What Our Historic MLK Central Library COULD Look Like. . .


This renovated downtown flagship library is the vision that the mayor doesn’t want you to see!

Teach-In: How to Revitalize MLK

Wednesday, June 7 @ 6:30 p.m.

Carnegie Science Building

1530 P St., NW

Free and Open To The Public

Come see the downtown library renovation design that the mayor doesn’t

want you to know about. Learn the history of the first public building in

the country dedicated to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King,

Jr., the only library in the world designed by famed architect Ludwig Mies van der

Rohe, and the first District building constructed under Home Rule.

Renderings by David Hamilton, Jin Hee Kim and Jongyan Kim.

Architect’s vision of 2nd Floor Reading Room Atrium with skylight over the new 5th floor.

Undertaken by local architects at the library’s request in 2000, this

design study for the renovation of MLK library was created in

collaboration with library staff and users, resolving the problems they

identified in an innovative and dramatic fashion. Overlooked at the time

and ignored since, you can see the vision for MLK’s future that the mayor’s “Blue Ribbon” library task force was not shown.

Become fully informed about all options before the June 15 City Council

hearing on the mayor’s plan to abandon the historic, stand-alone MLK

library in favor of a new central library to be part of “mixed use”

development at the site of the old convention center. Your questions and

concerns will be addressed by Kent Cooper, AIA, original lead architect of

the design study, in an open Q & A.

Sponsored by the DC Library Renaissance Project

For more information, contact Robin Diener at 202/387-7776

or [email protected]

Why Renovate MLK Instead of Building a New Central Library?

The DC Library Renaissance Project believes that a renovation of the historic, architecturally iconic Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library would be a more prudent use of public funds than building a smaller* new central library, as part of a "mixed use" development, in a location further from public transportation. According to an AIA Urban Design Committee feasibility study (completed in 2000 at the Library’s request), a thorough, thoughtful renovation fully addressing issues identified by staff and users over the forty years since MLK was opened could readily be achieved.

*MLK is 420,000 sq ft. The proposed new central library is 225,000 sq feet.

Cost: The AIA feasibility study has never been priced, in spite of numerous parties having called for it including Library Trustees and The Committee of 100. Library Committee Chair Kathy Patterson told attendees at a Town Hall Meeting on April 22 that she would ask for that to be done. Further, in proposing a new central library, the City is not looking at other potential solutions such as selling the redevelopment rights of the Old Convention Center site and applying that money to renovating MLK, or creating revenue streams by leasing space for a café or bookstore on the ground floor and/or event space that could be rented such as a refurbished lobby and an additional fifth floor.

Neighborhoods First: The focus of the regeneration of the District library system should be on the neighborhood libraries. A new central library or renovated MLK risks diverting resources from neighborhood libraries. MLK needs repair to bathrooms and elevators but a complete overhaul can wait. There is space to increase programs, add computers, expand collections, and do refurbishment in place. What DCPL lacks is a program or technology plan, an accurate inventory of books, or a realistic schedule for maintenance. These failures are internal and will not be remedied by a new building. Besides, with four libraries closed for rebuilding on December 31, 2004, and not one shovel lifted, DCPL hasn’t demonstrated that it can handle the planning and capital construction it has already undertaken. For nearly a year and a half, no interim services have been provided to the communities affected by the closings except weekly bookmobile visits. Those neighborhoods now approach a second summer without libraries.

Historicity: "A building dedication is a heritage that is nurtured from one generation to the next. It is not a plaque reattached to another building." [2] The District’s central library was the first major public building in the country to be dedicated to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The designation followed a petition and letter writing campaign by District citizens and was endorsed by the Board of Library Trustees. Restoring and expanding the library that bears his name is a way to honor Dr. King.

An Architectural Icon: Mayor Williams says DC deserves an architectural icon for its library. We already have one. MLK architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was the preeminent exponent of the “International School” and one of the most influential architects of the 20^th Century. MLK is the only Mies building in Washington and the only library he ever built. His design for MLK was the result of an intensive collaboration with then Library Director Harry Petersen.[3] When it opened, MLK was celebrated by critics as a great public building. The library’s deteriorated condition detracts from its austere elegance but is not a reason to abandon it.

Location: The new central library will have less access to public transportation than MLK where all five Metro lines are within two blocks.[4] The new library building as proposed does not face onto the “grand vista” of New York Avenue but faces west, away from the city and away from the overall Old Convention Center site itself, making it seem grafted on, rather than the integral heart of the project that proponents claimed it would be.

