DC Public

I’ll put up some pictures later but I’m using the wifi in DC Public before heading out to hang out with my pal Chris from Libraryola. Yesterday I went to a tasty and fun lunch with Dorothea and then had a great chat with Ron (who I met on MetaFilter) who works at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum Library. After the conference I also got to hang out with my friend Tom Hyry who was on the SAA Program Committee who is the reason I was in DC in the first place. I’ve got a list of libraries I’d like to hit in Baltimore and then I have to find a place to stock up on books for the trip home.

I have this to say about DC Public: it’s all true. I had been reading about the sorry state of the library system here for a while but I don’t think I’d ever been to the big downtown branch. It’s hot here, and dirty here. One bank of elevators isn’t working and I have yet to see a staff person who isn’t reading a book or idly surfing the web. There are a lot of people here, though they tend towards the middle-aged men demographic. There are no families, no older people that I’ve seen, and no people my age. This place is the place that time forgot. I had to go through a metal detector and empty my pockets before I could even come inside. I like being able to use the wifi but I only discovered it because I opened up my laptop, not because it’s advertised or publicized in any way. I’m the only person here using a laptop, I think in the entire library but I won’t be using it much longer because there is barely any air conditioning and the sweat is affecting my typing accuracy. The lobby smells like diapers and disinfectant. Everyone I have talked to that lives in DC doesn’t use the library, they either buy books or find a way to use the suburban libraries or ones at the local schools. This is a big problem, and it’s still unclear what is being done to straighten it out.

11 thoughts on “DC Public

  1. I do use the DC libraries – in fact MLK (the main branch) is the one I always use. I had no idea that there was wifi in MLK and I’m in there a couple times a month. But everything you wrote is true – in fact, I have become a drive-by library user – I place all my holds online and come in every week or two to pick the books up and turn in the ones I’ve read. I never make it further than the circulation desk now.

    Thanks for checking out our sorry public library system. I hope that we are able to get it turned around. Public libraries have so much to offer everyone, and DC is a city that could benefit more than most from good public libraries.

  2. Holt has a series on DCPL…this is from the first article in the series. There was a new one posted today but I don’t have a sub. “The series deals with the desired outcomes of this renaissance and explores the critical question: “Will the residents of DC get the great library system they need and deserve?”


    –If I had any influence with the editors of American Libraries, Public Libraries or Library Journal, I would ask them to send a bevy of reporters to cover the DC renaissance, the most intriguing current library story in the whole United States. Our library-focused profession makes many different kinds of efforts to learn from its successes. Unlike other research-and-policy-making fields, however, we have done little to analyze our persistent problem institutions or how and why our important change efforts sometimes fail.

    The reason this point is important is because DCPL, by nearly any measure, if not a failure, is a very, very troubled library system.

  3. Welcome to DCPL…. I’m an MLS student who’s grown up in D.C. and has used the system pretty extensively over the years. Everything you say about MLK is true — although you missed out on the creepy staircases. Generally terrible staff, awful building, uncomfortable, uninviting environment — just like pretty much every public facility in DC. In my lifetime DCPL had pretty much the same exact problems as all our other scandal-ridden, money-wasting institutions. DC spends more per student than any state, and yet the public school system’s quality ranks 51 by a variety of measures. Unbelievable. Then again, we are the city that re-elected Marion “Bitch Set Me Up” Barry. In any event, we’re now on our third (I think) new “big name” library director of the last five years. The first two spent a year or two each floundering and then cut and ran to greener pastures. All I can say on a good note is that some of the branches are more inviting (although equally shabby and run down) — except for the four that were closed for remodeling and have sat vacant for over a year with no work done… Finally, if you want to see what the internet looked like 6-8 years ago, check out DCPLs new website at http://www.dclibrary.org!

  4. Interesting! I was also in DC for the SAA conference and ran into the DCPL to see if they had a place I could check my email from since the conference hotel did not. I asked the clerks busy having a conversation at the main information desk if there was internet available to which they responded “Yeah, right there (pointing behind them) but you better hurry up because we ’bout to close in 10 minutes.” At first, I wondered if Thursday was a holiday I was unaware of. I couldn’t understand why they were closing. When I realized they were closing because of the heat, I asked if there was a place nearby where I could get a WiFi connection. The same clerk looked at me confused. I explained that I needed an internet connection and that all the computers looked like they were being used by people who were going to be using them for longer than 10 minutes. So the clerk sent me over to 6th and D. Which was blocks away. (nevermind that it was hot and humid) He never told me where to go once I got to the intersection of 6th and D – so when I got there, I could only guess he meant the Fed-Ex-Kinkos. There I was able to purchase the ability to use their WiFi. Only to find out that the library had WiFi access all along.
    Kudos to helpful staff!!

  5. Hi,

    I actually worked in the Washingtoniana section of the DC Public Library in the mid-90’s. The library has been wanting for money for years and has not received the support it needs from the DC government. There are some extremely talent staff members there but the morale is pretty low. Plus there were several high-level firings just before the new director arrived.

    There have been lots of articles in the Post about how the Library could serve as an anchor to help students improve in schools, reduce the skyrocketing crime rate and to encourage people to support their communities. I can only hope the new mayor will put more support into the library and the DC Archives, both of which are in extremely sad shape.

    And an FYI I saw Jessamyn speak at the SAA/NAGARA/COSA meeting and was extremely impressed so am now reading her blog on a regular basis.

  6. Tony’s comment RE: the branches is right – while they’re often equally threadbare, their librarians generally try harder to make them inviting and user-friendly. I use the Mt. Pleasant and Cleveland Park branches a few times a month, and usually have a good experience.

    Did you stop by the Washintoniana Collection while you were at MLK? There’s a great collection of D.C. history materials mouldering away there, and a dedicated staff who are fighting to preserve it and make it accessible in spite of everything. It’s one of the few positive things about the place.

  7. I’d noticed the same thing WRT the demographics when I lived in DC. I used the main library a few times when I lived there, but the hours were inconvenient for people with “regular jobs” and the few times I did make it, it was usually b/c I needed to do homework with the financial journals. Yup. Always way older than me white men taking turns with me to read the ValueLines. Which Montgomery County had online, but DC only had in paper.

  8. Before going back to school, I worked a block away from MLK. I used it from time to time, but always during the day and I never ventured deep into the stacks. I know from prior experience that unless you enjoy seeing things you shouldn’t, it’s best not to go back there. There are no families there because, frankly, it’s not safe.

    A number of high-level admin staff of DC Public were recently fired, and they were mostly people with poor reputations. Hopefully it’s a start to change things. Too bad the MLK building is going away, though. If it was taken care of and restructured, it would make a great library.

    Thanks for your thoughts…had no idea wi-fi was available there.

  9. One of the administrators at the DC Public gave a phone presentation during a class of mine this summer- things are dire on the administrative end as well, though it sounds like there is an effort being made. I may make some errors in my recap due to hazy memory, but she confirmed that the horrific conditions run throughout. They’d been without any director for three years prior to bringing on Ginnie Cooper. They’d also been under the scrutiny of a ‘task force’ created by the mayor (without the participation or input of library staff) to investigate where things had gone wrong and make recommendations. Things seem to be looking up, though, with increased funding, renovations, and a new director.

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