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MLK library may be on the move

The often maligned Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library may move to a new building at a different location. A panel of developers and planners associated with the Urban Land Institute could make that recommendation later this month.

Photo by the author.

"It's important to note that the panel will not address the need for a central library," Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper said. She continued, "the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library will continue to exist and be located downtown." Instead, the five-day advisory panel will discuss the ideal location for a downtown central library.

According to the DC Public Library (DCPL), "national research suggests that a central library should be about 225,000 - 250,000 square feet." At 400,000 square feet there is a desire to either downsize MLK, the only city library open on Sundays, or construct a smaller future central library. The panel will discuss "potential uses of and development around" the MLK library, and conduct interviews with library users and community leaders.

An anchor of downtown since its opening in August 1972, the library was the city's first public memorial to the slain civil rights leader. Momentum to build a new central library began during the second mayoral administration of Anthony Williams. Released in November 2006, a report by the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Task Force recommended an overhaul of the neighborhood branches and the replacement of "the current functionally obsolete central library."

With a price tag of nearly $300 million, President Bush proposed $30 million in federal funds for a new downtown library. The current site of CenterCity DC was discussed as the most logic location. However, Williams' administration was unable to push a proposal through the DC Council.

Backed by a new administration, the building, designed by pioneering architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, became a historic landmark in late June 2007, preventing its demolition.

The DCPL Board of Trustees first mentioned the ULI panel at their meeting last month. When a smattering of questions arose about the intent of the panel, and whether the library's name honoring MLK was safe, it was clarified that no matter where the central library is located, it will retain Martin Luther King Jr.'s name, and continue to be a memorial to him.

Photo by the author.

Problems at the library

Since Cooper arrived in August 2006, MLK Library has undergone important functional and cosmetic upgrades making the building more inviting. The public bathrooms are no longer dungeons, the Black Studies and Children's Divisions have been refurbished, and a metal detector no longer greets visitors upon entry. The Adaptive Services Division, helping the deaf community, visually impaired, older adults, veterans and injured service people, received updated technology, the light plane of the ceiling of the Great Hall was revamped to better illuminate the cavernous lobby, and in 2009 a new room opened for teens.

However, MLK Library is still perceived as a homeless shelter and nicknamed "MLK Mission." The pervasiveness of the homeless and those with mental health issues obscure the library's vast collections and resources, according to members of the library staff.

The homeless are supported by a network of social service agencies such as the United Planning Organization. In the morning and evening, buses to and from homeless shelters use the front entrance of the library as a drop-off and pick-up point. G Place NW, behind the library, was the location point until the Secret Service objected.

Photo by the author.
Basic neglect continues unabated as evidenced in a recent list of safety violations issued to the library by the DC Office of Risk Management. According to library staff, a federal employee visiting the second floor's Literature Division saw numerous ceiling lights out. The outage left stacks in the rear of the division eerily dark, a safety concern for both staff and patrons. A DCPL officer said men are often found sleeping in between the stacks. If processed by police it is not unusual to find they have an arrest warrant. Though the staff has been raising the issue for many years, only recently were the lights fixed, under threat of fine.

Future of MLK Library

"The design of the building, while iconic as architecture, has failed to create the type of loved, dynamic and heavily used central library that would best serve the city," says Terry Lynch, a community activist who served on Mayor Williams' Blue Ribbon Task Force on libraries. "It is past time for a state of the art, new central library and conversion of this building to a more appropriate, adaptive reuse."

Over the next year MLK's first floor will be undergoing significant changes. A solicitation for proposals to "complete the interior improvements to the Business Science and Technology Reading Room and the Great Hall" closed two months ago. Construction is planned to be completed by August 2012.

Robin Diener with the Library Renaissance Project says citizens have advocated for a Citizens Task Force on the Future of MLK since the Williams Administration. Diener says, "In our view, the information gathered by a ULI panel could be a very useful contribution to the complete picture, but it should be presented to a task force of library users from around the city that Mayor Vincent Gray should appoint."

The ULI panel will present their finding and recommendations November 18th, 9 am to 11 am at MLK Library. The public is invited and encouraged to participate.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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Who would have ever thought that having too big a library was a bad thing?

by Scoot on Nov 3, 2011 10:55 am • linkreport

Why not move the library to the old Carnegie Library building in Mount Vernon Square?

by David Garber on Nov 3, 2011 11:13 am • linkreport

The new Seattle central library is huge. And the planned one for downtown Norfolk will also be much larger than the old facility. There is no logical need to downsize. The library's program should instead adapt to the needs of the community today, such as more social and community space.

The new Phoenix central library is about four times the square footage of MLK.

If the library intend to build a new home, there should be an international design competition, much like the one for the new Stockholm library.

by JP on Nov 3, 2011 11:15 am • linkreport

David: From what I understand, that's not possible because of two reasons. The first is that the old library wasn't set up as one where you could actually browse the stacks. You had to have librarians go back into them to find what you were looking for. I'm sure that the circulation of people could be changed, but the structure of the building just isn't open in a way that is preferred for newer libraries.