A State of the Art Library: Anything “state of the art” becomes less so once completed. When MLK opened, it possessed some of the most advanced technology of the day – book conveyor belts, pneumatic tubes, special tinted glass. In addition, it had the flexibility ideal for growth and change – an open floor plan with few fixed walls, and provisions for an additional floor to be built when needed. As many have noted, statements that the library cannot be modernized because it was built before the computer age are absurd. MLK is essentially a big box and readily lends itself to the inevitable systems upgrades that all buildings require over time.

Mixed Use Development: Mayor Williams wants a new central library to make “a grand statement about civic life.” Unfortunately, he proposes a library obscured in a hodgepodge of mixed-use where no statement can be heard. DC already has the free-standing, purpose-built, historic building required to make a grand statement: MLK.

Fundraising: The DCPL Foundation believes that renovating MLK would not be exciting enough to generate financial support. In fact, MLK has exactly the kind of attributes fundraisers look for: history, noble purpose, architectural prominence. Fundraising is always difficult. Even institutions with the track record of a Corcoran Gallery of Art or an Arena Stage have had to cancel recent projects, partially funded by the District, because they could not raise the private funds to meet their goals. No magic formula ensures success but fundraising will be facilitated by citizen excitement and buy-in. Only further public discussion can generate that.

MLK has been battered by decades of budget cuts and control boards; deferred maintenance has caused extreme deterioration; normal wear and tear and the passage of time make an upgrade inevitable for any building. Years of neglectful stewardship have not done honor to the King legacy. Now that the city is enjoying a surge in revenues, MLK should be restored and updated for the use it was intended.


[2] Stuart Gosswein, The Committee of 100, from testimony before DC City Council Education and Library Committee Town Hall Meeting of April 22, 2006.

[3] A similar, latter-day collaboration that would be vitally needed for a new building is not even imaginable for the near future since DCPL has had no permanent director for over three years, and anyone new would not be qualified to take on such a task without some period of experience of the DC system.

[4] Red, Green, and Yellow lines at Gallery Place on the SW corner of Ninth and G; Blue and Orange lines at Metro Center two blocks away at Eleventh and G


WASHINGTON, D.C. – May 23, 2006 – The DC Library Renaissance Project looks forward to working with the newly appointed director of DC Public Library, Ginnie Cooper. The fact of her appointment at long last is encouraging news. DCPL has not had a permanent director for more than three years. Library Renaissance hopes that Ginnie Cooper will prove to be the strong leader needed.

In announcing Ms. Cooper’s appointment, the Board of Library Trustees spoke of “regeneration,” using the word in terms of new buildings without mention of the many internal problems plaguing DCPL.

Library Renaissance spokesperson Robin Diener said, “We hope the new director is prepared get her hands dirty in the messy work of reforming an established culture of evasiveness, cronyism, and low expectations. Shock therapy is really what is needed. Administering it will not be easy. We fear the Trustees may have used the pleasant prospect of new buildings to mask the urgent need for systemic overhaul.”

Among the issues Library Renaissance looks forward to discussing with Director Cooper are creating a culture of service, providing reliable access to technology, ensuring scheduled maintenance, emphasizing groundskeeping, minimizing the impact of the homeless population on the library, improving outreach to Friends of the Library groups, expanding programming, marketing library services, reducing overlap of services with other agencies, using volunteers to deliver programs and defray costs, and fundraising through the private sector. These issues are all addressed in “A Blueprint for Cynicism” at savedclibraries.org.

# # #

For Immediate Release

Contact: Robin Diener



WASHINGTON, D.C. – May 11, 2006 – The DC Library Renaissance Project congratulates members of the DC City Council for their successful request to Mayor Williams to withdraw his controversial legislation about a new central library from the FY 2007 Budget Support Act. The legislation, which received no public hearing, would have authorized leasing the iconic Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library and building a new central library on the old Convention Center site.

On April 22, in response to public outcry, Kathy Patterson, Chairman of Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation convened an emergency Town Hall, attended by more than 100 people. The majority voiced dismay at the Mayor’s attempt to “bury” the legislation in the budget, as well as concerns about abandoning MLK. At Patterson’s recommendation, her committee voted to ask the Mayor to remove Title II-D “Library Omnibus Financing and Development,” from the 07 Budget Act. The Committee was joined in its request by Council members Sharon Ambrose, Jack Evans and Carol Schwartz. Kwame Brown, Jim Graham and Phil Mendelson also stated their support.

