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ABOUT THE LECTURE:
Urban public libraries all across North America are experiencing
a great renaissance as individuals and communities rediscover
these centers of lifelong learning, multi-media and technology,
multi-cultural programming, civic engagement, and community center
of democracy. The lecture will present ideas as to why changes
in society have affected public libraries and brought about a
transformation, illustrate the transformations that are being
implemented in several cities, and then look specifically at the
District of Columbia and its public library system. How far has
DCPL come? How far does it have to go? What are the chances that
DCPL will get there? And what does Ralph Nader have to do with
ABOUT THE SPEAKER:
Mary E. (“Molly”) Raphael was appointed Director of the District
of Columbia Public Library (DCPL) in February 1998, by unanimous
vote of the Board of Library Trustees, after a nationwide search.
She is only the second woman to hold this position in over 100
years. Since joining the DCPL in 1970 as assistant children’s
librarian in a branch library, she has held a variety of progressively
responsible positions with the DCPL before her appointment as
Director. Ms. Raphael has been an active member of the 65,000-member
American Library Association (ALA) for 30 years, serving on many
committees and boards. She is currently serving on the ALA Executive
Board. Her professional activities also have included president
of the District of Columbia Library Association and co-founder
of ALA’s library service to the deaf section in 1976. She is a
member of the Urban Libraries Council, Freedom to Read Foundation,
Friends of Libraries USA, and OCLC Public Library Advisory Committee.
Ms. Raphael is a member of the 2001 Class of Leadership Washington
and serves on the DC Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission.
Ms. Raphael was born in Columbus, Ohio and grew up in Western
Pennsylvania, as the third oldest of four children. She holds
an undergraduate degree from Oberlin College (psychology major)
and a master’s degree in library science from Simmons College.
TRANSFORMING THE URBAN PUBLIC LIBRARY
Luminary Lectures @ your library
Mary E. (“Molly”) Raphael, Director
Public Library of the District of Columbia
April 18, 2003
Good morning. I am honored to be invited to speak to you today
about the urban public libraries in the United States.
My presentation will focus on the changing roles of public libraries
in the United States, particularly urban public libraries. I will
use examples from around the country with a more concentrated
focus at the end of my talk, on the District of Columbia Public
I speak from the perspective of 30 years in one urban public
library environment, with nearly the same number of years of participation
in professional associations and activities. I have seen public
libraries from a variety of perspectives…from the “front
line” as a children’s librarian and reference librarian
as well as from various management positions including, for the
past five years, as library director.
Public libraries are enjoying a great renaissance around the
country as cities and communities like Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles,
Philadelphia and Nashville (to name a few) rediscover these most
democratic of American institutions – open to all regardless
of education, income, age, background or views. Why is this renaissance
taking place? And why now?
Libraries are well known and trusted institutions – located
in communities as large and diverse as New York, Los Angeles,
or Washington and as small as towns of a few thousand or even
hundred people. We are a part of the American landscape. In nearly
every town or community throughout our country, you can find a
public library. This means that if you were born and raised in
Massachusetts, you could move to California when you were a teenager
and find a library not too different from the one that you visited
when you were growing up. Then, if you moved again to, let us
say, Texas, there would be another public library in your community
that once again offered many of the same programs and services
that you had come to know in these other communities.
This scenario could be repeated many times. Public libraries are
ubiquitous in the United States. They are more similar than they
are different, even as we each try to tailor our services to our
Our role has always been to help create an informed and thoughtful
citizenry – whether through supporting children and young
people who are developing early language and literacy skills,
or engaged in formal schooling, or expanding horizons and learning
as is the out-of-school adult engaged in lifelong learning.
In a recent report issued by the United States Institute of
Museum and Library Services, Beverly Sheppard wrote: “A
true learning society should provide widespread, integrated, systematic,
and equitable access to learning resources and skills.”
