraries, the impacted communities sensed betrayal, confirming for many a suspicion that neither the Board nor the Mayor ever intended to rebuild these libraries

The Board’s radical decision to start over, however, appears to stem from an unacknowledged issue that lies behind the universal recognition of a broken system. While everyone knows that the elevators don’t elevate, that the paint peels, and the heating systems leave you cold, the Board’s solution to this state of physical crisis – namely a total rebuilding of the system – is fatally flawed. The leap to this mistaken conclusion arises from the visibility of disastrous conditions everywhere in the system, combined with the failure to understand that they arise from a systematic, systemic refusal to maintain the plant, thus guaranteeing continuous failure and breakdown.

The decayed condition of the DC Public Library (as well as the schools and other public buildings in the District) is, in fact a direct result of the total absence of stewardship over the past decades. There has been a studied neglect of maintenance and repairs that is difficult to account for, but not difficult to describe. A good analogy would be to the purchase of an expensive car, with indifference to whether there is oil in the engine, or not. The premise is that the machine is expendable, and can easily be replaced with another, and that it nearly always feels more expensive to fix the car than to maintain it. Thus, the capital expended to buy a new machine is easier to come by than the capital necessary to fund operational repairs. This almost certainly characterizes the Board’s reasoning about rebuilding the Library system from scratch, instead of repairing it.

But the Board’s response begs two critical questions – is it an efficient and fiscally responsible solution to the immediate problem, and is it a viable long-term “fix” for the entire system? In terms of our metaphor, why buy a Mercedes without the will or ability to maintain it, and turn it into junk well before it’s useful and productive life is over? It is transparently clear that any new Library system would quickly be trashed if the maintenance issue is not addressed, while the question of what it would take to create and sustain a comprehensive system has not been openly discussed.

Clearly, reform of the maintenance system is warranted before any new construction is undertaken. Going back to the drawing board for new buildings will be wasteful and meaningless unless new designs lay out how to build reliability and accountability into the maintenance system of the DC Public Library. In our opinion, improved performance and accountability in this area, would sustain the branches and guarantee continued service to the majority of users and patrons of the system, while the Library and the community together examine other solutions.

The Board’s grandiose response to the repair issue, we think, stems from secretive backroom discussions confined to pre-selected options originating in the Mayor’s office. The exclusion of other points of view that may have suggested alternate, cheaper and more people-friendly solutions to the Library’s problems, more or less guaranteed the choice of a developer’s dream solution that contemplates wholesale rebuilding of the system, and requires the sale of select pieces of Public Library property.

Another weighty objection to the Board’s plan is the amount of time that must pass before system renewal can even begin. The four closed libraries have already languished for nearly a year. It will take at least three more years to plan, design and build them anew, and many more years to build or rebuild the eighteen other branches. There will be glitches, delays, and cost over-runs. Meanwhile, the system as a whole will be degraded for years to come, while the powerful choose to build a luxurious library system, with a “signature” Library Cathedral at the top of their pyramid.

Thus, the question from the abandoned communities arises: how long, O Lord, how long must we wait? And what do our children do in the meantime? And where do we get the information to survive, to find a job, or to research our health issues as our lives continue to fail? And above all, why are these branches in such desperate condition, and why aren’t they being fixed at least to the level of maintaining present service?

Why has the Board of Library Trustees chosen to focus first on new construction, while leaving the issue of present maintenance in the background? Did they take into account the cost to the neighborhoods around these shuttered storehouses of information and knowledge? Did they assess the value of these “disappeared” library services to the career, health, and educational opportunities of the poor and predominantly African-American and Latino communities that surround three of these four closed libraries?

If the Board, in deciding to ditch these plans and start anew, actually calculated the costs to the poorest communities, accommodations have not yet been made to address them. The planning failures of past Boards of Library Trustees are being furthered by the present Board, who not only continue to pursue the “deferred maintenance” that brought us to the current intolerable state of disrepair, but continue to drag their feet, waiting upon the findings of the inaccessible and unelected “Blue Ribbon” Commission.

The Public Libraries must be restored to safe and healthy use. The will and the know-how to reform and restructure the maintenance system must be found. The following excerpt from our Report deals with this most basic issue – maintenance – and what the failure to provide maintenance portends. We hope our narrative provides a useful analysis of the situation and enough description of the branches to convey the urgency for immediate repair to the buildings, as well as the need to ensure adequate ongoing maintenance (both funds and system capacity) before anything new is built.

Maintenance and the Library

Ralph Nader founded our Project in December 2002 to find solutions to the decay of DC’s Library system. From that time to this, the Project has advocated for the Library, and has succeeded in focusing political attention on the issue. The publication of this segment from a larger Report is prompted by a continuing critical decay of library infrastructure and, while focusing mainly on Library maintenance, suggests the impact of maintenance failures on other parts of the system, as well as choices, for the Library.

Our own conclusions have been drawn from an open and permeable experience of the DC Library system generated by more than two years of our Project’s close engagement with all parts of the system – from the communities served by the branches, to the branches and the branch managers, to the foot soldiers who serve the Library as security guards, on up to the administration, to the Director, and to the past and present Board of Trustees.

We have taken pains to share our growth in understanding with affected communities and political decision-makers, as well as with Library administrators who have not always appreciated our efforts or our conclusions. Where we differ from the Board of Trustees, it is often because we have had open conversations and exchanges with grass-roots users and patrons of the system that have been rendered impossible by the Library’s stiff, defensive and/or unresponsive Board meetings.

Added to these many admittedly informal conversations and meetings, we hired consultants to help us and Council staff get a better understanding of the issues and choices facing the Library, and set up a Roundtable to study alternate options for Library renewal. In our efforts to maintain open channels of communication between all parties, especially in representing grass roots concerns, we gave formal testimony to Council and, most uselessly, tried to talk to the Mayor directly through his agents.