On June 15, as a result of City Council’s actions, members of the public will have the opportunity to give testimony at a formal hearing of the Committee on Education, Libraries, and Recreation. DC Library Renaissance Director Leonard Minsky credited Council with “exercising exemplary oversight. We continue to oppose the Mayor’s proposed relocation of the purpose-built, dedicated-use MLK Library. Now, thanks to Council, the public will have an opportunity to be heard.”

= = =

The June 15 hearing will be held at 10 a.m. at the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave, N.W., Council Chamber, Room 500.

Anyone wishing to testify at the hearing should contact Evelyn Bourne-Gould, Legislative Assistant to the Committee on Education, Libraries and Recreation, at 724-8195, or via e-mail at [email protected] All witnesses will be permitted a maximum of three (3) minutes for oral presentation.

# # #

For Immediate Release

Contact: Robin Diener


Blueprint for Cynicism


A Blueprint for Change: The Mayor’s Task Force on the Future of the DC Public Library System











This report by the DC Library Renaissance Project is issued in response to the draft Blueprint for Change released, in January 2006, by the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on the Future of the DC Public Library System. Our report is critical of the draft Blueprint, but we acknowledge the good intentions of Task Force members, none of whom received remuneration for his or her efforts, and some of whom invested a lot of their time.

However, District residents, local library advocates, most of DCPL staff, and all press were excluded from the Task Force’s publicly financed meetings and information gathering trips to other cities. The listening sessions, purportedly planned by the Task Force to take place after publication of its Blueprint, certainly seemed like an afterthought. Moreover, no sessions were even scheduled until Councilmember Kathy Patterson asked for them to be held before the Blueprint was released. Ten listening sessions were held in libraries across the city in January and February, 2006.

It is now clear, as Library Renaissance Project has said all along, that public input should have been the first step – not the last – of the Task Force process. At the Board of Library Trustees meeting of March 8, 2006, President John Hill announced that the draft Blueprint would be substantially rewritten in view of what the Task Force had learned at the listening sessions. At that March meeting, Trustee comments began to reflect for the first time an understanding of the urgency of their task.

We take heart from that; but citizens must stay vigilant. Some trustees are still focused on buildings and real estate development. Fixing the Library will require fixing more than buildings. In fact, buildings are the least of its problems. Total institutional regeneration is needed.

And although welcome change seems to be afoot, we offer for the record our constructive critique of the draft Blueprint, and some of our suggestions for action.

Robin Diener

Leonard Minsky

2. The Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force – background

The DC Library Renaissance Project is a mostly volunteer effort, founded by Ralph Nader in 2002, to help the public library. In winter 2004, after the departure of Library Director Molly Raphael, DC Library Renaissance Project Director Leonard Minsky proposed to the Board of Trustees of the DC Public Library that it appoint a task force to study the library system and report back to the Trustees with concrete proposals for reform. The Library Trustees rejected the idea.

Instead, in September 2004, Mayor Anthony Williams appointed a Blue Ribbon Task Force to study the system and report back, not to the Library Board, but to himself, thus politicizing the process and compromising the appearance of objectivity.

The Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force on the Future of the DC Public Library System, as it is called, consists of all the Library Trustees, and 34 others (see page 28 of the draft Blueprint for a complete list available at www.dclibrary.org). Mayor Williams asked the Task Force to develop a “Vision for a 21st Century DC Public Library,” but constrained that vision with a set of unwritten premises that were not open to discussion, and put into place a secretive process that would prevent the community from debating them. Those foregone conclusions were:

• The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library (MLK) building will be sold or leased;

• A new central library will be built on the site of the Old Convention Center;

• The Library’s 26 branches will be either torn down, sold, rebuilt or refurbished;

• How the city will finance the above changes would not be the Task Force’s concern.

Before conducting any public hearings, the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force came up with a draft report, which it called “A Blueprint for Change.” The Blueprint contained the above-detailed premises as given. And only subsequently did the Task Force submit it to citywide public hearings – called “listening sessions.” But the Blueprint – which assures citizens of the District of Columbia that they deserve a state-of-the-art library system instead of the one they now possess – which the Task Force says is “broken” – is notable for how little of substance it proposes, and for how much it leaves out.

During the same period of time that the Mayor’s Task Force was writing its draft Blueprint, the DC Council passed the Library Enhancement and Development Act, which became law in January of 2006. The new Library Act:

• Creates a Fund to be used for Library Renovations. All revenues generated from the

sale or use of library property will go into this fund.

