This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
Less than a decade ago, many of the District’s public library buildings were in need of repair or replacement. Today, 14 branches have been rebuilt or renovated, and circulation has tripled since 2006. One of the people driving these changes, Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, recently announced her retirement. Cooper joins Kojo in studio to talk about the past and future of DCPL.
- Ginnie Cooper Chief Librarian, D.C. Public Library
Award-Winnning Library Architecture
The city has rebuilt or renovated 14 libraries during Ginnie Cooper’s tenure, including William O. Lockridge/Bellevue Neighborhood Library and Francis A. Gregory Library. The two branches each won one of 12 Royal Institute of British Architects International Awards this year. RIBA commendations are among the most rigorously-judged awards for architectural excellence.
Most Checked-Out Titles From D.C. Public Libraries In 2013 (So Far)
Washingtonians are eager to borrow bestsellers, period dramas and a biography of Abraham Lincoln, according to D.C. Public Library records for 2013 so far. Here’s a list of the most popular books, DVDs and eBook downloads across all city branches.
Top Books For Adults
“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn
“Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James
Top Children’s And Teen Books
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney
“The Lorax” by Dr. Seuss
“Mockingjay” by Suzanne Collins
“Bossypants” by Tina Fey
“Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin
“Gone Girl” by Gillian Flynn
“Seating Arrangements” by Maggie Shipstead
“The Red House” by Mark Haddon
Data courtesy D.C. Public Library
MR. KOJO NNAMDILess than a decade ago, D.C. public libraries were in a bad way. The buildings themselves were old and worn. Staffing was so low and resources so scarce that branches sometimes opened late or closed early if a librarian called in sick. Some residents avoided libraries completely with many branches serving as de facto homeless shelters but what a difference a few years and some serious investment makes.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFourteen buildings have been built or renovated. Award-winning programs ranging from toddler story time to adult literacy workshops are in high demand, and circulation is up, way up, tripling since 2006. So what changed? Lots of things. The recession brought more people into local branches. Investment and infrastructure brought new buildings to some corners and fresh paint and new carpets to others. And the board of trustees brought Ginnie Cooper on as the city's chief librarian.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us for her 10th visit on this show and one we just discovered may not be the last, but she's here to talk about the past and future of the D.C. public library as she prepares to retire is the aforementioned Ginnie Cooper, chief librarian for the District of Columbia's public library system. Ginnie Cooper, good to see you again.
MS. GINNIE COOPERI'm very glad to be here, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIGiven those memories of the system back before you came on board, I have to ask, why did you even take this job?
COOPERYou know, I've been a librarian for a very long time now more than 40 years. And good people have been at D.C. public library for decades, and they've done good work. But really, things didn’t come together to make this an outstanding library system, and all of us in the country knew that this example was the one being seen by many of our legislators who had have an impact on whatever library we were at.
COOPERSo it was that knowledge and the opportunity to work with a really dedicated board of library trustees with a mayor and a city council that had just said yes to funding for neighborhood libraries and were at that point, as they are now, very excited about MLK renovation and actually the challenge. I've never been one that has backed away from a job just because it looks like it would be tough.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number, if you like to question or comment on Ginnie Cooper's tenure here. Are you a long-time D.C. public library patron? What changes have you noticed in the last decade? 800-433-8850. You can shoot us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. Looking at broader national coverage of libraries, D.C. stands out as, if not unique, at least somewhat unusual at this time because there's been continued and focused investment, as you pointed, in our libraries. How would you rate the current system, and how do you feel it compares?
COOPERYou know, we still have a way to go to be the library that I know the people in this district deserve and will make even better use of. But we have made tremendous strides, and there are more to come. In -- I'll give you two really wonderful examples. Thanks to the budget that the City Council just approved, we will add hours. The hours will increase by 38 percent. The first of October, every location opens seven days a week including Sunday at every location and four evenings at all neighborhood libraries and at MLK.
