[from March 2003 issue]


The mayor and his planning office chief, Andrew Altman, have come up with a bad idea for the beleaguered Martin Luther King, Jr. Library: Instead of spending money to expand and rehabilitate the existing structure, the only building in the city designed by the great 20th century architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, they would sell it off to the highest bidder so it could be torn down for private development. In its place, they propose spending $150 million for a smaller main library to be incorporated into a new project to replace the old convention center.

Somehow, they think this will be a wonderful opportunity. Wonderful, yes, for some developers--those that can glom on to the existing library building site at 9th and G Streets and those that can get the lush contract for a new, smaller library building.

There are those who argue that the greater cost of building a new, smaller library can be offset by the sale of the current building. But, can't it also be just as valid an argument that the lesser cost of expanding and rehabilitating the old--and it's not really old by any stretch of the imagination--can easily be offset by the proceeds that will flow from the sale of the old convention center site?

What we suggest is that serious consideration be given to utilizing the old convention center building as a temporary home for the MLK Library while the Mies van der Rohe structure be expanded and rehabilitated as previously proposed. Then after everything is moved back in, let the city sell off the full two blocks of the former convention center site to private developers who would give up their first-born for the rights to have that site!

Not only would there be happy developers who could do wonders with the site which in turn would do wonders for the city's tax base, but--and this might require city council legislation to ensure it really happens--the sale proceeds could generate real money that could be at least partially earmarked for the library system. Earmarked, though, not for more bureaucrats, but for books and periodicals and research collections of which the library system is so lacking because of years of inadequate funding.

In fact, the city's politicians (and the citizens are to blame also for not screaming loud enough at the politicians) have pretty much destroyed the library's collections through fiscal starvation so that it has become quite problematic that damaged and missing items can be replaced or that subscriptions to its vast holdings of periodicals can be kept current or that the need to be adding substantially to research materials can be carried out, and on and on.

How can a city that aspires to "world class" allow its citizens nothing less than a library system to match? Well, unfortunately, the answer may lie in the related query of how can a city that aspires to "world class" provide its school children with such dismal prospects for quality education?

Of course, the nasty reality is that the so-called "educated" classes in this city don't really need a viable public library system; those folk understand how to have access to the greatest research collections in the world--the Library of Congress. But that is no excuse to abandon the majority of real people in the city, including the school children, who have so little offered them by way of public encouragement for intellectual stimulation and meaningful educational opportunities. Just look at the pathetic situation with the scattered branch libraries--under-funded, understaffed, under-booked, and greatly limited hours.

That this situation seems almost to be condoned by the movers and shakers here is a disgrace. It is really time to stop shunting aside the problems of the library system. How ironic that the original Carnegie Library is being brought back to life and soon to re-open as the home of the new City Museum: a former library building being returned to cultural use. Yet, at the same time, the city's administrators and politicians have allowed the successor building to decay to the point of it being so foul to enter that potential users are driven out.

We have to agree with the frustration expressed last month by library board member Alex Padro who complained, "This city has so many art treasures, but instead of making sure we honor that heritage, this administration feels like it should be sold to the highest bidder."