This is exactly what our “reinvented” libraries are
Not long ago, pundits were predicting the end of public libraries
in the United States, made obsolete by technology and the Internet
as well as the mega-bookstores that are opening all across our
country. These pundits seem, however, to have now been silenced.
What we see instead are libraries adapting to these changes in
our society and in our individual communities – thriving
on the changes of the past decade including:
- the huge influx of new immigrants, particularly to the metropolitan
- networked technology that makes information resources available
even to the smallest of library buildings and communities; and,
- perhaps overlooked by the pundits, the loss of many of the
places within our communities that helped bring people together
in the way community resources like public libraries do.
Libraries are welcoming environments, that everyone in the community
“owns” – with many locations in neighborhoods
of great diversity and with hours of operation that accommodate
people’s personal and professional lives.
Allow me to describe in more detail the concept of the “library
as place”, particularly within the metropolitan areas of
the United States.
I spoke earlier about the renaissance of public libraries –
this is very much a rebirth focused on the library as place, as
center of community, a space where the members of the community
feel welcomed and “at home”. Libraries are able to
create these environments because we work very hard to have our
libraries connect to our communities.
First, with our staffing, we try to reflect the diversity of
our community. This is a challenge for most urban public libraries
because we do not have the number of librarians we need from diverse
cultures and ethnic backgrounds, reflecting our community demographics.
We are, nevertheless, proactively seeking to represent the diversity
of our communities in the staff who serve them. We also engage
our on-board staff in learning about other cultures as well as
provide frequent opportunities for cultural sensitivity training.
We also actively seek input and involvement through focus groups
and community leaders, to gain a better understanding of community
needs and priorities.
This also results in culturally diverse programs, collections,
and resources because communities we serve are rarely homogeneous.
For example, the new Near North Branch of the Chicago Public Library
provides a welcoming learning environment for the city’s
wealthiest residents from the so-called “Gold Coast”
neighborhood as well as those living in the public housing buildings
of Cabrini Green. Another example comes from the Queens Borough
Public Library in New York at its Flushing Branch with its extensive
English-as-a-second-language program (the second largest in the
US) that helps newcomers from many other countries become an active
part of the community and helps immigrants understand their newly
These examples demonstrate how adapting basic concepts of library
service to meet the needs of particular communities help these
institutions become community focal points and places of destination.
These government-funded institutions contribute to creating neighborhood
dialogue and understanding, in branch libraries throughout the
cities they serve.
It is especially in urban central libraries that we see so-called
“destination spaces” being created. These are spaces
that draw people back over and over again; spaces that people
set out to go to visit, not just places that they visit when they
are in the area. Dynamic new central libraries are attractive
neighbors in downtown areas because they bring foot-traffic and
repeat customers. They contribute to thriving and reviving downtowns,
offering programs and services that celebrate cultural heritage
and contribute to economic vibrancy. These urban central libraries
“speak” to all of the residents, offering welcoming
destinations that help provide opportunities for meeting and interacting
with people outside of our own neighborhoods.
Again, let me illustrate with some examples. Chicago’s
(relatively) new central library, the Harold Washington Center,
generated interest and engaged the city residents, as it was being
planned and built a decade ago. Today, the location of the new
central library is credited, by Mayor Daley, with contributing
significantly to the revitalization of its South Loop area of
the city, where nearly 30,000 new housing units have been built
in the past decade. The central library serves the entire city,
but it also focuses some services on the residents and businesses
that consider this to be their local “branch” library.
Chicago built in a number of attractive and useful spaces in its
new central library, including an auditorium that is heavily booked
for programs, performances, and lectures, as well as a grand ceremonial
space on the top floor called the “Winter Garden”
that is used for ceremonial events by the library and city government.
This space, in addition, has become a great revenue producer as
it is booked two years in advance for wedding receptions, corporate
holiday parties, etc.
Another example would be the new Los Angeles Central Library.