COOPERPeople will love that and find it so much easier to use. And here's the second really wonderful thing. In the middle of July, we will open the digital comments at the MLK Library on the first floor. We'll have a 3-D printer. We hope to get an espresso book-printing machine, lots of cool technologies and spaces for people to use computers and come together with others to see what they can create as we make the perfect creation space.
NNAMDIThe 3-D printer, huh? That'll be really fascinating for people being able to access it without having to spend a great deal of money. How were you able to garner and to maintain support from three different mayors and the Council during periods when other services, schools, for example, have not enjoyed such seemingly consistent support?
COOPERYou know, it's a whole variety of reasons. But I'm going to credit especially the friends of the library. We have an organization that nearly all of our neighborhood libraries -- not quite all but that's the goal -- who really have been able to come together especially the last few years and say, here's how we can advocate effectively. We can make sure the City Council people and the mayor know that they're library is important and matters. And whether you're an official friend or not, when you tell an elected official that the library matters, we all benefit, and I think that's really how it's happened.
NNAMDIIn addition to Ginnie Cooper strong-arming a lot of people, but we won't go there. Are you one of the many people who rediscover the local library after the recession hit? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Will you keep going as the economy improves? You can also send email to kojo, K-O-J-O, @wamu.org, or go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there.
NNAMDIIf you were to leave behind a roadmap for the mayor that laid out the kind of funding and administrative support you think the libraries need over the next decade or so, what does it include, and do you plan on leaving such a roadmap?
COOPEROh, you know, I'm never shy about giving suggestions. So I'm sure I'll be happy to, and I'm going to list three things that I think are really critical. One is continue to fund the hours at that level. The hours at each location are really dependent on how many staff we have. When you walk into that library, you want to be able to check books out.
COOPERYou want to be able to have somebody help you with the computer. You want to be able to have somebody who can recommend a book for your young child, and we've got to make sure we have the staff to do that. So we'll hire 130 people this summer, something close to that, to be ready for Oct. 1, and we've got to make sure those people can continue to work for us. That's number one.
COOPERNumber two is continue the investment that's been promised in both the MLK Library and the continuing neighborhood libraries. There are four more on the list for the next five years, and there are four following that that will need work. And the third thing is our book budget. Our materials budget is still not where it should be. It's not as high now as it was in 2008 soon after I came. We took a number of bad budget years during that time.
COOPERAnd the library board made the wise decision, and the mayor and city council agreed, that most important was being open as many hours as possible. But we've got to buy those materials. Some of them in print, some of them things you download, some of them services that are available through the library's website, and those three things need to be well-funded for us to continue to be a good library.
NNAMDIProbably leading the roadmap. Our minds might first go to the books when we think about libraries, but they need a space in which to reside. You spent a lot of time on both building and preservation during your tenure starting with those newly built branches. How does the architecture, how does the functionality of those libraries reflect changes in the field and in patron needs?
COOPERBoy, it's so wonderful to have had that opportunity and to know that we have really done a roadmap that many libraries are now looking to follow. As a matter of fact, I have State Department people visiting the Francis Gregory Library this afternoon because that's an example that goes international as well as national. So we've done a lot to be able to set that new library standard and worked with really wonderful architects.
COOPERThanks first to the mayor and City Council that said, you'll have the money, and here's how you can do it. And we're very pleased to have been able to do that. And I think those buildings attract people to their library, sometimes for the first time. Our job is to make sure they have reasons to return again and again and again. And I think we've done a good job of that. We emphasize flexibility in those buildings. You know, the buildings they replaced were here for 50 years. And the world changed in those 50 years, and I bet it will in the next 50 as well.
COOPERSo we've provided lots of open space, lots of ability to make sure that we know when they are not physical books, what is that space where the books are going to be used for and how can that effectively serve just as we can guess it might be now. We think meeting space is really critical, and all of our new buildings and the older ones as well really emphasize the availability of space for both groups that call us in advance and say, we'd like to use your space, as well as library programs and people who just want a place to get together.