The entire process was public, the exchanges of information and perspective shared and useful, and the results in terms of public education measurable by our successful mobilization of hundreds of citizens in support of Library funding and renewal. No group of Library supporters has done more, or as much, for the DC Public Library.

It is from this perspective that we have gained serious concerns about the present process, fearing that harmful decisions are being made without public consultation. Thus, the decision to abandon the entire previously planned reconstruction of the system threatens the continuity of library services to many communities now served by ailing branches.

Glen and Lisa Holt were hired to do the Roundtable. Glen Holt is the retired Director of the St. Louis Library system which he ran for more than seventeen years, rebuilding the entire system, but starting with the branches before turning his attention to a new Downtown Library Dr.Lisa Holt planned and funded children’s and literacy programs for the same system.

It is important to note that three of the four libraries currently closed, Anacostia, Benning and Watha T. Daniel, served the least affluent and most marginalized neighborhoods in the District. The residents of these neighborhoods are most in need of the kind of services (like homework help) formerly provided by their libraries, and are the most injured by the withdrawal of such service. Thus, the absence of the homework help centers over a several year period (as seems likely) will materially affect school children that rely on the public library for resources, while scarcely touching the residents surrounding Tenley that have money to buy best sellers, or are able to fall back on computers at home.

Should one other library be forced to close, like the Francis Gregory branch, there will be no library services available to communities east of the river, since the three closures mentioned above have already seriously depleted resources to this community.

The issue then turns on whether to “fix up” the branches to maintain service, or to build entirely new branches while relying on “store front” libraries, or other temporary resources, to replace branch service for the interim period. On balance, therefore, we favor the “fix up” approach, and believe that the current focus on a major new Library at the Old Convention Center site will collide with this objective, putting any services through the branches (currently offered or planned for the future) seriously at risk.

But a “fix-up” approach that repairs the library piecemeal raises the issue of maintenance, the failure of which has led to the “brokenness” that now faces us. The failure of the maintenance system now in place is a critical challenge to the viability of the system as it exists, especially if one or two additional branches “go down” this coming winter. And if the system remains unchanged, it would quickly turn new buildings into a similar slum. We believe that the present Board of Trustees is aware of this problem, and has in mind a solution that depends on the creation of an hundred million dollar endowment, though the timeline or practical plan for its creation is as yet concealed from public view.

Before we came to these conclusions, however, we had been working to inventory needed repairs to all the branches, as well as MLK. The polite conversations we were having with branch librarians and with staff (we had been enjoined not to delve too deeply into these matters) nevertheless soon exposed the deeper problem of maintenance.

Several examples will serve:

We were talking about maintenance with a Branch Manager for one of the libraries in the system. But even before we got to ask our questions, she interrupted, saying “I know what you’re talking about. Yesterday, our Library was cold and uncomfortable. We had a boiler recently installed but it wasn’t working. I called Frank at MLK and told him we were cold, could he send someone down immediately to fix it. One of the “engineers” from MLK finally appeared, looked it over, pointed to another piece of the apparatus and said it wasn’t working, and he couldn’t fix it.

I called Frank again, and the next thing I know there is this guy in a truck from a maintenance firm, wearing a tool jacket lined with tools. He went down to the basement, took a look and came up, asking if I wanted to see what was wrong. I didn’t, I just wanted it fixed, but he insisted and I went down to the basement with him. He pointed to a button and said “It just wasn’t turned on.” I don’t know how much it cost the Library to pay this man or why the man sent out from MLK couldn’t press that button.”

Another anecdote from a branch manger:

“See that wall – it needed painting and plastering for many months. Could not get it fixed. Finally, a contactor appeared with four men in a truck. The four men worked for two or three hours, then, not having finished the job, spent the rest of the day in their truck. When I called MLK to complain, I was told that I was lucky to have anybody there at all, and I should not complain.”

And a third conversation:

“When we need something fixed, we don’t know who to call – who is responsible for fixing what at MLK. What we do is call around until we find someone responsive – it would help if we had some kind of chart describing who does what – then we would know who to call.”

Such conversations were not about the repairs themselves, but were about how things weren’t maintained in the first instance, and were not fixed after they broke. Our lists alone would not have told us much about the system – the length of time it took to make a repair, the degree of skill or lack of it of the Library’s maintenance employees, the attitudes of people in charge at MLK or the tacit acceptance of a maintenance system starved out of functional existence. Absent these conversations, and many more like them, we would have developed little insight into the system.

We found, for example, that many branch librarians share our informant’s ignorance about reporting breakdowns in the system: they do not understand the division of labor at MLK as it touches on maintenance, and thus do not know how to facilitate repair by pressing the responsible agent. Some branch librarians develop this knowledge, and some do not – some think it is their responsibility and others do not – and the condition of their branches often reflects their knowledge or its absence. In this manner, the maintenance or fix-up issue escapes the identification of a specific need for repair, and becomes a problem of internal organizational communication – but mostly its absence.

We did not initially appreciate the critical role of the Maintenance division and its impact on many other functions, nor did we anticipate that its many failures could severely curtail or frustrate Library efforts to increase circulation and use. We stumbled on the maintenance problem by accident rather than design – Mr Nader wanted to fix the most visible of the Library’s problems (plaster, paint, rugs etc.) and told us to make a laundry list. We expected to send out a begging bowl to realtors and developers who had made considerable sums out of building things in the District, and ask them to contribute repairs as a form of recognition of their community responsibility.