After a tragic fire nearly destroyed the library in 1986, the
city rallied and used the fire as a catalyst for rebuilding the
old structure as well as a magnificent new addition that is now
a true “destination” space. The space is so grand
that it has now become one of the premiere places for cultural
and charitable fundraising events. Annual events such as the “LA
Kids Read Festival” held in June brings children and families
together from all across the Los Angeles area, attracting over
20,000 people last year.
Seattle is currently building a dramatic, futuristic looking central
library, expected to open in about a year. Both the public and
private sectors will contribute to making this building a reality.
As you might guess, Seattle is placing much focus on technology
and plans to create very visible and central spaces featuring
technology, while still retaining its more traditional resources
of books and other materials. One issue that has been made very
clear to those of us in leadership positions in urban public libraries
is that while our customers want the new technologies in our new
libraries, they want it to supplement, not replace, the more traditional
In the city of Nashville, a very traditional-looking new central
library opened nearly two years ago, sited opposite the historic
state capital building. It includes a traditional “great
reading room” as well as a less-traditional conference center,
an amenity that was badly needed in this particular community.
The conference center includes a full catering-style kitchen and
flexible space for lectures, breakout rooms, receptions, banquets,
I could tell you similar stories for many other cities such
as Denver, Phoenix, Multnomah County, Minneapolis, Jacksonville,
Memphis, Vancouver (BC), and others – some are just beginning
like Jacksonville, and others are providing service from new or
renovated central and branch libraries such as Denver. It is not
surprising that when a national rating of public libraries has
been conducted, Denver ranks first with dramatic increases in
use and high customer satisfaction. Also high in the ratings is
Multnomah County in Oregon, again a library system that has enjoyed
significant investments in its facilities, resources, and programs.
Other cities that are rebuilding also achieve high ratings.
All of the cities that are building or have built new central
libraries are also actively engaged in branch library building
and renovation programs at the same time – creating neighborhood
as well as citywide inviting public spaces and destinations. Los
Angeles plans to build or renovate 33 branch libraries between
1998 and 2004. Seattle too is investing in its branches by implementing
major improvements in its 22 branches and building five new ones.
Nashville built a new central library and five new regional branches.
So what makes these newly built or renovated public spaces inviting?
Why are people coming to these new libraries even when they can
meet their information needs in other ways?
- First, library planners are paying attention to their individual
communities. So Nashville builds a conference center because
the city needs this kind of space in downtown. Or Chicago engages
in redesigning space in its relatively new central library when
it becomes clear that there is a growing residential community
that wants the intimacy of a branch library in the neighborhood.
- Second, planners are also paying a great deal of attention
to the space around the library. Library designs now incorporate
elements that elevate the importance of street presence. This
means being able to look into buildings so that potential library
customers see people like themselves in the buildings –
engaged in interesting and captivating pursuits. It means allowing
teens to be actively involved in creating space for themselves
in libraries, as Phoenix and Los Angeles have done. It means
creating children’s rooms where children and their parents
find exciting and visually stimulating surroundings so that
children think going to the library on a Saturday is just about
the best activity they could imagine. It means making sure that
the library’s role in democratizing a community is apparent
in the program and services it offers. A non-librarian friend
of mine says that when he goes to Los Angeles, he tries to stay
in a certain hotel because it is located next to the LA Central
Library. He says that there “is always something going
on in the Library”. Thus, the unpredictability of business
travel, which prevents most people from engaging in cultural
or recreational events (e.g. the theater or a sporting event),
is not a problem. No unused theater or baseball tickets; instead,
he feasts on the serendipity of ever changing library programs
- Third, library planners are paying attention to what public
space planners are saying. The April issue of American Libraries
has an article entitled “How to become a great public
space”. The article features an interview with two officials
from the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit association
that helps organizations and communities design and improve
public spaces and buildings. Phil Myrick from PPS says, “Information
is easy to come by these days; good public spaces are not….In
the future, people may not need to come to the library for its
information. But they will come in droves if they perceive of
it as a desirable place.” Myrick goes on to describe what
makes great public space, using the NYPL and Multnomah County
(OR) as illustrations of public libraries that have created
great public spaces. In these cases as well as other great public
spaces, he describes the four qualities that make these spaces
succeed: access and linkages, comfort and image, uses and activities,
and sociability. Direct attention is paid not only to what is
in a library but also to how the library relates to its surroundings.