The other problem is that most of the space in the Carnegie building has been promised/leased (I'm not sure) to the convention center, as a way of saving the lease that the Historical Society of Washington (HSW) has on the space.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Nov 3, 2011 11:28 am • linkreport

While the need for a new, better library is real, that does not answer the question of what to do with a piece of architectural history that, like many of its era, is expensive to maintain and ill-suited to most contemprorary uses? The vision of the lions of Modernism was not matched by the materials they had, nor did they really understand the limitations of those materials. At times, one suspects they never meant these buildings to last.

by Crickey7 on Nov 3, 2011 11:39 am • linkreport

Moving the downtown library seems like an (expensive) solution in need of a problem. The post mentions that significant changes are in the works for the first floor, and other problems there do not seem to be insurmountable. I could see how there might be better uses for that real estate from the city's perspective. However, if the intent is to support a functional library, I don't see the current library's address as being the problem.

by DCster on Nov 3, 2011 11:39 am • linkreport

Geoffrey: Thanks. Some of my favorite libraries over the years have been adaptively reused older civic buildings. There's something to the natural quiet and order of them that seems so perfectly suited for a library. But I've never actually been in the Carnegie space so I can't really attest to how that might work.

by David Garber on Nov 3, 2011 11:40 am • linkreport

what should we be expecting from a city that prizes sports over education- and a system that does not prize literacy . Actually- it would be a great thing to build a decent looking structure on that block- and make better use of the density potential- as far as I see it- that Mies building is a piece of crap made by a super-over rated bad architect [ it is a stretch to even call him an architect- I would call Mies a developer] it is butt ugly, and even if the historic morons want to save it- they should add another couple of stories on top of this thing. I hate this period of building- it lacks grace and has no character- dismal institutional looking box garbage with absolutely no color, no soul, no sculpture integral to the structure, and in general the chaepest possible edifice- this is the real winning aspect of bauhaus modernism-minimalism- it is CHEAP to make. We can do alot better.

by w on Nov 3, 2011 11:43 am • linkreport

I agree that Meis was a joke, but like it or not, he's part of our cultural landscape. If form followed function, this type of building would be a manufacturing building, where the early modernists took "inspiration" from. That being said, this building could be a sculpture museum, especially if you slather some fine Barcelona Pavillion type marbles in the interior.

My bet would be to move the library to both get a nice anchor in a neighborhood that could use one and build something with the dignity of the old Carnegie library.
Every librarian who has worked in this building hates it, and the average passerby won't think much more about it, but seeings how those criteria are irrelevant to the architectural community (in general) let's make the best of this possible move.

by Thayer-D on Nov 3, 2011 11:56 am • linkreport

I'm all for a move, and once everyone is safely out of harm's way, dynamiting that monstrous architectural joke into tiny bits. As far as where to move MLK to, I like the idea of reusing the Carnegie at Mt. Vernon Square. If that's not possible, I would suggest making the library an anchor tenant in a 12-story mixed-use building.

by tom veil on Nov 3, 2011 12:16 pm • linkreport

I don't see why it has to be in the middle of downtown.

Why not sell the space and move the library to the under-utilized Reeves center on U Street?

by Anony on Nov 3, 2011 12:25 pm • linkreport

As the architect I have to agree with scoot and JP. Too much space seems really silly for a metropolitan area that is growing. As a relatively new person in town, from places far worse financially than Washington, I was surprised this library closes early at 5:30pm (Monday and Tuesdays aside). When are the working class suppose to stop by the library? I think this is clearly a funding issue painted as a building issue. Washington is so expensive to live in and so bureaucratic, yet this library seems mediocre. I don't know the specific ins and outs of the building, but it seems very plausible to renovated and serve the needs of a "modern" library.

As for the Architecture I want to pick on "w" for a moment. I think the reason the building seems so "dismal" is because of modernism's proliferation. Before Mies there weren't many if no purely glass exterior curtain wall buildings. I know it seems SO simple, but he really changed our landscape. Everyone has their beefs with Mies, but its only one building in the city and his last one before he passed. Let's celebrate architecture instead of destroying it.

As for the dislike of Bauhaus design, If anyone enjoys the Iphone, or Apple products in general, they are making a disingenuous comment.

by Matthew on Nov 3, 2011 12:36 pm • linkreport

Oh how I would long for a Chicago/Brooklyn Library. Something that at least "looks" stately unlike the current library's patchwork of sheer ugliness.

It's DC for godsake. The LOC is not "our" library.

by HogWash on Nov 3, 2011 12:37 pm • linkreport

This topic seems to get dredged up every couple years for the past 15 years. I know a lot of people hate this building, but most of the complaints about the library have little to do with the structure. The problems are more likely related to poor maintenance, poor management, programming, security, and the the fact that rearranging the furniture would rectify a lot of issues. Building a new library might make a lot of people happy, but I'm not convinced that in X number of years you'd just have another poorly maintained building with the same or new set of problems.

by spookiness on Nov 3, 2011 1:07 pm • linkreport

I dunno. Maybe we could compromise.

Put a reasonably sized library downtown. Make it nice, and design it so that it satisfies the needs of approximately 90% of the downtown library users.

For the other "10%," build a huge "main" library on an easily accessible location in the outskirts of town, where space is less precious/expensive to house the more obscure bits of the collection, as well as administrative offices and other functions that don't really need to be located downtown. The UDC campus would be a fantastic place for such a library, as it would benefit our languishing public university, while also providing a valuable asset to the city at large.

Also, DC would likely get a pretty penny for selling the current library. If the Library could become the ground-floor tenant of a larger building, the city could very well make a profit.

Alternatively, the Portrait Gallery and Building Museum would both make incredible libraries, if new homes could be found for their current tenants.

by andrew on Nov 3, 2011 1:15 pm • linkreport

As for the similarities of Steve Jobs aesthetics and Bauhaus, I think that's spot on. As for having to like Bauhaus design if you admire a small electronic device, that's inane at best.