But as we set about the business of making the list, we uncovered the systemic problem of maintenance, and as we began to think about it, our perspective on the Library system and its problems began to alter and grow. Through conversations, dialogue and observation, we had already learned to see the Library as an interactive system that failed to interact, but our eyes were fixed on “higher” administrative matters and it took us a while to notice that lower down in the hierarchy, the “feet” – “engineers”, custodians and some branch librarians – were moving slowly, or not at all.

We suddenly understood that fixing the system could not be a simple matter of making current repairs, because new breaks could inevitably be expected without an adequately functioning maintenance system in place. Thus, at this point in time, inadequate maintenance budgets have long delayed major structural repairs everywhere in the Library system, so that elevators, basements, roofs, electrical wiring systems and plumbing repairs have pushed many of the branch libraries to the edge of major breakdowns that could close buildings for extended periods of time. Many branches have already been forced to close for the failure of one system or another, but these buildings have usually been restored to functional health in a day or two.

With only a $500,000 operating budget for repairs for the entire system, consisting at one point of twenty one operational branches, five “community” libraries and MLK itself, any single major repair like the replacement of elevators, or entire electrical and plumbing systems for many of the aging branches would decimate the entire operating budget for repairs. So these repairs, designated as “secondary” (meaning in this case “major”) have simply not been done.

Elevators that should have been replaced in twenty years have not been, plumbing and electrical systems ditto, and a thirty year horizon for entire buildings that was once considered adequate, has most of the building stock in the Library system now exceeding their planned usefulness, with many of the branches having been built in the fifties by a Federal government successor program to the WPA, and three Carnegie libraries nearing one hundred years of service.

Against this tide of aging infrastructure, the Library system can field only four “engineers” to oversee maintenance of the entire system. While the term “engineer” implies a serious level of competence, in fact three of the “engineers” have minimal technical expertise and training, a level 6 license that only prepares them for “light maintenance”, and were previously functioning as custodians, who require little or no training. Only one of these four engineers has a Class A license, (with enough authority and skill to shut a heating system down), and his expertise can only maintain the system at a “light” level of repair. However, he lacks the larger skills necessary, or the budget and staff, to address major, so-called “secondary” repairs.

In addition, while there is a relatively large custodial staff (almost every branch has one) their job descriptions prevent them from doing minor repairs. Worse, they do not report the breakdown directly to MLK and the head of maintenance there, but must go through the Branch Librarian who may, or may not be familiar enough with the problem to convey its nature and seriousness to the “engineers” at MLK. Custodians, we are told, received a minimal salary ($25,000 per year was the figure quoted to us), and have no way to improve their status in the system.

The custodians are thus at the bottom rung of a ladder that has no rungs up. They, like others in the system (we hear this from the Security staff also) are not provided with on the job and officially sanctioned education and training, and so potentially useful employees on site at the branches cannot make the minor repairs that would save the time and money that is now used to send “engineers” from MLK. On site, these employees, if better trained, could exercise oversight and thus prevent more cataclysmic breakdowns by applying immediate first aid in an emergency situation, or preventing it altogether. As things stand, their narrow job descriptions often leave them idle on the job, with branch librarians complaining about their laziness or lack of skill.

This accumulation of neglected repairs and poor maintenance could close several branches for extended periods of time, threatening the balance of a system that is already stressed. Four branches are presently closed, three of them (Anacostia, Benning and Watha T. Daniel) serving those in most need of public library services in the District, and should another branch east of the river also fail, the shrinkage of service to the black community would far outweigh a similar gap should one of the more affluent neighborhoods lose their branch.

The maintenance and repair problem alone may have cataclysmic consequences for the Library, and yet seems to have been swept under the rug. We found, for example, that an estimated 35 million dollars in backlogged repairs is due to a decades-old systemic breakdown that has not yet been openly discussed or addressed. This problem has been reported, we were told, but seems to be an example of hiding in plain sight. Kathy Patterson, for example, Chairman of Council’s “Education, Library and Recreation Committee”, and a member of that Committee for many years, had never heard of this $35 million dollar repair bill until we brought it to her attention in early October of 2005.

This estimate of costs for backlogged repairs, however, was made four years ago, and costs since then have soared, especially after Katrina. It is easy now to see a total cost of repairs to the system that could reach seventy or more millions of dollars, and would only result in restoring the branches and MLK to functionality. Thus, this sum would give use safe and functional buildings, but few “enhancements.” It would not, for example, improve the external appearance, or provide new and more comfortable furniture, or cover the costs of rewiring a building to accommodate a large number of computers.

Skipping over the policy implications of so huge a backlog of repairs, or who knows or who does not (e.g., the Board of Trustees certainly knows, else why talk of an endowment for maintenance, and if so why has the issue not been brought to Council and its Committees?), it seems clear to us that on this count alone the Library must be judged dysfunctional. That this huge repair problem should continue to be so severe under its new Board, in place now for over a year, is a matter for some dismay, but becomes even more problematic as the Board and the Director of the Library undertake to translate a new Vision for the Library into a system that actually works.

The Library’s Board has been made aware of the maintenance problem, but seems to have put its faith in finding the money to rebuild the entire system, while the ticking time bomb of crumbling buildings moves ever closer to several catastrophic breakdowns. Several additional branches may have to be closed this coming winter, severely straining the system, and raising the issue to crisis proportions. Should this happen, the neediest library users in the District will be most impacted, since they rely on the Library for homework help for their children, secure care for their children after school and information about essential services that they can get nowhere else.

On this and related issues community input and participation is badly needed, and indeed is essential to better define the differing needs of the various neighborhoods in the District. Such input could focus the issue of Library maintenance and repair on the priority that should be given to programs and services, rather than building entirely new branches. For example, while the closing of Watha T. Daniel, Anacostia, and Benning was grudgingly supported by the communities they serve, there was much anguish and paranoia expressed about whether these branches would ever be reopened, and consent from the community was based on assurances by Library personnel that they would be rebuilt in a relatively short period of time.