COOPERI've seen people at the Shaw Library serendipitously asked for either a meeting room or a conference small, a small area, and three or four will go in there to have a conversation or to work on a sixth grade project, or to do whatever it is that they've come to the library to do, all of that is really critical as well. And the building's really helped to do that. We're very proud of the fact that all of our buildings are very different from one another. Everyone tells me theirs is the best, and I love to hear it.
NNAMDIPeople look at that Shaw building, and they say, I don't know what it is, but I want to do something in there.
COOPERYeah. I think you're probably right.
NNAMDIPreservation of existing buildings has also been a big part of your work. Why is it important to maintain and renovate when you can both for the system and for the neighborhoods they're a part of?
COOPERYou know, it's really wonderful that we've gotten so many really, beautiful, historic buildings. Northeast underway now and will open early in the next calendar year. Georgetown replaced completely and actually space added, thanks to the creativity of our architects and library staff after that terrible fire on the 30th of April 2007. The Petworth Library and the Mt. Pleasant library, I think if I had to name favorites, those two would be on the list of any buildings I've never had anything to do with. And it's just a gift to be able to make sure that those buildings stay a part of their community.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. If your neighborhood branch was rebuilt or renovated recently, what do you think of the changes? What would bring you into the library if you don't make use of it right now? 800-433-8850. Here is Alex in Washington, D.C. Alex, you're on the air with the question of the hour. Go ahead, please.
ALEXGinnie, you've done a great job. I love seeing new libraries and -- by really talented architects. But I'm still concerned about developers trying to get MLK and somehow turn it into, you know, something other than a great potential library that it is. And I'm just interested on your views on this.
NNAMDIThat's why I said the question of the hour because one of the biggest questions that Ginnie Cooper has faced when it comes to preservation and renovation is what to do with the main branch, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library downtown. Please bring us and Alex up to speed.
COOPERYou know, I'm not sure I have the final answer. I'm not sure we know it yet. But it really is a challenge, and we're very lucky that the mayor's budget has given us at least a good section of the money we would need to be able to do that. So I'll tell you a few things that I know for sure. One is that that Mies van der Rohe building will remain, and it will remain a library, and that's very good news. The preservation of it is going to be a very interesting task. You know, we have single pane windows all the way around that building. We have...
NNAMDI125 degrees in your office whether it's winter or summer. Yes.
COOPERYou remember from our previous visit.
NNAMDII remember from my previous visit.
COOPERAnd today is 125-degree day, let me tell you. And there are many things that need to be done to make that a building that will be a warm and exciting building that people will choose to visit. We've done a really good job with what we're able to do. That makerspace I talked about is a really good example. We also know that we don't need as much physical space as that building has, especially for hallways and corridors and transportation up and down.
COOPERA lot of that building is not really used to provide library services, so we think it can be better organized. We've certainly seen that in our neighborhood libraries where the same square footage gives a whole lot more space for the public. We look forward to making that possible. And we know from the work that the Urban Land Institute did, as well as others, that there's a potential to add space on to that building without going over the D.C. height limit.
COOPERAnd we wonder, as certainly the mayor's budget has suggested, if there is a way to get the best possible library and have part of it paid for by that air rights or by the space where a developer might be able to have an opportunity to provide value for them and pay us and pay the community for that value. We don't yet know what it'll be or how it'll be, but we are excited about looking at that possibility.
NNAMDIOne of the reasons that Ginnie Cooper may be making an 11th visit to this broadcast. But, Alex, what were the sources of the rumors that you were hearing?
ALEXOh, just neighborhood talk and knowing how developers want to keep, you know, maximizing all the potential space they can downtown. So...
NNAMDIOK. Well, did Ginnie Cooper answer your question appropriately?
ALEXWell, I'm still concerned, but, yeah, I understand her views. I just think basically the Mies van der Rohe structure, as it stands, is a cathedral to libraries. It's just the volumes of space, I just think it speaks wonderfully, and...
NNAMDIWell, apparently, it's going to continue to be a library. That's what Ginnie Cooper at this point virtually guarantees.