New York has the very successful Bryant Park beside it as well
as concessionaires on the other side. Multnomah took great care
to relate to the streets and its neighbors, and added a Starbucks
for the convenience of its customers. Nashville built in space
to be leased out to private sector firms and now has a café
and gift shop for the convenience of library customers.
- Fourth, we have recognized and embraced the opportunities
for partnerships and collaboration with organizations and institutions
that share common goals. These collaborations make people think
of libraries in new ways, resulting in the breaking down of
old images. An initiative currently underway in the District
of Columbia at our central library involves a collaboration
with the economic development cluster of the District Government
as well as the US Small Business Administration. We plan to
launch a new information and support center for small businesses
in the District, bringing together all of the activities needed
to launch and sustain small businesses throughout their lifecycle.
Another example taken from my own library is the partnership
we have formed with local health and medical institutions to
enhance health education, as illustrated by our “Diabetes
for Life Learning Center” collaboration with the Washington
Hospital Center and Medstar Diabetes Institute.
- Finally, and certainly of great importance, is remaining
true to our mission. Public libraries have contributed to an
informed citizenry since our earliest days. We have always recognized
our role in lifelong learning, not just for those engaged in
formal education but also for those who seek to improve their
lot in life or learn about anything of interest. In this role,
we have continued many of our traditional services but have
also added new ones. Many of our customers keep coming to our
libraries for the same services we offered years ago. An article
in Library Quarterly from July 2002, that studied what draws
people to two central urban public libraries in Canada –
Toronto and Vancouver – concluded that despite pressures
for decentralization, central libraries are still unique and
vital resources. The authors noted that those who seek to focus
only on branch libraries “have not appreciated the public
thirst for access to large and comprehensive research collections
in support of their work-related and personal goals.”
I would like to turn now to how libraries have adapted and modified
their services to embrace the new as well as traditional needs
of their communities. New services and collateral services bring
learners together. We have not only added the computers but also
offered training in basic computer skills. Our training is particularly
important in low-income communities where for-fee courses may
not be an option. The training has been very popular with senior
citizens, who are among our most loyal customers and find the
non-threatening, neutral environment of a public library very
comfortable and welcoming. Our classes, often taught by volunteers
from the business community, on how to use the Internet as well
as other computer uses such as word processing for resumes, job
applications, school assignments, etc., are very popular and are
filled the day that they are announced.
As we librarians have become “information navigators”
– or perhaps “knowledge navigators” might be
a better way of describing how our staff has adapted to these
new opportunities, we are helping people learn how to use the
technology and move critically to assess and analyze content.
Two major sources of funding have contributed to public libraries’
opportunity to embrace new technologies, even as we work with
less funding from tax dollars than we need. First, the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation has brought computer hardware, software,
and technical support to public libraries all across the country.
Second, the “E-rate” or universal service fund, a
new program authorized by the Congress, provides indirect, subsidized
funding for schools and public libraries to wire and make technology
available. The funding formula results in communities with the
greatest number of low-income households in the country receiving
the highest level of funding. This means that many communities,
that would not have been able to afford high-speed access to the
Internet, are able to do so. In the District of Columbia, we receive
about $300,000 annually through the e-rate program.
Public Libraries are the number one access point to computers
for those who do not have them at home or in their offices. This
is very important in Washington, D.C. and other metropolitan areas
where there are many low-income residents. Also, since public
libraries have this high-speed Internet access, many residents
and small business owners prefer to use computers at their public
libraries because they are faster than the ones they have at home
or work. New technologies have also been highly effective in bringing
new customers into public libraries, especially teenagers, as
well as offering new opportunities for learning to regular customers
such as seniors.