One crucial need met by these branches was in the provision of space for community meetings, and the exchanges of information made possible by meeting spaces in each branch. Indeed, the eventual plans for the new buildings eliminated these spaces, confirming for many that the District government and its key decision-makers were indifferent to the needs of poorer communities. This suspicion that has been further confirmed by the Board of Trustee’s recent decision to scrap the entire plan for rebuilding the four Libraries – including Tenley – and by the Board’s focus on a new, very expensive, Downtown facility that will not serve the poorer neighborhoods.

And since Library use is an important measure of success – for the Library as an organization, for branch managers, and for the Director himself – the continuing failure of the maintenance system must frustrate all other efforts to increase circulation and library use. Thus, at this writing, Barbara Webb’s (Supervisor of Branch Managers) most vigorous efforts to improve circulation by “weeding” the collection seems instead to have resulted in falling circulation and use. Is this a measure of the failure of “weeding” as a tool to restore or boost circulation, or is it a result of numerous library closures due to a failure of the air conditioning, or the heating or the electrical systems?

Or again, since few branch libraries have more than two or three computers functioning at any one time, with weeks and sometimes months to wait for repairs, is not library use being discouraged by this very significant gap in service? Or again, since the Library seems relatively indifferent to providing useful programs and services, would Library use nevertheless increase even with the present minimalist approach to system repair?

There are other impacts, and other questions that arise from the failure of the Library as a system due to its many maintenance failures, and librarians reading these remarks will no doubt be able to contribute more insight on its effects, but at this point we simply observe that the impact exists, and that its centrality to the functioning of other parts of the system is often overlooked or underestimated.

The dysfunctional maintenance system seems to mirror as well dysfunctions in other parts of the system, and affects the Library’s ability to assess its own strengths and weaknesses, or to make relatively minor decisions about programs and collections, or to focus the energies of senior staff on creating a professional and Library-based vision for its future development. In the event, that task has been usurped by the Blue Ribbon Commission to which the “visioning” role seems to have been delegated.

This, we predict, will be a problem because without a strong and coherent Vision emanating from a professionally competent and more coherent Library leadership, the various forces at work in communities with very different needs will, in the political arena, produce conflicting visions, certain to be taken up by the political representatives of each Ward as they struggle to serve very different communities with very different needs. With the processes now in place, and the internal condition of the Library as it exists, it is very difficult to see how these differences can be resolved into a comprehensive approach to rebuilding a Library system that must serve all of the constituencies in the City.

In order to get a broadly supported plan for rebuilding or fixing the system, the Library Board of Trustees will need to build consensus around the options, and for this purpose the Library will need all the Friends it can get – Friends it currently excludes.

Absent Friends, Absent Community, Absent Maintenance:

Most Library systems have Friends groups that tend to the health of their branches by fixing small things, and advocating for the needs of the branch where those needs are larger than the Friends’ purse can supply. Friends groups are tripwires – they draw attention to problems in their “own” libraries, and usually advocate vigorously for repairs. Often, they pay for minor repairs out of their own pockets.

Friends groups, in fact, are a critical interface between the Libraries and the communities that use them, and are often made up of community activists that touch on networks extending everywhere in a given neighborhood. Thus, cutting Friends off from participating in Library decision-making, or having significant input at all, not only dries up the Friends organization itself, but shrivels broader community support for the Library. As the physical plant of the Library is allowed to decay, and Friends demands for repairs are ignored, the decay itself sends a message of indifference to the community, which the community reciprocates with an unfailing lack of support and a refusal to use the system – the very lifeblood for a Library’s viability.

As we visited the Library’s many branches, we found ourselves pinch-hitting for absent, frayed, discouraged and dying Friends groups that should have been there to defend the Library system. Other Library systems are protected by such groups, and some systems had been rebuilt under Friends leadership, but that is not the case in the District.

To be sure, some Friends groups did and do survive and flourish at the branches; mostly these are active in the middle class Wards. And technically a Federation of Friends group exists as well, but over the years, due in part to the prevalent secrecy practiced by all previous Library administrations, including and especially its’ present version, most of these groups have tended to dry up, though some, like Tenley, have held on and fought tenaciously for the welfare of their branch.

Thus, when we first began to advocate for the Library in January 2002, Mary Jane Hart, then the Federation’s president, complained bitterly about the Library’s exclusion of the Friends groups from any information about the Library, and from any effort to advocate for the Library in any forum whatsoever. She attributed the dried up husk of the Federation to a policy of exclusion and secrecy emanating from the Library’s Board and its past Director, Molly Raphael.

For these reasons, the Library has gained little footing in the community. In other cities, as we stated, Friends groups have successfully advocated for their libraries, and produced vibrant and healthy resources for their citizens. In DC, this did not happen. Those few

Friends groups which are active are also largely local – they are focused on the welfare of their branch, not the general health of the system.

Since then, although the membership of the Library Board has changed, its policy of secrecy has not. As the Friends groups have largely continued to be excluded from significant input into a planning process for the Library that badly needs inclusiveness, the secrecy has only grown. At this point, the President of the Board of Trustees, John Hill, has “included” members of the Board in the deliberations of the Blue Ribbon Commission, and rotates Board meetings in a “public” manner throughout the branches. But the agenda is closed, the Board does its business and makes it decisions behind the scenes, there is no notice going out to the community surrounding the branch chosen for a Board meeting, and there is no provision for community input.