My guess is the majority of technophiles from San Francisco to New York will prefer traditionaly styled home over a glass and steel tower, if prices are any indication. The main reason is the designs of pre-modernist architecture functions better on both an urban/pedestrian and sustainable level. Strolling past a decorated masonry building in the setting sun isn't the same human experience as pulling out a phone from one's pocket to tweet about whatever.

That logic was the backbone of modernism's ideology, becasue our machines look a certain way, we chould build similarly. As thought experiments, this simplistic view has led to some interesting fashion, music and many an art form as cultural expression, but it still holds no water.
It reminds me of the early modernists complaint that we should wear togas around classically styled buildings. On second thought, I'll ditch my 19th century collared shirt and suits in favor of a nice Star Trek or Jetsons suit.
As an architect.

by Thayer-D on Nov 3, 2011 1:19 pm • linkreport

As for the dislike of Bauhaus design, If anyone enjoys the Iphone, or Apple products in general, they are making a disingenuous comment.

The Bauhaus focused on the unification of function and design, while focusing on a reduction of unnecessary ornamentation.

Although this is readily apparent in Apple products and the MLK library, I'd argue that the Bauhaus's philosophy also discourages architecture from being held in any sort of artistic reverence, especially when its design is no longer suited to the way that the building is being used.

There are good reasons why Apple periodically changes the design of their products. A similar argument could be made that the design of the MLK library no longer fits in with the needs of the neighborhood or the library.

by andrew on Nov 3, 2011 1:25 pm • linkreport

@Matthew, I wouldn't want to live in my iPhone. Or visit it as a place to borrow books. Just because someone might love the Bauhaus aspects of technology design doesn't mean that it's appropriate for buildings.

by MDE on Nov 3, 2011 1:26 pm • linkreport

Oh, and +1000 to what "andrew" said.

by MDE on Nov 3, 2011 1:27 pm • linkreport

The ipod/modernism analogy is off target because it ignores scale, and scale is important. If you sized an ipod up to be as large as MLK library, it would be stupidly boring and ugly. Modernism doesn't provide enough things to look at on large buildings. That isn't a problem when you're dealing with a 5 inch gadget.

That said, I agree with the comment that the proliferation of modernism has been its real downfall. It worked when it was the exception. Now that it's the rule we're left with overly boring cities.

by BeyondDC on Nov 3, 2011 1:29 pm • linkreport

+1 to spookiness

I get that the building isn't some Beaux-Arts masterpiece like the Boston Public Library. I get it. It's an International Style building by Mies, so 50% or more of the population (outside of Chicago) is not going to like it. But it also has an open functional floorplan with an elegant main hall, floor to ceiling windows on the ground floor that open onto the street, and a ground story loggia that could be great if it didn't always smell like homeless people camped out there.

The problem with the library has always been a poor management culture imho. The homeless people congregate there in large numbers and the management seem resigned to accept that fact, driving off potential users. They drive off more users by closing absurdly early before most people even leave their offices and hop on the train to head home. Perhaps that wouldn't be so bad if they were open more on the weekends, but they aren't open very long on the weekends either. There go more users. And the dingy bathrooms, people sleeping inbetween the stacks, burnt out lights...those are all management issues.
DC doesn't need a new library. I understand that the building is expensive to maintain, but so was the Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square. Any 400,000 sf building is. However, simple fixes like interior sun shading devices, a green roof or solar panels and more efficient HVAC systems could make a significant dent in maintenence costs.
Building a new central library would result in a moderately more efficient building, but if no one cleans the new bathrooms they'll get dingy, if no one replaces the new lights they'll burn out, if no one yells at the guy sleeping between the stacks he'll keep sleeping between the stacks, and shelters will keep shuttling people to the front door every morning.

by Merarch on Nov 3, 2011 1:31 pm • linkreport

A pretty large library for a city of (if it keeps growing) about 3/4 of a million people - about a third the size of the Brooklyn that Grand Army Plaza was built to serve.

But not a large library for huge and growing metro area.

Perhaps this library whats needed is an integration of the public library systems across the region, and creation of a central library for the whole region, funded by the whole region?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 3, 2011 2:10 pm • linkreport

I think the redevelopment of the MLK site would more than pay for a retrofit of the Carnegie building. As we enter the digital age, downtown libraries won't need as much room for physical books.

by Novanglus on Nov 3, 2011 2:44 pm • linkreport

as a professional artist, i have to say that bauhaus was a horrible plague that destroyed a huge number of art related jobs because architects and designers chose the cheap way out and bagged all of their artists- whereas- throughout the entire historyof humanity- architects were considerered artists themselves and they brought along all of the other art trades to share int the glory. not so witht he bauhaus asswholes- who threw it all out. It is the emperors new clothes- nothing nothing nothing. banality and blandness, no color, no interesting shapes, no urban functionality, and every modernist building is a bad neighbor to those around it. they are also poorly built- usually of the worst possible materials- not the great craftsmanshio that one sees in a masterpieces like the Chrysler building- which as beautiful krupp #310 chrome stainless steel rated to last 1000's of years w/o maintenance. sorry- but i TOTALLY DESPISE modernism and it's apathy and destruction of art and art opportunities- and the disgusting blandness it has wrought acrosss our country. idiots like Wright, Mies, Gropius, and Moses all sought to destroy our cities, build freeways and glamorize the automobile. These people were anti-city and pro oil dependence. you cannot even open a window in most of their abominations. wright is the biggest blowhard of them all- he actually has apologists- and historic preservationists love him despite his disdain for all historic architecture and art. he wanted to bomob DC & NYC because he hated these great cities. he was the inventor of tract housing and Levitt used his designs and destoryed entire landscapes with his crap. wright was no artist- he was a madman . and Mies was an Architect of Fortune. ..there is book on Mies by this title- read it and learn....

by w on Nov 3, 2011 3:09 pm • linkreport

There should be no question, selling off the hobo urinal that is the MLK library is the smartest thing to do.