• Directs that a (new) Task Force be created to complete a strategic plan to fund the “

…enhancement and development of the DC Public Library.” The new Library Act Task

Force is specifically directed to identify public-private partnerships to support

implementation of the strategic plan.

Thus, the Library Act greatly facilitates the sale of public property to private interests and advances the Mayor’s core motive in creating the Blue Ribbon Task Force.


The Blueprint does not account for why DC doesn’t already have a state-of-the-art library system when those surrounding the District and across the country do; or how that very lack has impeded and might continue to impede the ability to create and sustain one. The Blueprint does not identify the practices that allowed rampant, intractable decay to take hold nor does it outline ways to fix them. The report takes for granted, as is commonly stated, that money has been the missing component, when in fact DC is not underfunded when compared to many other urban library systems. The Blueprint ignores the complicated ongoing reality of gross mismanagement, when there is no evidence that DCPL, as currently configured, has the framework or expertise to be brought to functionality, let alone to state-of-the-art condition.

At listening sessions convened by the Task Force in order to hear public response to the Blueprint, citizens across the city have spoken with one voice. They are dismayed and discouraged that DCPL cannot deliver basic services today. Patrons would like to see libraries that are open, safe, staffed, adequately supplied with books and computers, and providing services tailored to each community; and they don’t see why they have to wait for new buildings to be erected in order to get that level of service. Moreover, the puppet shows, bestsellers, theatres, shops and coffee houses envisioned by the Task Force as offerings of a state-of-the-art library strike the library-going public as trivial and beside the point. Cleanliness, security, courteous service, improved collections, and connectivity are all needed first – and immediately.

Before new buildings are built, citizens want evidence that DCPL can manage the public’s priorities for libraries that work today. It is imperative that the question of the maintenance of buildings be resolved before any new ones are undertaken. DCPL cannot now repair a bathroom in a reasonable timeframe. Without substantial changes to internal library management and systems there is no reason to believe DCPL will maintain new buildings any better than it has maintained those it currently oversees.

In other words, as important as buildings are, no mere building will turn the system around. Complete institutional regeneration is needed in order to address the reasons why Decay, Depletion, and Demoralization came to dwell in the Public Library.


Although how the city would finance a 21st Century library system was not a question for Task Force consideration, it is an overriding concern of District citizens.

The Blueprint was founded on the premise that the way to fund renewal of DCPL would be to sell some of its assets. Fans of this approach called it “working the assets.” Thus, the sale of MLK Library, predicted to bring $100 million, would help pay for a shiny new central library, albeit half the size, on the Old Convention Center site. This new central library is already projected by the Task Force to be part of a mixed use complex (which many oppose), and the reduction in size alone (from 400,000 square feet to 200,000), should give pause to any who see the sale of the MLK building as the only solution to funding a much-needed upgrade. Why build a new central library that is smaller than the present one?

The MLK building has major design and systems problems that have never been addressed, but it’s not clear that they couldn’t have been. Decades of deliberately deferred maintenance led to its current ruinous state, but the building is structurally sound. In fact, Board of Library Trustees President John Hill has assured citizens that MLK will not be torn down even if it is sold.

In 2000, the American Institute of Architects Urban Design Committee proposed imaginative remedies to the longstanding design complaints about MLK in a study that still has not been given due consideration. Recently, the Committee of One Hundred requested DC’s Chief Financial Officer to prepare cost estimates for the AIA plan in order that it may be compared with other proposals that are made. The AIA concept included an additional upper floor suitable for large functions, a central foyer staircase leading to a sky lighted atrium reading room, more accessible and welcoming meeting rooms, a café, a bookstore, an auditorium, and the potential for additional parking – just the sorts of things the Blueprint envisions for a new central library! Paid parking, a café, a bookstore, and another floor that could be rented out would all contribute to a revenue stream for DCPL.

The Blueprint does not mention that many in the city are opposed to selling any public assets. There are other ways to finance regeneration including (but not limited to) simply committing to adequate public funding. The Blueprint glosses over the fact that those who were charged with protecting this resource oversaw its decline. Trustees, DCPL staff, city council memebrs, mayors, and other officials have squandered the civic trust of library patrons for decades. With new proposals coming from the same quarters, the public is uneasy.


The whole question of real estate aside, the Blueprint’s omission of issues standing in the way of a 21st Century library makes the Task Force members seem as out of touch with the conditions of the DC Public Library as their addresses imply (most of the members live outside DC). Although many more issues exist, only five are examined here.