By distancing its Friends, Board policy has also distanced the community, and prevents and/or suppresses the formation of larger, more vocal, neighborhood-based community groups that can speak out on behalf of the Library. Without a healthy Friends connection there is less community support and input, and the Library must fall prey to the Mayor’s alternating myopic or imperial vision, or to politicians who see nothing wrong with private profits being wrung from the abuse of public property.

Unfortunately, developers as a group represent the most coherent and powerful

corporate interests in town, and are accustomed to getting what they want from a District government that has failed the people badly in opposing those interests. The only possible counter-weight to their greed in pursuit of profit at the public’s expense, would be a well informed and deliberately involved citizenship – something we are sure the present Board of Trustees does not want.

And while there are such organized groups in the District, some of them representing the homeless, others worried about health care and yet others, mostly local neighborhood groups, worried about recreation in their poverty stricken neighborhoods, there is so far no similarly effective District-wide group of Friends to protect the Library from the vultures. There is only the Federation of Friends, still disorganized, and reduced further by a warm seat near the site of power, but without a vote.

So the absence of Friends has been devastating to the fortunes of the Library.

Making the laundry list and understanding the system:

We return for a moment to what we learned directly from the process of making our lists. Although working closely with the Library on many other fronts (e.g., try to develop programs to eliminate illiteracy in the District), by August 2005 little progress had been made on the repair issue. Where the rubber hits the road, the Library was not getting fixed. The same or different carpets were damp and moldy, the same or different walls needed plaster and paint, the same or different basements leaked, and recurring problems closed branches for the failure of one of the Library’s systems or another.

So, seeking some light in August, we sought permission and guidelines to make our inventory from the Library’s relatively new Director, Fran Buckley. In discussion with Ralph Nader, he was enthusiastic about its potential usefulness, though he stipulated that our “shoppers” were to remain secret, and should not engage library staff in conversations that would take Library time and perhaps make staff feel compromised. That meant that deeper and less visible structural problems would not easily be seen.

It was also understood, however, that no comments on effectiveness or performance of library staff were to be included, a restriction that seemed to preclude our being perceived by library personnel as “spies” acting on behalf of the Boss, but promptly became problematic as the physical condition of each branch library, as well as MLK itself, seemed to emanate, in part, from the fortitude and imagination, or the lack of these qualities, in the staff of each branch. Thus, while the general failures of the maintenance system were uniform, the talents of individual branch managers were often successfully deployed to blunt its worst effects.

The ability of some branches to apparently prosper despite the almost universal

drawbacks of rippled carpets, exposed wiring, peeling paint etc. should ultimately play a role in evaluating the choice of repair versus rebuilding, since many of the failures of use employed to justify rebuilding is not primarily a function of the decay of the physical plant, but seems to have as much to do with programs as they reflect and satisfy community needs, or their absence. For example, the Northeast branch, though originally magnificent, is as shabby in many ways as other branches, but it is well used by parents and children due to its children’s librarian, and the many programs he has created.

To be sure, there are other important factors in the mix – whether or not the Friends group for that branch was well organized or not, and wealthy or not, since branches on the West side of the river could have as much as $25,000 for programs and other necessities, whereas branches on the East side of the river could have as little as three or

four hundred dollars to fill the same gaps. Nevertheless, the presence or absence of financial resources does not fully account for the differences in use in the branches. Between branches of equally sparse resources or equally rich resources, we noted, there was still a noteworthy difference in the appearance and hospitality offered users – branch to branch. It is clear that creative librarians can and do make a big difference, where they exist or are encouraged, but many of them have been driven out by the continuing cycle of breakdown and inadequate repair.

What clearly emerged was that the corruption or decay of the entire system could be inferred from cataloguing the needed repairs. We found ourselves trying to figure out why, for example, the system couldn’t maintain itself. That was simple – there were few personnel dedicated to the task. Only four, as we stated earlier in this Report. Well, why was that? Well, it turns out that the Control Board cut the maintenance budget many years ago. Then what happened? Well, the repairs just piled up – to a total now of nearly 35 million dollars, based on an estimate made four years ago.

And how did that happen? Did it go unnoticed by the Board of Trustees or the Directors of the Library? Was it brought to the attention of the politicians in the District government? How did the Library system accumulate 35 million dollars in backlogged repairs? Well, it turns out that for this year alone, the Library’s budgeted maintenance rests at $1.93 per square foot, when a minimally adequate national average (for libraries in a better state or repair) is $4.23. Budgets for previous years have been even worse.

Does the Mayor and Council know about this situation and if not, why not? Have Library personnel concealed this fact from the politicians to whom the Library must be accountable, and if not, why not? And how could 35 million dollars in backlogged repairs be countenanced, tolerated or concealed?

Much of the problem, unfortunately, is political. Outside the Library, there has been conflict between the Mayor’s office and Council. This Mayor has until recently been a consistent advocate of smaller budgets for the Library, forcing Council to play catch-up by re-allocating resources to plug the many gaps in service occasioned by his marginal budgets. The overall size of the District budget is fixed by the Mayor, and Council is not authorized to increase that budget, though they can reallocate funds. Thus, over time, it was the Mayor’s choices that produced the current decayed state of the Library, not withstanding his apparent current change of heart – or the reasons for it.

Perhaps in response to continuing cuts in personnel over the years, the Library itself

developed an internal culture based on silence and secrecy in which possession of information, jealously guarded, either protects the job-holder from criticism or evaluation of performance, or represents power based on that information. Negative information in particular is not shared up or down the chain of command, and while at one end the Director is prevented from knowing just what is wrong, or broken, or failing in the system he/she ostensibly governs, at the other end personnel have little or no information about the larger policy context and purposes within which their jobs are to be performed..