I have described changes in urban public libraries in general,
but what about right here in Washington. Let me first briefly
profile the Washington community and metropolitan area.
Washington, our nation’s capital, has a population of about
600,000 residents, in a metropolitan area of 4.5 million people.
We are a city and region of extremes. We are home to the very
rich and to the very poor, with a majority of middle class residents
in the overall region. In education, we have one of the highest
levels of residents with graduate and professional degrees, yet
an estimated 37% of the residents of the city who are18 years
old or older do not have a high school degree or its equivalent.
We have a broad spectrum of cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity,
ranging from low-income immigrants to members of the diplomatic
and international communities. Government is the number one industry,
but not just government employees but also lobbyists, lawyers,
and government contractors. Being the nation’s capital also
results in many professional and trade associations choosing the
Washington region for their headquarters. We also have a large
number of institutions of higher education, offering advanced
degrees in numerous fields of study. The city and metropolitan
area benefit from having one of the best health care and medical
institution communities in the world. Finally, the Washington
metropolitan area boasts the second or third most robust information
technology and telecommunications industries in the United States.
The District of Columbia Public Library was created over 100
years ago. The library system includes the central facility, the
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, 21 full service branch
libraries built between 1910 and 1990, 5 smaller community libraries,
a mobile service to seniors, and a mobile outreach program to
preschool children and their daycare providers called ROAR (Reach
Out And Read).
In 1999, we began our Library’s first-ever strategic planning
effort. The yearlong effort engaged a 30-member Strategic Planning
Coordinating Committee representing the broad diversity of our
community in all dimensions (age, gender, race and ethnic group,
educational level, income level, profession, neighborhood, etc.).
We also conducted numerous focus groups to look at issues from
the perspective of particular constituencies (teenagers, business-owners,
technology users, persons who were homeless, parents, etc.) as
well as conducted 3,500 surveys in neighborhoods across the city.
The surveys were completed both inside and outside libraries.
The results of this intensive effort identified three strategic
directions for the library:
- Lifelong Learning with particular emphasis on children and
youth. Examples of programs and service that were enhanced or
newly developed are preschool programs and ROAR (low income
areas to expose very young children to reading and language
development); Homework Help Plus Centers to support formal learning
for 6 – 18 year olds; the “Plus” part of these
centers for other lifelong learners focuses particularly on
“family literacy”. We continue to support our partnership
with local colleges and universities through the College Information
Center located at our central library with two satellites in
branch libraries. We are also trying to create space that attracts
teenagers to learn and grow; this has proved to be very challenging.
- Information literacy with particular emphasis on technology.
In 1997, we received a Microsoft/Gates grant that eventually
resulted in placing networked computers in all library locations.
In addition, through the Telecommunications Infrastructure Trust
Fund, all library facilities in DC were wired to provide high
speed Internet access. With these two basic changes, librarians
could now truly see their role as being “information navigators”.
We continually face the challenge of training staff with many
employees with 20-or-more years of service, who have very little
technology background or training. The challenge is compounded
by few training dollars available for the past two decades.
Clearly, we have had to do a lot of “catch-up” training
and activities. We have also taken very seriously our role to
train the public who use our computers. We have a customer training
coordinator, a position first funded by a grant but now funded
through our local appropriation as well as many, many volunteer
trainers. Our greatest need now is more points of access to
accommodate our enormous demand as well as a reliable source
of funding to refresh our equipment.
- The “Library as Place”, or the Library as center
of community. This priority is perhaps the most urgent and compelling
yet, in some aspects, the most unexpected. Despite the increased
use of technology and availability of information from a wide
variety of sources, people will not give up the chance to be
together. We have found this to be especially true since the
tragic events of September 11, 2001 – people want and
need a place to come together for civic engagement and civil
discourse – for understanding and to feel a sense of community.
Thus, we have made our top priority to “fix our facilities”.