A. Staff:

A startling omission of the Blueprint is input from DCPL staff. Admittedly, DCPL has failed to attract or retain many high quality staff over the years, but even the recognition of that fact would have made the Blueprint more credible. In any case, information from staff would have been revealing both for what might have been said as well as what might not have been said.

If the Task Force had sought staff input, they would have learned that DCPL has no program plan and no standard operating procedures, has ineffective training and offers little professional development. Departments are at odds with one another. The central library is at odds with the branches. For all its turf wars, the MLK building may as well be a gangland. Nepotism, absenteeism, and theft are rampant; and colleagues and mangers simply tolerate it. There is no internal mechanism for incubating new ideas. Without a means to propose fresh approaches or correct course, there will not be organic change, let alone the transformation that is needed.

DCPL and the Board of Trustees missed an early chance to wipe the slate clean and begin anew in April 2005, when a freshly hired Interim Director Francis Buckley and President Hill attended the annual Staff Development Day. They did not step boldly into a new era of empowering employees and holding them accountable. Instead, the day was given over to celebrating the careers of librarians of 35 years or more — of whom there are an astonishing number at DCPL. To be sure, service is honorable, but any staff that has spent 35 years in this system has overseen an institution in a death spiral. DCPL should strongly consider an early retirement buyout. Even good librarians have been burnt out by a dysfunctional system.

B. Homelessness:

Another important omission by the Task Force is the problem of large numbers of homeless individuals in the library. A desire not to interact with the homeless is a leading reason many citizens give for not using the library, especially MLK. The less libraries are populated by the general public, the more homeless individuals feel comfortable using them. As more homeless occupy seats in the library, the less other patrons will use the library.

District residents say they don’t want their libraries to serve as homeless shelters but neither do they want to evict homeless users. Many of the homeless are mentally ill. Many exhibit anti-social behaviors such as an inability to modulate their voices, poor hygiene, and a proclivity for internet pornography. Some people find some homeless people frightening, and a few homeless individuals pose a security risk.

The Seattle Public Library, which the Task Force visited, carefully incorporated into the design of their new central library many innovations to try to address the problem of the homeless. They greatly increased air circulation, provided ample computers and tables, and maintain a coffee stand in the lobby run by a nonprofit agency that trains homeless individuals for work in food service. DC library branches and their Friends Groups should be permitted and encouraged to pilot innovative solutions in accordance with the degree of severity of the problem in their neighborhoods.

C. Washingtoniana:

The jewel of DCPL collections, degraded as it has been allowed to become, is the Washingtoniana Division. The failure of the Task Force to remark upon it is another oversight.

In the listening sessions, citizens consistently praised Washingtoniana, urging that it be adequately staffed and strenuously marketed. Citizens also suggested that branches should model Washingtoniana by maintaining and featuring mini-collections focused on the history of each library’s neighborhood.

Many formerly highly used divisions have been supplanted by on-line access, but Washingtoniana continues to be of value as an on-site research resource. For students, it provides one of the few opportunities for working directly with source materials that are not books. For budding historians, it is a useful precursor to national libraries like the Library of Congress and the British Museum, which still flourish in the electronic age.

The feasibility of moving Washingtoniana to the Old Carnegie Library on Mt. Vernon Square should be re-examined in view of the pending need either to downsize the collection for a new smaller central library or to house it while MLK is renovated. For reasons space here does not permit, we favor moving Washingtoniana permanently to the Mt. Vernon Square location, regardless of which central library option is eventually adopted.

D. Literacy:

The Task Force lists basic literacy as the first of its six “prime service priorities,” citing

many examples of library programs in other cities.

In contrast to many cities – where libraries are the direct providers of adult literacy services – DC’s many low-literate adults are served by a panoply of agencies, churches, and service organizations. Together they serve about 5,000 individuals annually, although statistics indicate that 150,000 District adults are in need of help at the basic level, and 100,000 more at sub-GED levels. Many are funded and monitored by DC’s State Education Agency but are otherwise not connected, and lack true reach and impact.

DCPL could immediately become the vibrant center of the city’s disparate adult literacy activities – without having to take on any administrative tasks of program management – by pro-actively supporting existing area programs. DCPL could publicize existing literacy volunteer opportunities, host frequent recruitment and training sessions for agencies, and provide more tutoring and classroom space especially in branches. DCPL has a fulltime Coordinator of Volunteers who could assist with these activities. Current DCPL regulations would need to be changed to permit use of meeting rooms for on-going classes, but providers could make services available today in the space DCPL already has at its disposal, without the need to erect a single new building or hire more staff.