The apparently simple issue of tightening nuts and bolts i.e., fixing the physical plant, opens a large window through which the destruction and decay of the entire Library system can be seen and understood. We did not anticipate that – in fact, we did not anticipate that turning over the Library rock would expose a systemic corruption similar to that in the schools (the other key educational institution in town), although one very savvy and experienced Foundation Director initially refused to fund us on the grounds that we couldn’t fix the Library simply because it is an integral part of the District.


Unfortunately, the Library is very much a part of the District, and its repair problems are the same as those of the schools. School principals have told us that it is impossible to get things repaired in their schools, and that when repairs are finally made they are superficial, inadequate or below standard. As with the Library system, principals who succeed often do so by “flying beneath the radar”, manipulating and harassing the system to get what they need, or getting it from ad hoc external resources.

Such common problems demonstrate systemic dysfunction in the District government, and suggest that the Library is merely an island in a sea of dysfunction that erodes and undermines all of the District’s institutions and bureaucracies. (cf. Marc Fisher’s column in the Washington Post, October 18, 2005, p. B1)

The Library’s connection to the Blue Ribbon Commission, a body created by the Mayor and not the Library Board, has unfortunately reinforced the link between the Library’s governance and the political system. Thus, the appointments to the Commission were made by the Mayor and not by the Library Board, and though their recommendations when published will be considered advisory to the Board, the water from the well has been “flavored” by the Mayor’s choice of appointees, as well as by his explicit or implicit criteria for selection to the Commission.

The connection of the Mayor to the process of planning Library renewal has not only politicized the planning process, but it has also influenced the issue of Library maintenance and repair. The “visioning” that lies at the heart of the planning process has been subordinated to the Mayor’s plans for District development which, in turn, has inevitably influenced decisions about whether or not to maintain the present building “stock”. Thus, the decision to build an entirely new Downtown Library was influenced by an alleged “study” (never presented or published) that claimed that a new building would be cheaper than a rehab of MLK.

Similar thinking has certainly influenced the recent decision to rebuild the entire system,

and the hugely backlogged cost of repairs will surely be used to raise questions about how much will it cost to repair the system, and whether it is worth doing at all. At current costs, the $35 million dollar repair bill will easily double or treble, and produce a consequential dilemma about repairs versus new building, perhaps tipping the balance in the direction of new buildings. But this discussion has not so far occurred publicly, although we are sure the Board has considered the issue.

Thus, the newest members of the Library Board of Trustees (Hill, Levy et al), now over a year in office, were appointed to seek and get control of the Board of Trustees to

advance the Mayor’s “vision”, a vision that leans in its essentials on the creation of new opportunities for real estate development. The Library, as everyone knows, owns extensive real estate in the District, with many of its twenty-six branches sited on valuable commercial property that is located across from or near Metro stops. Clearly, there would also be more important and lucrative opportunities for developers if a new Downtown Library was to be located at the Old Convention Center site (estimated cost now set at 250 million dollars), and an even more interesting real estate opportunity would arise if the MLK building should be vacated and razed to the ground.

Early on, the Mayor and his advisors were quick to realize that new support for the Library could be harnessed to long stymied ambitions to exploit Library property. Back in 2002, plans to develop the Tenley site had only recently been thwarted by neighborhood activists, a loss viewed with regret by many of the Mayor’s real estate associates. But renewed voter interest in the Library could be linked to Library renewal by simply persuading the public that shortfalls in the District budget required the sale of some Library property to finance a rebuild of the system.

With these specific goals in mind, then, the case was quickly made that trading Library real estate was the only way to find the capital necessary to rebuild the system. Indeed, in cooperation with the BID and their representative Joe Sternlieb, Richard Levy and John Hill, now the most influential and forceful leaders on the Board of Trustees, came up

with the idea of “selling” the MLK building (without planning to raze it), as a means of

raising the necessary funds. Thus, trading library real estate for capital, aka “mixed use”, became the mantra for the newly appointed Board of Trustees.

The result is that the Blue Ribbon Commission is implicated in the political dance around the Library, while the “privatization” issue necessarily eliminates some options for reform of the system. For example, if we accept the argument that there is no other source of funds for rebuilding the branches other than those that can be garnered from “selling” the MLK/Mies building, then the pressure to dispose of that building simply grows. And if, at the same time, we permit the buildings to decay (especially in the neighborhoods that look “ripe” for development) we have a seemingly inexorable argument for selling off or trading various “properties” to get the capital necessary for rebuilding the system.

One other (somewhat cynical) observation must be made: it is an ancient practice of landlords interested in harvesting larger profits from slum tenements, to permit the property to decay to the point at which “redevelopment” can be justified. Deliberate neglect is relatively invisible and can accumulate over time without being traced to its source – a deliberate policy designed to render buildings unsafe.

In this manner, the outcry from a concerned and liberal public can be deflected, while it is made to appear that a humanitarian concern for the health and safety of tenants and workers motivates their expulsion. So it is that the apparently deliberate neglect of decay at the MLK building, and at many of its branches, will eventually require “redevelopment”, because it will be quickly demonstrated that the “costs” of repairs exceed the “real” value of the property when calculated narrowly.

Thus, the historic value of the MLK building is incalculable in dollars and cents. It is the first building in the United States to be named after Martin Luther King , and the only building in the District to be designed by Mies van de Rohe, a building indeed that sums up and symbolizes the success of the civil rights struggle in a predominantly black city. These “values”, however, will be ignored, or subsumed to cynical complaints about its sad decay. Thus, the needed “fix” for the system is bogged down by a complex of motives that derive ultimately from that other basic human drive – greed in the city.