1.5 acres of the some of the primest real estate in town, putting it back on the tax rolls AND getting that maintenance nightmare off the taxpayer backs, its a win-win for everyone.

Some rough numbers...

The building across the street at 701 9th St (The building Zatinya is in) sits on an ~acre of land pays 3 million a year in property tax, is assesed at 174 million. The land value is assesed at 50 million.

The land underneath the MLK is assesed at 87 million all by itself. Assuming an office/retail tower like 701 9th street, the city would be collecting about 5 million a year thereafter in property tax.

So lets recap. City sells land for somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 million, then nets another 5 million a year forever in property tax.

If the city absolutely NEEDS a library in the central biz district, they can enter into an agreement as others have said to lease some space in the new building.

by freely on Nov 3, 2011 3:20 pm • linkreport

Why are we downsizing the library? Why is the library named after a great black leader in dire shape? I do agree that the homeless attract MLK but look at the building it looks like a homeless haven and unattractive. And although lots of homeless people visit MLK who says that they dont read. There are alot of homeless ppl that are smart and intellectual. The right to access books should not be a privilege, by downsizing the library were saying only the elite belong at the library to gather and gain more knowledge. Libraries were created for those that couldn't afford books and their own personal library. Lets not personalize the library. Yes we should care for the library, and find something to include the homeless but education and the right to knowledge is an inherent right.

by Bisonette on Nov 3, 2011 3:29 pm • linkreport

While poor management and underfunding for DC libraries are abundantly evident and contribute to the problem, every time I visit the library it's the building itself that makes me feel uncomfortable. Even before you get to the homeless, whose presence is enabled by the form, the building is cold and uninviting. "Functional" is a stretch in describing the floorplan (and is a pretty low bar, at that). However I must laugh at any characterization of the main hall as "elegant." Large open spaces can uplift and inspire, but the drap opening at the front of MLK does neither. Sterile is much more appropriate descriptor.

The architecture reflects the same anti-pedestrian ethos of the era that is constantly criticized on this site. Case in point: Dark unmarked stairwells hidden behind solid black doors. Even if you know they're there you feel like you're not supposed to take them, and fear somewhat for your safety at who might be hiding there.

Let's admit it: the theory behind the modernist architecture removed the human element and like sprawling suburban highways, created places inhospitable for humans to walk around, sit, enjoy and feel inspired. MLK's form is the antithesis of what a library should be - and is detrimental to its function. Without a new building no amount of management fixes will ever enable the central library to achieve its potential.

by DCxNW on Nov 3, 2011 3:56 pm • linkreport

wait one minute there.

Ive been in or seen some really wonderful modern buildings. Gropius law school dorms at harvard. The seagrams building in Manhattan. The guggenheim museum in manhattan. as for wright, his robie house open floor plans are I think the basis for some of the internal layouts in the post millenial condos that urbanists here seem to like.

In the right hands it was a refreshing change from the fakery and banality of late victorian architecture. And the mass ornamentation of earlier times, like it or not, was based on cheap artisan wages. Post modernism has rejected lots of modernism, but massive ornamentation of the old style hasnt come back.

Was it cheapened by over use, and poor execution - sure. Was it antiurban - often - but the implications on community of auto dependence were not known - and the cities of the time - with their concentrations of extreme wealth and poverty, werent necessarily the vision contemporary neourbanists hold. Its well and good that architecture has moved on from modernism - but the devaluation of it here, to the extent of wanting to tear down its creations out of spite, seems misguided. In earlier eras many people (including modernists) had similar dislike of what preceded them - its a good thing that much of that was saved.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 3, 2011 4:16 pm • linkreport

Isn't the "homeless" problem common around the city?

I know I often see them at the West End branch.

by HogWash on Nov 3, 2011 4:34 pm • linkreport

If one where to show the Seagrams building and just about any other glass box built in the last 50 years, the uninitiated couldn't pick out the "masterpiece" to save their lives.

"In the right hands it was a refreshing change from the fakery and banality of late victorian architecture."
Late victorian architecture is what constitutes the majority of buildings in Adams Morgan, DuPont Circle, Kalorama, etc. If these neighborhoods are banal and fake, then most people must be fools.

Nobody wants to tear down these buildings becasue of spite (?), they want to tear them down becasue they're depressing.
I wonder if the massive ornamentation of the TajMahal, Chartres Cathedral, The Coloseum, and any other great building has something to do with why people travel to see them? It's not the ornament, it's how you employ it, and if you train architects to be mini-modernists, they're not going to understand how to use it.

by Thayer-D on Nov 3, 2011 4:42 pm • linkreport

It should be noted that the cost of the ULI panel is $120,000 out of the capital budget. If this were in the operating budget it could fully fund Sunday hours for two separate branches.

by John Muller on Nov 3, 2011 4:59 pm • linkreport

Half of MLK's square footage is in the A/B/4 levels of the library, off-limits to the public: the A-level is mostly meeting rooms, the B-level is a parking garage (and I think now used as storage for the "interim" libraries), and offices fill 4 -- so reducing square footage will not appreciably reduce the amount of public space, particularly since "the administrative offices of the DC Public Library will not be addressed by the review" or any proposed move.

