Performance Oversight Hearing on Fiscal Year 2009-2010 Budgets, Library Renaissance Project

By Richard
February 25, 2010

Committee on Libraries, Parks and Recreation
Councilmember Harry Thomas, Chairperson

District of Columbia Public Library (DCPL)
Performance Oversight Hearing on Fiscal Year 2009-2010 Budgets

Thursday February 25, 2010

Testimony of Robin Diener
Director, Library Renaissance Project

Everyone is for libraries.

I commend this city’s leaders for their recognition in recent years that the need for libraries is not “discretionary,” unlike neighboring Fairfax County where libraries have sustained a budget cut of 33% over two years. (See Washington Post article attached.)

Libraries are immensely important as a partner in the city’s central initiative of educational reform. They are also unique “safe spaces” for young people and elders, as well as a way across the digital divide.

And more. But they are no good to us, if they’re closed.

This is not a new story. In the District, it is only recently that we have come close to an adequate library day. That is now eroding. In 2006, at the library listening sessions, the number one request of District residents was that libraries be open as many hours as possible. Kathy Patterson, then-chair of this committee, somehow found the money to fund DCPL to be open on Sundays. New Chief Librarian Cooper, was the recipient of this gift and was able to implement expanded hours shortly after she arrived in August 2006. According to DCPL, Sunday has proven to be the busiest day per hours open.

After only a year and a half, DCPL had to close two mornings a week, due to money that proved not to be forthcoming in spite of having been explicitly promised by Mayor Adrian Fenty. And since the beginning of the 2010 FY, DCPL is closed on Sundays at all branch libraries.

Libraries aren’t any good to us if they’re not open. Keeping the buildings open should be DCPL’s highest priority.

We understand from DCPL that what is needed to open new libraries and restore lost hours is more funding for personnel. If, in these difficult economic times, it is necessary to sustain cuts elsewhere, that would be unfortunate, but we urge you to support DCPL’s request for personnel over all else.

Unfortunately, we can’t give you any guidance on where cuts may need to be taken, because the budget won’t be published until March, but also because when it is published we are unlikely to be able to glean many specifics, if past DCPL performance is any guide. The library, which is synonymous with access and information, does not act in an open and transparent way. The Director of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute has said that the Library’s budget is the most opaque and least informative of any DC agency.

There is a lot being accomplished by DCPL with the benefit of lots of taxpayer dollars. And I don’t mean to disparage that accomplishment by reminding people that DCPL was starting from last place among libraries in the US. While much has improved, we question DCPL’s performance in numerous matters of public concern:

  • DCPL was not active in opposing the recent cutbacks that resulted in a series of reductions in hours. DCPL then refused to look at creative use of volunteers to help keep libraries open more hours.
  • DCPL misrepresented the public engagement process for planning new buildings. At the Library Roundtable on February 10, 2010, Chief Cooper admitted that it was a mistake to have led people to believe that public approval was needed for new library designs. DCPL’s self proclaimed “model process of engagement,” including the Hopes & Dreams meetings, was simply a bill of goods.
  • DCPL is paying two to three times what it costs to build branch libraries in comparable cities. The size of the new buildings has never been justified.
  • DCPL ignored the public outcry over the closure of the RLChristian kiosk.
  • DCPL is restricting book storage space for sales by Friends of the Library groups. Proceeds go to purchase new books. The restrictions show DCPL to be lacking in appreciation for the historical role of the Friends of the Library and shortsighted in an era when collections budgets are likely to be cut..
  • The Summer Reading Program, arguably the most important program of DCPL’s, consists of programs that seem to have nothing to do with reading and to be trying to encourage and reward reading with cheap baubles.
  • DCPL has decreed that in the interest of decluttering libraries, racks for the display of free informational brochures, such as are seen in every library in the world, are to be removed in DC. (See Northwest Current article attached.)
  • Adult Literacy – A vision to address this massive deficit is lacking. An integrated program of offerings for adult learners should be in every branch, every day, as recommended by the Mayor’s Task Force on Adult Literacy Report of 2008.
  • The District is in violation of the Library Enhancement And Development Act (LEAD), passed unanimously in 2006 by this Council. The LEAD Act mandated a public task force to develop a strategic plan for the Library. Currently $170 million dollars in capital funds is being spent without a publicly vetted plan.
  • At this very moment, DCPL is using our precious, limited dollars to meet with consultants to plan for further transformation of District libraries — not with residents and library users, not in a public task force — but behind closed doors with private consultants who are accountable to no one. DCPL and its Trustees are making the same mistake they have made throughout the library transformation process.
  • The Board of Library Trustees has been allowed to do whatever it pleases without oversight. The Trustees rarely take a vote in public. The Trustees don’t want to include the public. Chief Cooper clearly has the Trustees full support to do everything in its publicly-funded power to stay two steps ahead of the public. Plans are already set in motion and approved by various requisite boards before the public ever learns of them. DCPL then berates members of the public for causing delay by asking questions “too late” into the process.

As you can see, Chairman Thomas, we have some very serious reservations about DCPL’s performance in areas of judgment, leadership, and responsiveness to the public. My organization has been offering suggestions since before the transformation process began and we offer them again for the record. (See page 4.)

We agree with other testimony that you have heard today that many basic functions have improved dramatically. We ask you to budget to keep the libraries open — first and foremost — that is the public’s highest priority, but we also urge you to exercise the oversight needed to make this public institution more open, responsive, and honest.


  • Create a seat (with vote) on the Board of Trustees for the President of the Federation of Friends of DCPL. There must be someone on the Trustees Board to represent the public interest.
  • Convene a public task force on the future of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial central library. The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development has someone assigned to explore development opportunities for the MLK library, yet there is no public consensus about what should be done.
  • Convene the LEAD Act Task Force to create a strategic plan for DCPL. Create a meaningful process of engagement with communities to assist with planning for library transformation in their neighborhoods.

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