The Blueprint mentions “family literacy” in passing, something current DCPL programming does not address. Family literacy is particularly relevant for libraries. At every listening session, library users testified to happy memories of visiting the library with their parents. Clearly, family literacy results in library users.

E. Collections:

The Task Force’s recommendation of Bestsellers and Hot Topics as their second service priority was downgraded by most citizens in the listening sessions. If anything, DCPL has too many bestsellers considering that all of its collections are skeletal. DCPL’s collections all suffer from inadequate technology support and Byzantine procurement processes. All collections are plagued by missing volumes listed as available. Rumors persist about thousands of catalogued books in the basement of MLK going unshelved for years, which we can only hope is an urban myth. Librarians do tell us that they lack the time to catalogue and shelve book donations.

The $3 million over three years projected in the Blueprint to go to collections upgrade would barely cover the cost of making a comprehensive inventory, and one is desperately needed. Patrons report books that do not appear in the system when checked out or returned. Clerks are hesitant to reserve books for patrons at other branches, even when they appear in stock on the on-line catalogue. Branch patrons are often told that special orders must be picked up at MLK. This is, in fact, not DCPL policy. However, it can be seen as elementary conflict avoidance stemming from staff’s experience that requisitioned books do not arrive, although disappointed patrons do.

At over 400,000 square feet, MLK has the capacity to house a vast collection. The central library should be able to deliver any book from its collection to any branch the next day. If the central library collection could be relied upon, branches could reduce the numbers of books they keep on hand and better display new books and books in demand. They could lower some bookcases and remove others, providing more light, better sightlines (which improve security as well as ambiance), and increased space for computers and program areas.

New releases are a massive problem for DCPL. Books do not arrive in a timely enough fashion to benefit from exposure through book reviews and talk shows. This is not acceptable when libraries are competing with bookstores — actual and virtual — for increasingly scarce browsers. Recent explanations provided by DCPL administrative staff to the Federation of Friends were incomprehensible, belabored, and rude. Improving DCPL procurement must be a high priority, followed closely by “customer” service training for all staff.


No one stands opposed to a vibrant library system. Exhortations by Trustees to the public “to get on the same page” lead not to consensus but to the question of whose page. If the Library Trustees want everyone on the same page, they should be concerned about issues of perception and trust.

The current Board of Trustees (all appointed by the Mayor as Trustees and to the Blue Ribbon Task Force) has not made a good start towards improving the public confidence. Especially troubling is the on-going practice of conducting closed pre-board meetings to “develop consensus.” This practice, which was indulged in by the Control Board in its day, violates the spirit if not the letter of the District’s transparency guidelines. The Library Board also keeps its Friends Groups at arms length, granting a seat at the table –

but no vote – to the elected President of the Federation of Friends. Library officials say they value and need Friends Groups, but only one Friends representative was asked to sit on the Task Force.

At this point, the entire Blue Ribbon Task Force process looks like a smokescreen to divert attention from the passage of the Library Act enabling the quick sale of library property and calling for a (new) task force to identify private-public development partnerships. The Mayor, City Council and Library Trustees have decided that this is the optimal strategy for regeneration. Task Force meetings were held in private in spite of being publicly funded. Members of the public who asked to attend were turned away. Dorothy Brizill, Executive Director of DCWatch, was actually evicted.

Sending Task Force members off in search of best practices on behalf of DCPL without knowing what problems were already of concern to patrons and staff, was not only expensive for District taxpayers, but was an important opportunity missed. The Task Force also ignored excellent library systems nearby in Maryland and Virginia in favor of trips to cities with brand new central library buildings. Even if public input was always planned, as President John Hill has said repeatedly, it was a poor decision to design it as a last step in the Task Force process.

The decision to cancel plans to rebuild four libraries already closed for reconstruction feels like a ruse to wear down antidevelopment forces that had succeeded in winning designs for freestanding libraries rather than mixed use. By claiming that the plans were “not good enough,” the Trustees appeared to be protecting the best interests of library patrons, but it is difficult to deny the fact that settled decisions, arrived at through public process, now appear subverted. These closings also prolonged the denial of service to some of the poorest and neediest library users in the District.