• The Library has had inadequate maintenance for more than a decade, and the failure of the system can be traced back up the chain of command to the Library leadership, including Directors, senior staff and both the past and present Board of Trustees, and then to the Mayor’s office.

• The Library has only $500,000 annually to make “minor” repairs.

• There is a backlog of major structural repairs amounting to $35 million dollars on the basis of the costs prevailing four years ago, and costs today could easily double this amount.

• There is an almost total absence of maintenance staff and expertise throughout the system that has helped create this problem.

• There are serious policy implications in deciding what to do about repairing the

system, and understanding the political context in which future decisions are

made will be critical to the nature and future health of the Library.


• The structural fix we sought, originally narrowly defined as peeling paint, exposed wiring, damp rugs and the like, would be at best a stop-gap measure, for without organizational reform of the Library, and especially its maintenance system, the “fix” can never match or stay an ever quickening rate of decay.


The Laundry List

The following descriptions of the libraries, and their needed repairs, differ considerably in style and content. We have retained most of the differences because they reflect complementary differences of perspective between the staff members responsible for making the visits. In addition, and more important, some branch librarians were enthusiastic participants in the process, and gave us longitudinal descriptions of how long things had been broken, where the process of repairs were delayed, how repairs were actually carried out, and other relevant points that reveal systemic brokenness. Without the several librarians who participated in this manner, this Report would have lacked evidence and insight into the system, and would have been a lot less valuable. In other words, had we stuck to the mandate of making a simple list of needed repairs, we would have understood less about the system.

Reading closely, there is more insight into the system that can be inferred from this list than we have yet commented on – at least to date. We welcome questions and observations from readers of this Report, and will try to incorporate them in future revisions and versions.

Where we stand to be corrected, we will be.



5001 Central Avenue, S.E.

Washington, D.C. 20019


Ward 7


The Capitol View neighborhood is located at the easternmost extremity of East Capitol Street within the District line. As the population grew after World War II, residents of the area longed for a library to serve their community. The Capitol View Civic Association, the Marshall Heights Civic Association, and members of the local PTA all petitioned DCPL for a branch. Other branches took precedence over Capitol View until 1959 when it was first mentioned in the D.C. Commissioners annual report. In 1961, federal

legislators almost cut the $442,000 in funding earmarked for the construction of the Capitol View branch but neighborhood residents appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee to plead for its reinstatement. The building finally opened in January 1965, at a cost of approximately 750k, the District’s ninth library built under the DC Public Works Program, and the culmination of a ten-year struggle to acquire a library for the Capitol View neighborhood.

The library building fronts onto Central Avenue, one block past East Capitol Street, a few blocks east of the Benning Road Metro station on the Blue line. Unfortunately, it is not visible from East Capitol due to a rise in the land. It is a non-descript building, nearly invisible even though it occupies a large corner site. This library is handicapped accessible through both the front and parking lot entrances

Staff was completely unoccupied on the days of the LRP visits. Checkout clerks sat around chatting. A librarian seated at the info desk was reading intently and avoiding eye contact with the few patrons. One summer day, two children armed with their Summer Reading Quest materials arrived shortly after we did but found the upstairs Children’s section closed. Given the large number of staff on hand and unengaged, it’s difficult to understand why that room would be closed even in the absence of an official Children’s Librarian.


The front of the library features a small covered entrance porch, display window, and large back lit sign that has not worked in years. The paint on the entrance overhang was noticeably peeling.

This library has no landscaping features except a large raised semi circular “bed” surrounding the flagpole in front of the building. The bed has long remained uncultivated because of the tendency for plantings to be destroyed or stolen. The parking lot wraps around the building along the east and south sides. The paving is cracked and full of weeds. The surrounding high chain link fences are interlaced with vines and undergrowth.


The library is neatly maintained inside. In general, it follows the plan of the other libraries built under the District Public Works Program — a two-story, reinforced concrete

box clad in red brick. This library recently received an interior face lift: the cinder block walls and concrete pillars are painted a deep coral that successfully brightens the rooms. The ceiling consists of light colored acoustic tile. The dark green carpeting appears rather new.

Restrooms in the library were clean and well-supplied. Restrooms designated for staff are located on the first floor and the restrooms for the public are in the basement. On a practical level, keeping locations like restrooms within the sightlines of authorities is a known deterrent to trouble makers and the library should reconsider the restroom floor assignments.

The number of computers in the library was inadequate with only four available for adult use.


5625 Connecticut Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20015


Ward 3


Situated just south of the Montgomery County line, the two-story Chevy Chase Neighborhood Library is located next to an active community center and equally busy playground. The construction of the building designed by Nicholas Satterlee and Associates was completed in 1968 and declared to be “an example of modern functional architecture.” The total square footage of the library is over 24,000 square feet with space for more than 70,000 volumes. In addition, the building makes provisions for a third floor, should additional space be needed in the future. Tthe library became one of four regional branches in 1977 after a reorganization of DCPL took place.

The atmosphere of the library was friendly and full of activity. The open floor plan gives a sense of inclusive space, although there are complaints about noise in the main reading room. All of the staff seemed to be engaged in their work, the librarian offering help to patrons on several occasions during our visit.


On the occasion of our visit, the grounds outside of the library were slightly overgrown. The stone and gravel walkway leading to the library’s entrance had several major cracks in it. There was no major structural damage to the building.


Though the library was filled with patrons, there were only six computer terminals, two of which were out of order. The library also had a 15-minute express terminal. Several ballasts in the main reading room were broken and most of the furniture in the library seemed worn and outdated. Many of the leather seats were torn and attempts had been made to patch them with black electrical tape.