COOPERI think it's also important to remember that that first-floor space inside the building is also landmarked. So it's not just that the exterior will remain the same, but that beautiful volume of space, especially on that first floor, which we've been able to restore in really wonderful ways, will continue. I think what Aleck may love about that MLK, Mies van der Rohe-designed building will remain in place.
COOPERAnd the things that drive me crazy -- like the 125-degree at any window and the lack of light when you're 10 feet in, the lack of natural light -- all of that, I think, is possible to change, and that's really our challenge.
NNAMDIAlex, thank you very much for your call. If you have called, stay on the line. We're going to take a short break, but we'll come back, and we will get to your calls. If you're still thinking about calling, the number is 800-433-8850, or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're a librarian, we'd like to hear from you about your experience in the field and where you think or hope the field of library science is heading. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Ginnie Cooper, chief librarian for the District of Columbia's public library system who has announced that she will be retiring. By the way, we usually ask this at the end, but you never know. We might be running out of time. Now that you have announced your retirement, it seems fair to say that you've been kind of busy these last seven years. So once you retire, what are you going to do?
COOPERI have no idea. Some may have seen that I said -- told my husband when he asked that question that I was going to eat bonbons and read romance novels, and he said, what are you going to do on Tuesday?
COOPERSo friends of mine have been sending me Tuesday lists.
NNAMDIThat's right. A bucket list for you Tuesdays. But you have a son also.
COOPERI do. And, in fact, that's one of the things about leaving the District that makes it very difficult. My son is in the Army. I'd like to give a shout-out to D.J. Cooper, who is a sergeant not far from where we are here.
NNAMDIOh, good. And so you'll probably...
COOPERAnd he's, by the way, a fan of the show, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd which means that, even though you're leaving town, you'll be still, I guess, able to spend more time with your son also.
NNAMDIIn a strange way, the recession was good for libraries, bringing in patrons who are looking to borrow rather than buy books and DVDs and those in need of job seeking services by branches. Do you anticipate that as the economy improves, library use will continue a pace?
COOPERYou know, we still have a way to go in our community in terms of library use. Our circulation has gone up more than three times the number it was in the year that I came in 2006. We're still lower than lots of other communities. I think that will give us some growth. But in many ways, our growth is not so much in people coming in and getting a physical book and checking it out. It is in the number of people who come in to access our computers.
COOPERI think we'll have a whole new audience with that makerspace that I talked about earlier that will open at MLK, the digital commons. I also think that people come to library programs in great number. A couple of weeks ago, we had a really wonderful young adult author, and we had standing room only at the Great Hall at MLK of young girls between the age of about 13 and about 17. They made a line for signatures on her newest book literally around that whole room. People come to the library for all kinds of reasons, and those will continue to increase and continue to be what happens.
NNAMDIGlad you brought that up because we have at least two callers, Matthew and Scott, who would like to talk about young readers. But let's do Matthew first in Falls Church, Va. Matthew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MATTHEWHi. I actually wanted to ask about the role. Have you seen an increase in graphic novels and things like that bringing in a younger crowd into the library?
COOPERAbsolutely. And, in fact, that's a really interesting burgeoning area for libraries. You know, when I was first a librarian, we didn't know what to do with comic books because we weren't sure -- they weren't really for children. They weren't really for adults. What do we do with them? And that format made it difficult. Now, we have so much of that. In fact, we've done a couple of workshops for kids who want to create their own opportunity to do comic books and to do other graphic novels, many for adults, lots for children. It's really a wonderful opportunity now, and we do buy a lot of them.
NNAMDIMatthew, thank you for your call. Here is Scott in Washington, D.C. Scott, your turn.
SCOTTHi. Thanks for taking my call. My daughter's a teen librarian up in New Jersey, and I was wondering. It's -- from what I understand, D.C. public library hires teen librarians that are paired with children's librarians. They don't have a specific position for teen librarians, and yet I think that seems to be a really, really important area of growth to libraries, you know, addressing specific needs of young adults, and I'm wondering what your thoughts are on that.