Changes and delays indulged in by the Trustees make it appear that something is going on behind the scenes. Citizens are apprehensive that public space is being parceled up and promised away backstage, before the (new) Task Force, mandated by the Library Act to draw up a strategic plan, has even been appointed And most importantly, the AIA report about the feasibility of renovating MLK should not have been swept under the table five years ago.

Further, the terms of public-private partnerships aren’t being enforced in the District. To cite just one example, developers of the Ritz Carlton hotel complex in the West End promised to provide a park, retail shops, and a theatre, in exchange for receiving special allowances to construct a massive building occupying one full square block in an immediate area that already contained four large hotels. Five years later, those promises have not been fulfilled. Citizens in every neighborhood of the city have reason to be skeptical that their interests will be safeguarded under public-private partnerships when, to date, DC has proven unable to force compliance with the terms of these agreements.


The following are ideas that we heard voiced most frequently at the ten Task Force listening sessions across the city during January and February 2006. The comments are not ranked, and we were not able to hear all comments because in many cases the group at large was broken down into multiple small focus groups. However, all of the comments below were heard repeatedly at every session:

Increased hours of operation, especially evenings and Sundays

Cleanliness, maintenance, and repair — especially of elevators and bathrooms throughout the system and particularly at MLK

No more deferred maintenance

Courteous service

Adequate staffing levels

Improve collections: books, CD’s, and DVD’s

Computers, computers, computers

Adult literacy programming

Bilingual/multilingual services and collections

Meeting rooms

Connection to schools and support of curriulum

Avoid redundancy (do not compete with community resources such as theatres, museums, nonprofit organizations, schools, etc)

Highlight DCPL programs and services

Study and experiment with ways to lessen the impact of the homeless on libraries

It is noteworthy that in general citizens questioned the desirability of moving the central library. However, they were told by Library Trustees in attendance at each session that the matter was “off the table.”

Many citizens saw improving the branches as a far more important priority than a completely new central library, although everyone was agreed that refurbishment of MLK is urgently needed.

When mixed use development and public-private partnerships were presented as the means to achieve a new system, citizens in communities across the city — from Anacostia to the West End — voiced many strong reservations.


The DC Library Renaissance Project offers the following suggested next steps. These suggestions are based on our research, on public comments at the Task Force listening sessions, and on private conversations with countless library patrons and supporters throughout the District who yearn for the restoration of a decent public library system.

Suggestions to DC City Council

1. Amend the Library Act to make the number of citizens on the Task Force equal to the number of government officials on it. One private citizen per ward would afford some balance. Further amend the Act to have City Council make the appointments, not the Mayor. The ANC system might be a good recruiting ground.

2. Form a “library community committee” at each branch, including MLK, to develop its own strategic plan, in order to provide direction to the Library Act Task Force. A similar mechanism for community involvement was used in Seattle. The Library Act may need to be further amended to extend adequate time for this process. Members of the Community Committees should be given the same documents and proposals as Task Force members. Branch library committees should consist of interested community members willing to donate the necessary time. Special efforts should be made to include:

• Branch librarian or librarian’s designee(s)

• ANC commissioners who would be responsible for reporting to their neighborhoods

and getting feedback

• Friends group President or designee(s)

• Representative from area schools

• Representatives from non-profits, government agencies, volunteer groups, and other

neighborhood service providers interested in the library

• Representatives from neighborhood businesses

• Teens

• Senior citizens

• Parents

3. Develop an agency or process to enforce compliance with agreed-upon terms of any public-private and mixed-use partnerships. As things now stand, DC has no working mechanism by which to ensure compliance.

Suggestions for the Mayor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force Blueprint:

4. Develop recommendations for system wide reform of all DCPL services, applicable regardless of building plans.

5. Acknowledge that holding Task Force meetings in closed session was an error in judgment. Hold all future proceedings of the Blue Ribbon and Library Act Task Force in public.

6. Acknowledge that there is a difference of opinion about the underlying premises of the Blueprint. City Council and the Library Trustees believe that the regeneration of the library system, which their predecessors failed to steward, can only be paid for by the sale of the very buildings and resources (air-space included) they were charged to maintain. Many citizens and communities do not embrace this point of view.

7. Revise final version of Blueprint to include community opinion strongly opposed to library closings, sale of libraries and library lands, and to public private partnerships.

8. Include breakdowns of funding components and amenities provided for each example of the kind of public private partnership or mixed-use development recommended in Blueprint. Detail revenue streams developed and the impact on library budgets.