Several people have mentioned poor-quality materials -- actually, part of the library's problem is that the materials used (granite, powder-coated steel, terrazzo, bronzed glass) are expensive to fix and replace. Mies ("God is in the details") himself always specified high-quality finishes; his followers often didn't, the contractors sometimes cut corners, and the public mistreated the furniture, but this is a misplaced criticism.

MLK is a great example of Mies' "universal space" concept and could easily be adapted to any number of other uses -- particularly retail and office. (The building's foundations were designed for another floor, and today's offices are lighter still, so maybe two floors could be added.) That said, a library use seems like a poor fit. The stacks are at the ends of the building, where the blinds always have to be drawn; finding things can be a challenge since vertical circulation is severely constrained.

by Payton on Nov 3, 2011 5:11 pm • linkreport

there are good and bad late victorian buildings. Im sorry that I stated it as if I though all late vic were bad. A well designed vic townhouse built to look like a house is one thing. A bank or railroad station built to look like a Roman temple CAN look tacky and banal, and Ive seen examples of those.

And we wouldnt be building the Taj or Chartres in this day, modernism or no. Look at the works of the generation of architects who despise modernism, and tell me which ones are like those.

And I think I was able to appreciate the seagrams building, and some other delights of modernist manhattan, when i first saw them. Exactly why it was so iconic, might need some background - especially because it was so widely copied.

BTW, the seagrams building was NOT built in the last 50 years. It was built in 1957.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 3, 2011 5:17 pm • linkreport

"Nobody wants to tear down these buildings becasue of spite (?), they want to tear them down becasue they're depressing."

I havent been to the MLK building lately. But much of the rhetoric I have seen in this thread does not particularly distinguish MLK from better modernist buildings, many of which are in fact inspiring, not depressing at all.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 3, 2011 5:19 pm • linkreport

BTW, did you live in Thayer hall? Is that what Thayer D means?

if so would you tear down the William James Building? The GSD? The science center? The dorms designed by Gropius?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 3, 2011 5:21 pm • linkreport

I certainly won't disagree with most of what AWalkerInTheCity says, though herein is the central debate: what is worthy of saving and why?

Fashions do change, which doesn't mean all previous styles should go away. The style of the landmark Old Post Office building was considered passe not long after its completion and survived many attempts to demolish it in favor of the greek revival buildings of Federal Triangle. I for one am grateful it was preserved, even though it broke the cohesive style of the Triangle. It is exceptional in many ways, and has adapted to many different uses that make it valuable beyond style.

But tearing down the current MLK library would not be out of spite for a passe style, but rather because it simply isn't well suited to the needs of a modern library. Perhaps it could be preserved in some form and repurposed for some other use, but buildings must ultimately exist to serve some purpose. Preservation for the sake of keeping examples of past architectural style may be necessary, but not sufficient justification.

We've lost lots of great buildings from the past and while it's great to see the photos or visit a few select examples, I think we're all better off for having razed many of those which couldn't adequately meet current needs.

by DCxNW on Nov 3, 2011 5:22 pm • linkreport

Neglect and inadequate funding for operations will dog any new library and provide no logical pretext for building a new one. Money shouldn't be appropriated for a new one while the current system suffers repeated cuts.

Homeless people use libraries everywhere. OTOH, the church next door provided a magnet for them and it would make more sense for social service agencies to find a drop-off location that is more integrated with transportation and for the suburban and Ward 3 do-gooder churchgoers to do something in their own backyards. Mies' open, modifiable spaces are more suited to a library than a pseudo-quaint building. I was at the Chicago library for a meeting a few months ago and impressed at the wasted space. I used to teach on a campus designed by Mies and the buildings grew on me with my daily walk to the "L". Mies' buildings have received restorations that help make the clean lines more and other features more apparent and attractive. If there's "too much space" then the library should consider how to generate income or at least traffic from community orgs--book clubs, for example. Getting a development lobby like the Urban Land Institute is exactly the wrong approach to take.

by Rich on Nov 3, 2011 8:29 pm • linkreport

DCxNW: You're right. One of the biggest issues with the current building is that you can't get around without venturing into the dark, unmarked, smelly, borderline dangerous stairwells.

The building was apparently designed to be elevator-only, but when one elevator is out of service the wait becomes unbearable. There's no reason to take the elevator when you're just going 1 or 2 floors up.

It seems like this problem could be resolved without building a whole new library.

by jcs on Nov 3, 2011 10:26 pm • linkreport

My criticism of your post would be your acceptance as gospel, the DC Public Library's statement that "national research suggests that a central library should be about 225,000 - 250,000 square feet."

1. where's the citation?
2. It depends on program. E.g., the point I made years ago that the Central Library could include archives, museum, and visitor center functions () would require a larger facility

3. Most of the central libraries in other center cities are larger than 225,000 square feet, including more newly constructed libraries. E.g., the Central Library designed by Rem Koolhaas in Seattle is 362,500 s.q.

The Harold Washington Central Library in Chicago is more than 700,000 s.f.

NYC has several "Central Libraries" because the borough library systems in Queens and Brooklyn are separate. Even so in Manhattan there is the main library at Bryant Park and a separate large business library.

