- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The next couple of years will be monumental for libraries in the District, and we all should stand up and pay attention. By 2011, residents will have seen 13 new or renovated libraries opening across the city - six in 2010 alone, an accomplishment all should celebrate.

We have not always had something to celebrate. D.C. libraries witnessed some dark days not too long ago. Those of us who have lived here for a while remember the crumbling infrastructures, lack of quality services and few or nonexistent current books. We couldn’t think of libraries as essential cornerstones of our neighborhoods because they weren’t - until now.

Strong leadership, well-defined priorities and a renewed commitment by many have transformed a system that once was considered an embarrassment to one that is thriving and relevant.

In 2004, then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams formed a blue ribbon task force, of which I was a member, to look at the state of libraries and develop a plan for improvement. We looked at successful libraries in thriving urban areas across the country and abroad. We quickly learned that truly great cities have great libraries. And we needed great libraries in the District.

I joined the library board several months later because I wanted to work with like-minded colleagues who also were dedicated to seeing this type of change in the city. We want a library system that is well-used, well-maintained and worthy of being in the nation’s capital. I must admit, part of my motivation stemmed from a feeling of self-responsibility for contributing to the library system’s dire circumstance. I was executive director of the D.C. Financial Control Board, established by Congress in 1995 to oversee the District’s finances, and the board was instrumental in cutting funding to the libraries.

Things have changed. Though we still have a long way to go and a lot more work to do, we have a transforming library system that is fiscally responsible, well-managed and supported and used by residents. In just three years, circulation has increased nearly 100 percent. More than 450 computers are available for public use compared to a few more than 100 three years ago. People are coming to the library and finding what they need.

And when the doors of these new libraries open, we will see even more interest in the library. People will want one on their block, around the corner or in their neighborhood. We must get ahead of this demand. So the board is developing a plan for the future of the library system. We want to know what neighborhoods need libraries and which ones have too many. Should libraries be easily accessible by public transportation? Should residents be able to walk to their neighborhood library? This analysis, which will result in a library services and facilities strategic plan, will give us a road map for the future.

Some have asked why we are opening new libraries in a recession. To be honest, we are concerned about how the District’s fiscal woes will impact how successfully libraries can operate. Because of budget reductions, the library system already has had to reduce hours twice this year. However, as The Washington Times and many others have reported, libraries are even more important to people during tough economic times. People use the library to search for jobs, update their resumes or find free entertainment. We will not be in this recession forever, and communities that have been without full-service libraries for a long time deserve and need their libraries. That’s why we will open and operate these new libraries with celebration and success.

The D.C. Public Library has not had and may not ever have another moment like this one. When we embarked on this journey to improve libraries several years ago, we had a lot of factors in our corner. Funding was made available by the mayor and D.C. Council; community interest was at a high point; and a strong library board was able to attract an exceptional chief librarian, Ginnie Cooper, who in turn built a team that could bring the dream to life. We don’t know when we will have this opportunity again. So let us stand up, pay attention and celebrate the future of the District’s libraries. These libraries will be the envy of great cities everywhere.

• John Hill is president of the Board of Library Trustees and executive director of the Federal City Council.

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