Pondering the Unspeakable Option

I’ve been thinking about libraries lately. The DC Public Library‘s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, to be specific. There’s been a debate raging over the library’s future: some want the 1972 Mies van der Rohe structure renovated and maintained as the city’s main library. Others, including the mayor, his blue-ribbon library task force, and the library’s staff, think a better use of city money would be to build a new structure a few blocks away on the old convention center site.

Watha T. Daniel LibraryAt first I thought one option not discussed was privatization. A possible scenario might look like this: the city would move the public library to a new site, and a private organization would take over the Mies building. Freed from the shackles of public oversight they’d be free to slash employee pay, court lucrative corporate deals, even bar the homeless. (The DC Charter Library: Brought To You By Dell) The architecture buffs would be happy and probably more comfortable in a semi-private, sanitary library than the real thing anyway. (I’ve been wondering how many of the Mies library’s defenders use the building regularly, anyhow.)

Giddy with the excitement of any good liberal indulging his libertarian side and treading on verboten political territory, I began googling for private libraries. It turns out whomever is behind the blog of the Nader group DC Library Renaissance Project was having similar fears last February when people first talked about the controversial idea of cashing in on city real estate to fund capital improvements on schools and libraries. Searching further found an interesting article from 1996 that made a convincing case the era of the modern library was over … doomed by the proliferation of information technology and the fragmentation of contemporary society.

Upon further reflection the idea seemed to unravel. Who’d go to this new institution? How would it be supported? I decided to IM a friend from Ann Arbor Edward Vielmetti, who works for the University of Michigan School of Information and authors the blog SuperPatron. Ed thinks we’ve come a long way since 1972 and pointed out new libraries have taken on a social function, centered on meeting spaces and computing resources. He noted that the Post story I sent him described the homeless using the library, and pointed me to a Wired article about how crucial the public institutions can be for this population. However, he didn’t seem to think the public library was obsolete, suggesting the Queens Library as one institution that has adapted well to the changing needs of serving a radically diverse community in the information age.

I was finding that my short-lived dreams of privatization were evaporating quickly, just like the high hopes of the advocates for the semi-private “charter” schools in DC. I’m sympathetic to the preservationists, but within limits. I find little of value in the solid cinder block stairwells and drab hallway spaces of the Mies design. Why not sell the property to a developer but just require they keep the facade? Let them gut the building — asbestos, broken elevators, fetid bathrooms and all — and let the building be reborn, perhaps with upper stories discreetly set back from the old roof line. The city’s reactionary preservationists could sit outside the old library, sipping cappuccino and admiring the beauty of the Mies design, while the rest of us attend public events, conduct computer research, and check out books in an elegant new edifice three blocks away.

Note: The photo is of my neighborhood library, the Watha T. Daniel branch. It closed with three other branches in 2004, and only recently has the library announced plans to install modular libraries (PDF) until the new branches are designed and built.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. My feeling on the MLK library has been that the building should stay, but not be used so distinctly as a traditional book library. I think it would be neat if it were an arts center, or entirely meeting space and one of the country’s most sophisticated electronic libraries. (Similar to what you have suggested, I think.)

    I think in addition we need to move the main library. I do not have specific goal for what the current MLK building becomes, but I think it is an important public symbol thus it should remain for public use.

  2. If you will note, that building was built primarily as a bunker, not a library, so citizens could rally there in case of riots. The National Guard could fire from the narrow fortress windows and citizens would be protected from the violent street mayhem. The anti-gentrification media and civil rhetoric we are pelted with constantly is analogous to what we heard in DC prior to our 1968 Kristallnacht when the tone was anti-renovation. Remember, the opposite of gentrification is ghettofication. We’ve had fifty years of the latter, time for a change.

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