The problem with this ULI process is like with the previous process. It is disconnected from the public and a public planning process and a civic engagement process. Although, I guess you could say this will be a form of "scoping" and not a full planning process.

by Richard Layman on Nov 4, 2011 5:24 am • linkreport


Definitively not accepting that number as gospel. That is why I qualified it with, "According to DCPL..."

by John Muller on Nov 4, 2011 7:18 am • linkreport


The homeless people congregate there in large numbers and the management seem resigned to accept that fact, driving off potential users.

This is a HUGE issue for all urban library systmes, and it's not really a library management issue (they're doing their best) but a city services issue. Like it or not, the homeless have just as much right to use the library as anyone else as long as they are following the rules (which do include "no sleeping" in most places). It's related to Item 1 on the American Library Association's Code of Ethics (

"We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests." (emphasis mine).

It may seem silly and I know it's annoying but there's a greater point here. We can't start preventing rule-following people from using the library (whatever that use may be) just because we don't like them. In the Information Age things are a bit different because libraries are no longer the main/most easily accessible repositories for information (that would be the Internet now), but imagine you ban the homeless because you don't like them? Then who? Teens? The elderly? Republicans? Who gets permission to access a publicly funded information repository?

Further, library systems can get sued when they start to limit access to anyone, including the homeless:

Finally, the people who run libraries are...librarians. They aren't trained to deal with the types of behavioral problems that can occur with the homeless. What are they really supposed to do?

The real problem here is the lack of City services to help the homeless. The fact that homeless outreach centers drop their clients off at the library ought to say something....sometimes there's NO other place in the city for them to go that actually has heat during the day.

We should fix that problem, so maybe libraries would no longer be the de facto daytime homeless shelters in this city.


Perhaps this library whats needed is an integration of the public library systems across the region, and creation of a central library for the whole region, funded by the whole region>

Nice idea in a way but nneeeevvverrr gonna happen (a regional central library funded by the whole region). We can't even manage to fund Metro as a region, we're not going to get it together for a library.

But, the upside is that you can get a library card in just about any jurisdiction around here that you want one in, all jurisdictions have extended borrowing privileges to each other's citizens. Now, you need a seperate card for each, and need to search each one's catalog seperately to check availability (now THAT would be a nice fix) but it's still a great service, especially because most of the jurisdictions have downloadable eBooks and audiobooks, and among all the region's library systems (that allow cross-borrowing of those types of materials) that's a LOT of instant availability.

by Catherine on Nov 4, 2011 10:00 am • linkreport

Argh. I was doing so well with closing my tags up until then!

by Catherine on Nov 4, 2011 10:04 am • linkreport

"Nice idea in a way but nneeeevvverrr gonna happen (a regional central library funded by the whole region). We can't even manage to fund Metro as a region, we're not going to get it together for a library."

I realize it wont be easy. I think in some ways its easier - the funding isnt as massive - Im not necessarily talking about one single system, with one budget - but multiple systems sharing the central library. Right now Fairfax doesnt really have a true central library worthy of a jurisdiction its size - it has a couple of regional libraries that are comparable to the Alex and Arlington central libraries. I think MoCo is similar.

In NYC Brooklyn has a central library - but its not really comparable to NYCPLs central Reference library - NYCPL has a prime branche (or did) MidManhattan across the street. Of course all the NYC systems BPL, QPL, and NYCPL are funded out of the same budget (and the main reference branch is essentially self funded by private donations, IIUC) Im thinking something along the lines of MOco funds its branches, DC funds its branches, Fairfax funds its branches - but there is a single reference center, funded heavily privately, and perhaps getting seed money from multiple jurisdictions, that serves all the jurisdictions.

Ive NEVER been involved in library management, and could be completely barking up a tree here. Just trying to think outside the box a bit.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 4, 2011 10:14 am • linkreport

Re: obsolete functionality - Yeah, I hear you. Ultimately if the building can find no economic use, its going to have to go - there are exceptions so iconic I would keep anyway, but this doesnt seem to be one of them, by a long shot.

That said - 1. some above indicate the building COULD be repurposed as office space, possibly with floors added.
2. How long a time and how many chances does it get? How much time did Union Station get before becoming successful? How much time was Grand Central kept as an oversized, inefficient, commuter railroad station/Off track betting parlor before increased commuter train usage and revived manhattan retail made it look more positive? Not saying MLK is as well beloved as those train stations, but just thinking.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 4, 2011 10:20 am • linkreport

As Payton mentioned, I don't think this building is functionally obsolete by any stretch of the imagination. There are lots of potential uses for the space, library or not.

by Alex B. on Nov 4, 2011 10:26 am • linkreport

Mies desing was the same no matter where it was sited- and this is a major problem with his trash- it simply does not work in every climate. His buildings are huge energy sieves and they are badly designed- and fugly to say the least. even a run down marble Beaux Artes building ages well - but a Mies monster just falls apart and creates toxic landfill products. To elevate his nighmares to art or architecture just shows how badly our art education has fallen off in this society. Knock this thing down and build something better- it would not be that hard to do. what I would like to know is what was there before they built the MLK- I really do not recall the area that well from my early years- but my guess is that a number of nice and well made buildings took the hit for that piece of $hit to be born...I hate the MLK Library- plain and simple- I do not care what you sophisto art history morons think; as people like this seldom take into consideration that people have to live with the results of the architects and developers. and Mies was a DEVELOPER not an architect..

by w on Nov 4, 2011 11:52 am • linkreport


LOC's not our library, but maybe people use it as an excuse for why we shouldn't build a second one?

