If You Build It…

February 27, 2019

Transformation, as the planning process for DC Public Libraries was dubbed more than a decade ago, has brought us 20 expanded or rebuilt libraries and the balance of the system’s 26 buildings is funded in the District’s five-year capital budget. Library transformation is unquestionably the city’s most important civic project of recent decades, but it was limited to the rebuilding or expanding of libraries at existing locations.

At the time, that was not an oversight. DC already had one of the highest rates of libraries per capita. However, all facilities had been permitted to fall into substantial disrepair, dire disrepair in some cases, from bullet holed windows to dripping roofs, and the entire system needed to be brought into the 21st Century. Several branches simply consisted of tiny plexiglass kiosks intended to be temporary when built. And MLK central library was routinely likened to a prison, considered as dangerous by some, with its dank staircases and long dark hallways.

Half a billion dollars later, most of the system is glittering. MLK is closed undergoing surgery to have its internal systems replaced and its architectural persona overhauled. As the end of the transformation process comes into view, DCPL leadership recognized the time is now to plan. And so, the first public meeting about the Master Facilities Plan (MFP) for DC Public Libraries kicked off last night at the Tenley branch.

Attendance at the kickoff meeting was light, consisting of far more consultants and staff than everyday library users. In contrast though, an on-line survey that closed on Friday made a good showing with 1100 responses reportedly, although none of that data was yet available for the meeting.

Library Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan spoke welcomingly and focused on two main points: 1) the Library’s responsibility to protect its assets by keeping them in good working order, and 2) the intention to tailor services to neighborhoods. The Library will also consider new locations but did not explicitly ask for feedback about that last night, nor on the earlier survey.

Judging from Monday’s DC Council Performance Oversight Hearing on the Library, new locations or co-locations with other facilities might well be needed. As the DCPL website notes, “Library circulation has increased 250 percent in the past decade.” While testimony at the hearing was very favorable to DCPL as usual, comments recurred about how crowded the transformed libraries have become. This includes Cleveland Park, the largest and most recent to open, with the highest use, historically, of any DC branch. Among speakers at the oversight hearing, the phrase of choice to describe libraries was “well used,” but the tales of long waits for computers and of children’s program sign-up being filled five minutes after being posted on-line may indicate that some library branches are already at capacity. Another example is Tenley, where the MFP meeting was held, also an historically high use library where teens from nearby Wilson High pack the house after school and meeting rooms for all are booked solid.

When the “transformed” MLK central library opens in 2020, it is expected to take some pressure off the branches. The re-newed MLK will have double the available public square footage of the original library. There will be newer seating options, as well, like reading bars along windows which, given the sheer expanse of MLK windows, will accommodate a lot of people. However, it’s entirely possible that the central library, too, will become full up, as it appears many branches already have citywide.

When we have built them, they have come.

As someone who was present for the ten library listening sessions held across the District in 2005 before DCPL embarked on its building “transformation” program, I looked forward to the MFP meeting. I know that some requests remain unmet from 15 years ago. For instance, every neighborhood in the city asked for a coffee shop to be associated with their library but only one, West End, had their wish granted. I know of three planned Rec Centers where communities have longstanding requests for library services: McMillan Park, Crummell School in Ivy City, and Stead Park in Dupont/Logan Circle. These rec centers could easily coordinate with DCPL for some range of library programs and services.

After the Director Reyes-Gavilan spoke, some happy talk by consultants ensued. Then, the obligatory power point, followed by a “walk through the boards” to append post-its. These sessions are never enlightening, whether they’re conducted for Office of Planning or Dept of Transportation or DCPL. It would be far more interesting and possibly inspiring to hear about other library systems and see examples, and to hear from people in relation to a given set of questions.

This process of sticky notes and surveys, inadequate and awkward as it feels, nonetheless will be important. One hopes it will be sufficient to carry on the unquestioned success of the DCPL’s so far brilliant transformation.