COOPERYou know, I hope your daughter is listening, or you can tell her to check our website. We really are interested in teen librarians as well as children's librarians. For these added hours, we'll be adding between 20 and 25 librarians before Oct. 1. While it's true that we end up having people sometimes with library degrees and sometimes not focusing on teens, our interest in children's librarians is also very, very strong.
COOPERAnd at many locations -- again, depending on the demographics of the neighborhood and how many little ones they have and how many teens they have -- we end up with people doing that whole spectrum of activities, from birth all the way to 16 or 17, or we end up with people focusing on teens and focusing on younger children as well. Also at MLK, we have a teen center there. All the staff who work there are ones who specifically want to work with that very age group, several librarians as well as others.
NNAMDIScott, thank you for...
SCOTTAnd she -- I was just going to say she argues that really teens don't want to be -- lumped with younger kids 'cause they're not going to go to story times. Teen librarians, they're really young adults. They really have more in common with adults.
COOPERAnd your daughter is exactly correct. And that's why all of our new buildings have teen areas, and they are separate and away from the children's area. She's right. We know that's the case too. There's nothing worst for a 13-year-old than to be called a child, right? So your daughter's got the right idea. We hope we see her application.
NNAMDIScott, thank you very much for your call. You know, when it comes to literacy, the District of Columbia is perhaps unique. For the third year running, we've been named the most literate city in the country, and yet the adult illiteracy rate remains persistently high. Members of both groups are likely to be library patrons. How do you strike a balance to meet the needs of both?
COOPERIt is a very interesting thing, isn't it? And when I talk my colleagues in other cities and they say -- they point out that most literary city, I say, we are still a city plagued with issues of both children and adults who haven't learned what they need to learn, and we have an important role to play in helping that. I'll give you several examples.
COOPERTo make sure that more in this city learn to read, we will soon be launching an emergent literacy campaign. Together with many other partners here in the District of Columbia and funded by the mayor, we will do an early literacy campaign to make sure that everybody knows quick and easy ways to work with their very young ones. We're talking about six months to 5 years old in learning words, songs, playing, all those things to help them be ready to learn when they start school.
COOPERThey don't catch up if they don't start right. So that's with that age group. I'll tell you, our work with adult literacy continues to be very important. This morning -- because it's not yet Oct. 1, we open at noon at MLK where my office is located. We're open until 9:00 tonight. And I entered work this morning about 9:15 or 9:30 with a woman who was coming in for a conversation circle. We do let those happen during the time before the library opens.
COOPERThat's one of the ways we help people learn English. It's one of the ways we help people learn to read. We have a whole variety of ways, including adult basic education books at every single one of our neighborhood libraries, many staff who are specially trained to help people who are adults learn to read and be ready for their GED test. It is a continual area of focus and interest for us at DCPL.
NNAMDIHere is Claire in Washington, D.C. Claire, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CLAIREHello. I -- first of all, I'm a fan of the library. I live right across from the MLK Library. And I wanted to know if there's any plan to accommodate the homeless population that's both inside and outside of the library.
NNAMDISomething that Ginnie Cooper has been hearing ever since she arrived here in Washington, D.C.
COOPERYes. Yeah. And, Claire, I wish I had a definitive answer for you. On the process of inside the library, I'll tell you that anybody is welcome in that building. And anybody -- and we don't actually ask them if they have homes before they enter. And we do have behavior rules that we ask be adhered to, and those include the size of the material that can be brought in the building. We include the fact that we're not a sleeping place, so we will wake people up if they've fallen asleep there.
COOPERWe have many people who are customers without homes that we know would not be able to check on jobs or benefits or keep in touch with their family if it weren't for the library's computers. And I think that's an important role we will continue to serve. In my experience, what makes the difference is making sure that many people are in the building. And if some of them are without homes and some with, you don't really notice who's who.