Great capital cities deserve great libraries. Rome, Alexandria, Baghdad, Ephesus, New York -- all built glorious libraries that were simultaneously imposing monuments to knowledge and art, and also seats of learning for the most important scholars.

The MLK library, on the other hand, is a pathetic modernist can. It's ok to complain that it's basically just a homeless shelter; we should complain more because it doesn't actually do anything else. It seems to have an insultingly dismissive posture toward the image of the capital of the most powerful republic in history.

Ideal building size? National research? Rent some floors somewhere else? TAX REVENUE? You guys have apparently all given up. Our main library should be a temple. It should be where we have statues of our greates scientists and writers (show our kids you can be glorified for more than wearing a jersey). People should come to DC to see our Capitol and our Library and leave feeling that they've seen what the power of ideas looks like. It should be enormous, and it should be the best.

by Ronald on Nov 4, 2011 2:40 pm • linkreport

Ronald- you hit the nail on the head- any big central DC library should be like the library of Alexandria- a temple to learning and not a temple to refuse or to illiteracy as it has become. If only the modernists would just give up the ghost and go away.

by w on Nov 4, 2011 3:08 pm • linkreport

I see the same qualities in the MLK library that I do in the new big city libraries in Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis. Large open floor plan with large windows.

I like the MLK design - perhaps its problem is that it isn't old enough yet.

The MLK Library needs to be refurbished to its original designs (lighting, hvac, chairs, etc) and modernized as the other libraries into more of a community gathering place -- coffee shop, art gallery and such, practice space for music, etc.

by neb on Nov 4, 2011 3:21 pm • linkreport


Agreed. The one big structural change that I'd consider making would be for improved vertical circulation.

by Alex B. on Nov 4, 2011 3:58 pm • linkreport

Brooklyn Public Library, Queensborough Public Library, and the New York City Public Library are separate systems. Each has a central library or multiple research libraries (NYCPL). This likely is in part a function of how they were separate cities/counties before the merger. Each does its own funding.

But a regional central library in the DC area really makes no sense, because people shouldn't be expected to have to travel a great distance to it from the various jurisdictions. E.g., how would you like to go to the DC based central library and you live in Fairfax. (or vice versa) Not to mention that the jurisdictions have different needs and would want their collections and services to reflect that.

It's an idea in search of a need. Not to mention that all the main library systems have free reciprocity (Takoma Park you have to pay for).

OTOH, the City of San Jose has a combined central library with San Jose Sate University, which is a potential model. E.g., it could have been done with GWU, which is the city university library closest to the city center.

But DC people (city, library, and universities) have so little vision that creating such a facility would take decades to create, if possible.

wrt neb's comment, I haven't been to the libraries in Denver and Minneapolis, but the Seattle library is much different in physical organization and layout than MLK. Plus it's newer. Yes, there is the one big area with tables comparable to how the MLK is set up, but that has to do with the computer area.

The other problem, not discussed, isn't the location of the library, so much as the quality of it and its collections.

Except for Washingtoniana, I rarely use the DC libraries anymore. Instead I use the LC (I am there at least once/week, sometimes twice) and Catholic U (especially the Architecture library, at least once/month), and at times I have been a Friend of the Library at GWU, which gives you use privileges, and the ability to check out books depending on how much you give. Plus I probably use the Foundation Center library about once/month.

I am looking forward to the coming Silver Spring library branch in Montgomery County. I find the branch libraries in MoCo serve my needs better than the branch libraries (Takoma, Northeast, Southeast, Petworth) in DC. Even the Hyattsville branch of the PGPL has a far more extensive periodical collection (but it's less convenient for me to get here) than any DC library except for MLK.

by Richard Layman on Nov 4, 2011 4:10 pm • linkreport


I live in Fairfax, and I would travel to DC to use a central library - for one, I work here. For another my kid needed to use LOC on one occasion. And FFX simply does not have a real central library. Maybe FFX will build one as part of the new Tysons, I dont know. That wont be much easier to get to than downtown DC for me.

And I must quibble - Brooklyn Public Librarys funding is mostly from the NYC budget. Maybe the Central lib at Grand Army plaza gets some donor money. Anyway even the Grand Army Plaza library is more equivalent to the mid manhattan branch, than to the main NYPL research library on 42nd street.

Reciprocity gives me access to other suburban library systems similar to fairfax (and despite reciprocity I have to carry multiple cars). The potential need (maybe its not real) is for a serious central library that would rival NYC, Chicago, etc. FFX can't support that. I dont think DC can support that.

Maybe the idea is outmoded today - or maybe University/municipal partnerships are a better idea. I dont know.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 4, 2011 4:46 pm • linkreport

I don't think most people in the region would travel to a super central library in DC. And frankly, the people who need the specialized services of a central library are a small subset of the population. But a survey would be nice.