Suggestions for DCPL Overall System

9. Adopt adult literacy programming as a priority library service goal. Immediately change meeting room regulations, or create a special exemption, to permit area agencies to hold adult literacy classes at libraries on an ongoing basis.

10. Retain a Library Director, not another “interim” Director

11. Consider staff buyouts with the goal of removing layers of bad management and bureaucracy

12. Improve procurement and purchasing systems

13. Recognize that maintenance is a management issue

14. Require maintenance staff to care for and enhance grounds through staff and volunteer efforts (i.e., regularly remove trash from grounds; weed parking lots; remove vines and debris from fences; care for plantings; coordinate with volunteer gardeners)

15. Allocate sufficient staff to support the Federation of Friends and all Friends groups. Consider hiring an executive director to assist these groups.

16. Coordinate development staff to integrate library foundation funds with ongoing and major fundraising for general library enhancement

17. Reduce bookcase height in branches in order to improve lighting, security, and ambiance

Suggestions for DCPL Central MLK Library

18. Install, support, and maintain 200 public access computers in the lobby

19. Manage collections and improve reserve book fulfillment to permit branches to house fewer books (see 17 above) and to increase space for computers and programming

20. Utilize volunteers as greeters, shelvers, and information desk staff

21. Display rules of conduct prominently and enforce

Suggestions for the Board of Library Trustees

22. Amend the by-laws to give the Federation of Friends President a vote on the Board of Library Trustees.


The draft Blueprint was written by paid consultants. Citizens, Friends groups, and DCPL staff were excluded from Task Force deliberations. Some Task Force panelists themselves participated only minimally; according to sources close to them. The draft Blueprint’s many omissions stem directly from the Task Force’s refusal to consult. This failure has created a serious lack of trust in the process that produced the draft Blueprint and, therefore, in its recommendations. Subsequent processes must be designed to substantively take account of public opinion and to restore trust. Anything less will imply that the process to date was simply a charade to conceal real estate transactions from public scrutiny.

Trustees have mentioned at listening sessions and at board meetings that the deterioration of DCPL is “everyone’s fault” because “everyone” stood by and let it happen. This kind of comment does nothing to ease the public’s disquiet, and it is disingenuous. Over the years, many people have sounded the alarm. Talented librarians, non-acquiescing Trustees, members of Library Friends groups across the city, and valiant patrons have struggled in vain to point out problems, to propose solutions, and even to offer resources. They have been ignored, silenced, shunned, called “difficult,” and accused of dissembling.

And yet, many library patrons still remain hopeful about the possibilities for revitalizing the District’s public library system. Their testimony at the belated listening sessions now appears to have had an impact on the Trustees who are at least saying some of what citizens have long waited to hear. Change has been a very long time coming. Library Trustees and city officials can assume that citizens, library patrons, and the DC Library Renaissance Project will tirelessly endeavor to hold them to their word.

Lease of MLK building for 99 years?!

May 2, 2006

Two weeks ago, on a Saturday, the Mayor sent down an amendment to Title II-D, the Library Omnibus Financing and Development Act of 2006 of Bill 16-679, the “Fiscal Year 2007 Budget Support Act of 2006. Placed in the midst of this document is a sixteen page supplement that would give the Mayor the authority to lease the MLK building (created by Mies van der Rohe) for ninety-nine years.

The Mayor’s clear intention has long focused on disposing of this building to developers for some other (as yet unstated and unknown) use, claiming that income from the sale or lease of this building is necessary to fund the building of a new Central Library at the Old Convention Center site.

The DC Library Renaissance Project is flatly opposed both to the sale or lease of the Mies building, as well as to the Mayor’s plan to build a new Central Library from the ashes of MLK, but aside from our position on the issue, we believe that it is essential to debate the future of the Mies van der Rohe building as a separate item from the general budget for the Library.

Opportunity for e-mail action

Committee Chair Kathy Patterson, responding to the many witnesses opposing this section of the Bill, has recommended that the subtitle of the 2007 Budget Support Act pertaining to the financing and construction of the Central Library (granting the Mayor authority to lease MLK for ninety-nine years) be removed from that Act and considered separately.

On May 9, City Council Committee of the Whole will vote on Mrs Patterson’s recommendation.

There is no formal forum for discussing this recommendation, but people should make their views known through letters, phone calls or e-mails.

Go to www.dccouncil.washington.dc.us for Council member contact information.

The following Council members have already indicated they will support Mrs Patterson’s recommendation on May 9:

Sharon Ambrose

Kwame Brown

Jack Evans

Carol Schwartz