COOPERI think when I first came to the library, there was a different feeling at MLK, and there was this sense that that's all who were there. That's not the case now, as you probably know if you're across the street. Lots of people are using that building. We actually had a 39 percent increase in material checked out of that building in the last calendar year, and that's because of the many more people who are there. The outside area is another and a more contentious problem.
COOPERI think we don't need to be place that people are both picked up and dropped off every day. And I've talked to my colleagues at D.C. government and many others. I hate the fact they have to gather to get picked up. I wish they had the opportunity to have vouchers and go on Metro or buses to get -- as they choose to their own location. Those are continuing issues for us.
NNAMDIClaire, thank you very much for your call. The field of library science has changed significantly over the course of your career. Why do you think it remains a vital profession despite or maybe even because of the easier access that many people have to information?
COOPERYou know, it's a really wonderful time to be a librarian. And it's very different than it was when I got my degree, oh, so very long ago. You know, I remember punch cards were the first introduction I had to anything that had to do with technology at public libraries. Now, we know that our role has changed as we help people be the navigators of their own information world. And that's one of the roles of a librarian and of libraries these days. In reality, most people who end up with a library degree nationally don't actually work in a library.
COOPERThey might work for Disney. They might work for a law firm. They might be doing information organization rather than retrieval for people in ways that are really critical. In the public library, in many ways, my colleagues are doing such exciting work in so many places. And we've learned from the best.
COOPERAnd we're great at stealing great ideas from other places, things like early literacy, really helping parents and caregivers know why it matters to read to your 6-month-old, things like the Digital Commons that help people understand the role we can play in helping them create and find that community resource to do so in the same way we have in print and with print books in so many ways.
NNAMDIOne big change to the field has come in the form of e-books. Until recently not all of the big six publishers made their titles of available to libraries in that form. What has changed on that front? And what will it mean for patrons?
COOPERIt's very exciting that you talked about that area. And if I have one message I'd love people to know, it is that their library is the place where you can get those downloadable materials. In fact, almost any member of our staff can help you figure out how to do that. We're going to have at the Digital Commons a bar with many, many devices, like a petting zoo for technology, if you will, so people can say, oh, yours is just like that. Let me show you how you can download a book from our site.
COOPERYou asked that question about e-books, and it's still one that plagues us. Not every publisher is yet willing to give us access, give libraries and thus the general public access to their materials in the same way they do print books. So, for example, if you want to read Steve Jobs' biography by Isaacson on your Kindle or on your digital device and you want to download it from the library, sorry, we can't get it for you. But many we can and more are being added every day.
NNAMDIRunning out of time very quickly, but we got a tweet from D.C.'s Office of Disability Rights that says, "Please thank Ginnie Cooper for her work on getting the nation's first accessible game room."
NNAMDIAnd then there is this, Sandy in Petworth, D.C. Sandy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SANDYWell, I just wanted to thank Ms. Cooper for the immense changes we've seen here. I was really active with Friends of Petworth Library in the early 2000s. And literally, I'm not exaggerating, we were dealing with things like begging for money to try to keep the ceilings from collapsing on kids' heads, dealing with not having heat -- not having air conditioning that functioned. And we have such a beautiful library now.
SANDYAnd I walk in there. It's such a joy to see people -- how people are using it in so many diverse ways. We -- our ANC now has a place to meet. Instead of meeting at the police offices, we can meet in the library, which is just a much better feeling about that place being the center of our community that it has been in the past and can continue to be. And it's just -- thank you so much.
NNAMDISandy, thank you very much for your call. Ginnie Cooper, on behalf -- Sandy speaks on behalf not only of patrons of the Petworth Library but of patrons of all libraries in the District of Columbia. Thank you very much for your service.
NNAMDIGinnie Cooper, she is the chief librarian for the District of Columbia's Public Library system, soon to be retired. We won't put a date on it yet because she might pay us an 11th visit to talk about what's the future of MLK Library. Ginnie Cooper, always a pleasure.
COOPERThank you. A pleasure for me, too.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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