The reason that people use MLK is that it is centrally located, has some specialized collections, and compared to most of the neighborhood libraries, has more evening and weekend hours.

by Richard Layman on Nov 4, 2011 5:20 pm • linkreport

MLK library, while it has been vastly improved since Ms. Cooper's arrival, is a very difficult building. If you've been on the upper floors, you realize it is very chopped up, and the amount of work that would need to be done to improve it (opening up the stairs so they are not scary and a security risk, improving the HVAC and internal functions, updating the bathrooms, improving the lighting, creating more intimate spaces for reading) say to me that it makes sense to do as the Library is doing -- ask experts in a wide variety of fields to come together, interview an extensive list of stakeholders, and come up with a fresh perspective on options for improving the central library. Mr. Muller seems to attack paying $120,000 for the study, by complaining that it could fund Sunday hours for two branch libraries. And then what? We would still be debating what to do about MLK, it would still be siphoning resources from the system, no one would be happy with MLK and the two branch libraries would go back to no Sunday hours. The ULI report on the library will be a public document when it is completed, the preliminary recommendations will be presented publicly to any who are interested at the end of the week, and any decisions based on its recommendations will be discussed by the council and subject to public hearings. I'm glad that DC Public Library is taking this proactive step, and I hope that the panel will come up with some fresh, implementable solutions.

by Lover of Libraries on Nov 4, 2011 6:42 pm • linkreport

My God--a lot of breast beating nonsense. A university partnership would make sense if any of the universities were centrally located, plus only one is public and perpetually struggling. Libraries draw the homeless, even in the suburbs. Despite its limitations, though, MLK is used by university students and apparently fills gaps (a former neighbor of mine was a librarian there). MLK and its predecessor were never meant to be a central research library on the order of other big cities and betrays the limitations of being a small jurisdiction many of whose institutions never received the kind of development that occurred in cities of its size elsewhere. It may be that the Library of Congress was seen as filling the research role that large central libraries usually fulfill. Cleveland, where I grew-up has a magnificent main library that was built up over time because it was meant to serve an entire region, rather than one that included two states. Until not long ago, the National Zoo was an embarrassment and DC continues to play catch-up with its orchestra.

Building a new library will not address the anemic operating budget, continual staff cuts, or shrinking acquisition budgets that have plagued the system, although the new Chief Librarian has made a noticable difference in the operation of MLK. A new building will not make it into 1st class research library (without enormous increases in acquisitions) and won't displace the homeless. Enlisting a developer backed "think tank" is perhaps not the best way to consider the libraries future and I'd be more convinced if urban librarians were consulted instead. I tend to think that a long-term plan to rehab MLK would be more in the interest of the library because it could be done over a period of years and be integrated into some sort of plan for improving acquisitions, staffing, and other functions. A new building in the likely far distant future will help delay the kind of short- medium- and long-term planning that the library system needs.

by Rich on Nov 5, 2011 12:29 pm • linkreport

There's no need for the building to be torn down. Any building can be reworked and redesigned to suit a new function for far less cost than building anew. The building is unpleasant in many ways, but nothing that can't be fixed, either to function better and more efficiently as a library or for some other use. The same kind of cavernous space was repurposed beautifully in the Nat'l Building Museum, the Nat'l Portrait Gallery and many many more. We're not doomed to keep the daunting stairwells and dark stacks even if we keep the building. A little creativity to replace the throwaway mentality, please.

by LouDC on Nov 5, 2011 2:01 pm • linkreport

One thing to keep in mind that since the MLK Library was deemed "historic" four years ago, the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board has to approve any changes to the first floor or exterior of the building. So that's one more hurdle that the library has to jump through in order to get the building presentable. Plus, the main library is expensive to maintain from both a facilities perspective as well as a staffing perspective. All those nooks and crannies of the building have to be patrolled regularly, and when your collections are broken up in different rooms on different floors, more staff are needed to help library patrons.

by LW on Nov 9, 2011 10:23 am • linkreport

I agree with @neb and @LouDC.

I use the MLK Library at least once a week. The children's library is the only service provided by DC City Government in downtown. (No playgrounds nor recreation centers are available in the Downtown BID.) It is a underutilized place for community gatherings and could be so much more.

I think it would be a travesty to sell the land, which is centrally located to the residents living downtown and those working here.

If there is too much square footage in the building, I believe the A Level could become a Rec Center managed by DC Parks and Rec. The enclosed northwest corner outside of the building could be outfitted with cafe tables and loose play toys, like tricycles, for very little money. It would be provide a much needed safe play space in a city that has none.

by Caroline Armijo on Nov 14, 2011 2:44 pm • linkreport

The Carnegie Library is gorgeous on the inside (and outside). If the only logistical problem is that I would have to wait for librarians to fetch items from the stacks I wanted, I dare say I'd be happy to wait. Unfortunately, it appears that large parts of the building have been leased to the Convention Center. I wish the city considered moving MLK Library there before that occurred (the carving "Carnegie Library" on the outside might take some explaining, but putting up a statue of King on part of the grassy area surrounding the library should clear it up).

by Alan Page on Nov 24, 2011 3:04 pm • linkreport

Andrew the Portrait Gallery and Building Museum are not DC property so to think either could be used for a library is magical thinking. As for your idea to move it to UDC may be limited by the fact that there may not be any space up there.

As for tearing it down - since it was designated as having some sort of historical significance that is going to be a problem. The historical significance bit might make it less attractive to developers who might not want to go though the headache of adding extra floor(s) to make it something they want to try and make money off of.

I just don't know that moving it is totally on the table either for no other reason than the budget of the Library is iffy anyway. The only real way to make it so is to move and sell the building. Of course you would have to move it somewhere else and finding a place with the space and structural needs is easier said than done. It also needs to be easily accessible by Metro and putting it where the real estate is relatively cheep in DC proper may mean it is not as accessible. At that point why bother rebuilding one in the first place because a non accessible library in a city where lots of people get around by Metro is a recipe for failure.

by ET on Dec 8, 2011 3:42 pm • linkreport

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