- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 6, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Virginia Spatz is a lover of mystery, an independent journalist and a lifelong lover of books and learning, explaining why she lives in her Capitol Hill public library — plus the Wi-Fi is free. The past few days she’s been like a “junkie who can’t get a fix,” Ms. Spatz said, because the library has been closed with plumbing problems.

Ms. Spatz is not alone.

Across the country, Americans are finding their libraries experiencing growing pains.

In many jurisdictions, libraries are trying to keep up with a growing demand for online resources and capabilities, while others are struggling to financially stay afloat during a post-Recession drip, drip of public funds.

Some places, like the nation’s capital, are trying to renovate libraries and school libraries to meet the demands of the public at large as well as the needs of the region’s academic and research communities.

Also, like many urban areas, D.C. residents depend on libraries for free public meeting spaces, exhibits and to buck extreme cold and heat.

Today, libraries are used to help the jobless search for employment, aid moms and dads and day care providers instill a lifelong love of reading and literacy, help budding entrepreneurs reach out to one another, and keep grass-roots activists plugged into politics and community service needs.

D.C. is at once ahead of the game and behind the times.

“The Southeast Library [near Eastern Market] was renovated,” Ms. Spatz said, adding that the city’s central library has a “high-tech section which used to be a decrepit, forlorn place. Now there are computers and spaces where the public can use Wi-Fi, and a 3D printer, people there to help you if you have questions. There are rooms for business meetings.”

But there also are glaring omissions.

“I have not seen anything like that for teenagers or kids,” she said. “I’ve been to libraries and seen six to eight kids trying to work on one computer.”

A sorry sight, for sure, considering the city has embarrassingly high illiteracy, school dropout and jobless rates.

So here’s this taxpayer’s rub: Why are libraries only open 12 or so hours a day? Ours is a 24/7 society.

The growing pains for free libraries — moving them from, say, mere book depositories to online hubs of the 21st century — are real.

Emily Sheketoff, executive director of the American Library Association’s D.C. Office, certainly thinks so.

“U.S. school, public and higher-education libraries complete education and help jump start employment in every community in this country,” she said after President Obama’s State of the Union address. “After-school Wi-Fi use in public libraries spikes at 3:01 p.m., when students bring their devices and homework assignments to one of more than 16,000 library locations.”

We’re especially spoiled here in our nation’s capital because folks in the states kick in on our behalf, and all that extra dough means there should not be six to eight kids sharing one computer screen, that emotional attachment to an architectural style or that “cookie cutter ideas” dictate library renovation plans — issues that surely confront D.C. officials as they renovate the city’s central library, the Martin Luther King Jr. Library in downtown. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a modernist icon, the middle-aged building has outlived its usefulness, and the city’s new library chief, Richard Reyes-Gavilan, has acknowledged as much.

“When Mies designed this building in the 1960s, libraries were largely transactional in nature,” Mr. Reyes-Gavilan remarked last month. “You come in, you get a book, you leave. Almost half a century later, libraries aspire to be more than just transactional spaces, they aspire to be transformational. They have the ability to make profound differences in the lives of their users, especially the most vulnerable populations who have few other options for acquiring knowledge.”

Most D.C. neighborhood libraries are either already remodeled or in the renovation pipeline, but MLK is the biggest and most important project of them all.

Mr. Reyes-Gavilan has to keep his eye on the prize on this one — if he wants the new MLK to make a profound difference in the lives of its users.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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