- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2008

Thrusting the District’s aging public library system into the digital era and making sweeping renovations will not be part of the Fenty administration’s early plans to improve government inefficiency and bring about swift change.

“We’re not going to be cutting edge because we have a lot of catching up to do,” says Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper.

Mrs. Cooper says her short-term goal is to make the 109-year-old system a center for community activity and update its facilities, services and collection to meet the changing demands of borrowers, then perhaps make the transition from print to digital medium. But for now, she can take only small, incremental steps toward those goals.

A quick tour of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, the system’s main branch on Ninth Street Northwest, best highlights the situation.

When it opened in 1972, the sleek black-steel-and-glass building from architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was heralded as a chic, modern memorial to the late civil rights leader. By the late ‘80s, crime infested the area — turning the 400,000-square-foot library into a rundown and dangerous setting.

Today, the lobby is noticeably brighter, cleaner and more welcoming, though Mrs. Cooper readily acknowledged not everything is as it appears.

“People think we’ve painted, we didn’t,” she said,. “People think we’ve changed the floor, we didn’t.”

Mrs. Cooper did replace 3,000 light bulbs on the first floor and cleaned all of the ceiling panels late last year.

“It cost us a half-million dollars,” she said.

Library officials are committed to keeping a large collection of books, despite some evidence that shows patrons want more access to computers or other media.

According to library records, of the top-five most popular items checked out of the system from October to the end of December, only one was a book.

However, Mrs. Cooper says most of the budget for the collection will continue go to books and hard copies of other media until there is a significant shift in change in patrons’ use of resources.

Officials also are trying to fulfill the mission of a public facility, which includes meeting the basic needs of the residents, including online tutoring services for schoolchildren, and access to basic information for the poor and in many cases the homeless, particularly at the MLK library.

“There are many people who use our libraries who never walk through our doors,” said Mrs. Cooper, who came from the Brooklyn library system in 2006.

Still, officials have made some technological advances for the system’s 27 libraries.

They have purchased hundreds of computers, added to the collection tens of thousands of electronic items, installed wireless Internet at every branch, expanded the CD and DVD collections, and are experimenting with the use of multimedia such as single-use, digital audio players and downloadable audio broadcasts known as podcasts.

About 85 percent of the $6.2 million budget in fiscal 2008 is allocated for books and other media, compared with 10 percent for electronic resources.

Numbers for the first quarter of the fiscal year show the library circulated about 393,000 items, but only about 3,500 of them were material that could be downloaded.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, a Democrat who took office in 2007, told The Washington Times that he supports Mrs. Cooper’s approach to reshaping the system.

“The library system needs a complete overhaul and Ginnie Cooper is in the midst of a real great shake-up,” Mr. Fenty said. “She’s got a great vision and we’re going to make sure she’s got the resources to get it done.”

Still, Mr. Fenty has not indicated plans for the type of swift overhaul he made in his first year — including the replacement of the police department chief and taking control of the public school system.

Mrs. Cooper’s plan to make the neighborhood branches a center for community activities includes $2.3 million in fiscal 2008 under the Library as a Community initiative, which earmarks money to increase circulation and patronage by expanding the collection, adding programs and improving facilities.

The initiative also includes money to help with the reconstruction of four branches closed in December 2004: Tenley Friendship, Watha T. Daniel/Shaw, Benning and Anacostia as well as repair of the Georgetown Branch that was destroyed by fire in April 2007.

Library officials also plan to renovate the Mount Pleasant branch, which is scheduled to close in early 2009 and reopen in late 2010.

All of those projects are fully funded. But one, the redevelopment of the West End library, remains stalling.

In July, the D.C. Council voted 12-1 in favor of an emergency resolution that would have sold the library and a nearby fire station in Northwest to developer EastBanc Inc., but rescinded the legislation in October after public outcry.

Community groups complained that there was little public notice and resident input on the developer’s plan to build a new library and fire station and develop nearby land.

Deputy Mayor for Economic Development Neil O. Albert said last month that the District would put the property up for bidding. This month, Mr. Albert said the city was “no way close” to starting the process.

D.C. Council member Harry Thomas, Ward 5 Democrat, said he is working with Mrs. Cooper on ways to integrate library services and programs into those offered by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation to further strengthen community involvement.

But some resident groups say they are worried that changes are being proposed without substantial planning.

“People here have been led to believe that these will be lovely community places, but the library has not shown us how they’re going to do it,” said Robin Diener, director of the D.C. Library Renaissance Project.

She also said that in recent years the library’s leadership, which includes the eight-member Board of Library Trustees, has been “adversarial” when the Federation of Friends of the D.C. Public Library has tried to get information about the future of the libraries so members can offer help.

Mr. Fenty acknowledged the tension between the group and library leadership and said that he expects Mrs. Cooper to bridge the gap.

The group has been “shouting on deaf ears for too long,” he said.

The group has said it supports Mrs. Cooper and will provide grass-roots muscle for her plan.

Still, the biggest unanswered question is likely what will happen to the MLK library.

Mr. Thomas said that because the library sits on arguably the most valuable parcel of land downtown, all options must be carefully considered.

Former Mayor Anthony A. Williams commissioned a task force in 2005 to explore options.

The task force issued a report in January 2006 that stated $280 million would be needed to rebuild the branch as part of a mix-used development at the site of the old Washington Convention Center a block away. It was an option Mr. Williams, a Democrat, strongly supported.

The idea of the library moving there continues to be discussed, even after city officials in December announced an $850 million development proposal at the site.

Mr. Fenty said this month there are no final plans for the library and that “everything is on the table,” including renovation or moving it to the former convention center site.

Mrs. Cooper said the building needs a complete renovation, but its unique construction makes some improvements almost impossible.

“This building needs hundreds of millions of dollars to be improved the way that it needs to be,” she said. “When we touch anything in this building it’s expensive.”

She pointed to one room that costs several thousand dollars for renovations — her office. The unique design of the interior windows restrain her from subdividing the room without suffering an expensive price tag.

Despite any future plans, Mrs. Cooper says the library system won’t be complete until “a hundred years from now.”

She says real improvements call upon institutional change that is beyond building face lifts and updates to resources.

She said moving the library into the digital age is the easy part because it largely means buying new equipment or services. The hard part is getting residents to understand the need for change.

“We’re talking about making changes to the library system for people who like it the way it is,” she said. “There’s no magic bullet.”

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