3310 Connecticut Ave, NW

Washington, DC 20008


Ward 3


Located on an extremely busy corridor of Connecticut Avenue not far from the Cleveland Park Metro station, the Cleveland Park Neighborhood Library is an island of peace in the chaos that surrounds it. Built in 1953 with $335,000 appropriated by Congress, the Cleveland Park Library was among the largest in the DCPL system. The gray-colored brick building was designed by Merrell A. Coe, then Municipal Architect, and constructed by W.M. Chappell Inc. Designed to be simple and functional, the building features an open floor plan to maximize the use of space, and includes an auditorium that was added in 1957. At present, the library circulates over 103,000 volumes annually, the second highest circulation of all the branch libraries in the system.

The atmosphere inside this library is warm, in part because staff were helpful and accommodating. While visiting this branch, it became evident that the librarians were familiar with their patrons, giving us a sense that the Cleveland Park library functions much like a community center in this neighborhood.


Although slightly overgrown, the grounds surrounding the library are quite nice. There was no visible structural damage to the building.


The interior of Cleveland Park branch is well-kept, with plants adorning the window ledges. The furniture in the library was similar to the original Carnegie furniture housed inside the Georgetown library. Unfortunately, however, the tables are marred by carvings and graffiti. There were signs in both English and Spanish explaining library procedures and labeling shelves. However, many of the signs were tattered and worn pieces of paper. Others were awkwardly placed below eye level and were therefore easy to miss.

The restrooms in this branch are located in an isolated corner out of the librarian’s sight. During our visit, the restrooms were severely flooded due to a thunderstorm that took place the previous night and the carpet immediately outside of the restrooms was immersed in rainwater. Large, blackened circles surrounded the ceiling vents, possibly due to a delay in cleaning the vents.

The library has two computers for adult use and one 15-minute express computer, as well as two computers in the Children’s section. During our visit, the computer reservation system was down, making the computers inaccessible for use by patrons. The Branch Manager, after attempting to fix the problem on his own, was forced to call the administrative headquarters at MLKML for assistance. By the end of our visit, and with unusual speed, the system had been fixed.


3660 Alabama Avenue SE

Washington, DC 20020


Ward 7


The two-story red brick and reinforced concrete Fort Davis Library, later renamed the

Francis A. Gregory Regional Library opened in January 1961. A steel workers’ strike, in addition to frequent equipment failures, delayed the finalization of the building. The building, designed by Victor E. DeMers and constructed under the DC Public Works Program at the time. Congress appropriated $457,000 to construct the 18,000 square foot branch, although the acquisition of the land for the library was problematic. Formally owned by the Federal Government, the library sits on a tract of park land.

The library itself was inviting and friendly. We witnessed library staff members offering unsolicited assistance to patrons on computers.


The entrance to the library consisted of two sets of automatic, tempered glass doors. The first set of doors did not open automatically and were somewhat difficult to push open.


Upon entering the library, we immediately noticed the poor light in the main reading room. The Children’s Room upstairs was also quite dark. During the visit, several of the light bulbs were being replaced in the main reading room. Although the building was designed to have an open floor plan, the shelving on the first floor seemed cluttered and dense. The tables and chairs were old and extremely uncomfortable. Poor carpeting seems to be a recurring issue in many of the libraries and this branch was no exception. The carpet was loose, being held together in some areas by duct tape. Because the carpet was not taut, there were ripples, posing a potential safety hazard.

There was evidence of water damage to the ceiling seen in the brown stains that soiled many of the tiles. In addition, ceiling tiles were missing throughout much of the library, exposing electrical wiring and plumbing. This was evident in the main reading room, outside the restrooms, and in the basement. Severe water damage to the drywall also plagues the basement meeting room. Columns intended to support the ceiling seemed to be crumbling. In addition, many of the ceiling tiles appeared to be collapsing. A side door located on the landing between the basement and the first floor was unlocked and open, making the library insecure. Because the library is on the top of a hill, surrounded by a wooded area, they often find snakes, turtles, and other undesirable creatures in the basement and at the rear of the library.

The women’s restroom was relatively clean, although there was some telling graffiti scrawled across one wall: “This library is some shit; you can’t find shit at all.” This was at least the view of one of the patrons. One of the two lights in this restroom was broken.

The library had four computers for public usage, all of which were functioning and occupied during our visit. The computer designated for catalogue look-up, however, was not functioning and the copy machine was also out of order.

Note: LRP had visited this branch initially in Fall 2004 as part of Councilmember Graham’s Library Tour. The visit documented above took place several months later to investigate if any changes had taken place since our initial visit. Unfortunately, not much had changed, and basic repairs had yet to be made.

About us


To generate community, political, private and foundation support to improve the DC library system to a world class standard.


Ralph Nader established the DC Library Renaissance Project in December 2002 to help raise awareness of the steady decline of the DC Library System due to systematic budget cuts.
The project is funded by grants from The Catherine Reynolds Foundation, The Cafritz Foundation, The Washington Post, The Kiplinger Foundation, The Olender Foundation, The Walsh Street Foundation, The Carnegie Foundation, National Geographic Society, many area law firms and interested private citizens.


The initial goal for the project is to raise the library system’s annual budget allotment from 0.45 percent of the city’s operating budget to one percent and to identify private and foundation money to enable the library system to achieve the following:

* Increase the staffing levels to expand hours, enhance programming and information services.

* Renovate or repair existing buildings, purchase new shelves, carpeting and furniture.

* Strengthen the internal infrastructure ­ repairing and updating computer networks, wiring and additional public access computers.

* Support the creation and/or development of library programs and events including programs for seniors and school children, literacy programs and a variety of cultural activities.

* Expand the current collection of available material through additional purchase funds and a streamlined donation process.

* Encourage the training of young librarians of talent and other staff at all levels.

Contact us:

DC Library Renaissance Project