We have developed a master plan, with the first year’s
agenda being to rebuild or renovate four branch libraries, focusing
on neighborhood development. (Currently working on four branches:
Anacostia, Benning, Watha T. Daniel/Shaw, and Tenley-Friendship.)
We also see exciting possibilities for our central library,
to either renovate or build new, creating grand public spaces
where the community can come together for a common purpose.
(Cover story in Citypaper.) What this means for us is building
partnerships with residents, businesses, and organizations,
making projects connect with the elements of the communities
Lest you think all is well at the District of Columbia Public
Library, let me assure you that it is not. Nor is all well across
this country in public libraries, as we heard on National Public
Radio just yesterday or see in the messages coming from the American
Library Association’s “Campaign for America’s
Libraries”. In the District of Columbia, we have a dedicated
staff and Board of Trustees, wonderfully loyal customers, and
caring and committed Friends of the Library. We have many supporters
on the Council and a Mayor who believes in the importance of education.
But our public funding level is woefully inadequate. The dismal
condition of our buildings is the result of decades of neglect
and disinvestment. Our materials budget, or “book fund”,
has received no increase – not even for inflation –
over the past decade. Our staffing level is two-thirds what it
was 30 years ago, and we have just implemented a reduction in
hours, which began on March 3rd. Our ability to support and expand
our technology program, just to meet current needs, is sorely
lacking. Our needs in areas such as staff training and safety
and security are unmet. So why do I speak with such optimism,
touting our model programs and what we hope to become? Partly
because I am an optimist, I imagine, but also because we believe
that the public library in the nation’s capital must become
one of the premiere libraries in the country and we are determined
to take this library system to new heights.
In August 2002, we received an offer of assistance that may
help us achieve our goals. Late last summer, I received a call
from Ralph Nader, who was compelled to get in touch with us when
he read about the dismal state of our libraries in the Washington
Post. He was quite surprised that the article did not result in
an outcry from the community. He, like so many Americans of achievement,
had benefited from public libraries and the opportunities they
offer at a very early age. He told me that other than his parents,
the public library in his small town of Winsted, CT had been the
greatest influence on his formative years. At the end of our conversation,
he said that he wanted to do something, but he needed to think
Six weeks later, Ralph Nader called again to say that he and
his organization were going to launch the DC Library Renaissance
Project, an 18-month effort designed to bring the necessary resources
to the DC Public Library. The project was launched in December
and has focused first on increasing the public support for DCPL.
Nader and his project team began meeting in neighborhoods all
across the District to try to engage neighborhood leaders in becoming
more effective advocates for their libraries. The day of reckoning
was March 20th, the day of DCPL’s budget hearing before
the District of Columbia Council. On a rainy Thursday morning,
the first day after we had gone to war with Iraq, scores of people
turned out for a rally at the District Government’s John
A. Wilson Building. Following the rally, those present, plus many
others, filled the Council Chambers in anticipation of the hearing.
Thirty-seven people signed up to testify including many new faces
as well as those who have been library supporters for years. Not
a seat in the room was empty. Ralph Nader himself gave very compelling
testimony before not only the full Council Committee but also
other members of the Council who participated in the hearing.
Nader spent three-and-a-half hours at the hearing, listening intently
and taking notes as people from all walks of life, testified.
We just learned this week that the Council Committee voted to
restore $1 million funding to our FY 2004 budget, thus obviating
the need to close branch libraries to balance the budget. Nader
is not satisfied with this amount-his goal is to move the Library
from .7% of the City’s budget to 1%--which would raise our
funding to over $40 million.
Now the Nader project is also engaged in trying to attract more
grants, gifts and donations to DCPL. Nader understands the importance
of having adequate public support before significant private resources
will be achievable. He also believes that the effort around the
DC Public Library may serve as a model for how to engage the citizenry
in local government, one of the challenges that we in DC face
more than most other jurisdictions.
Our Library’s vision statement reads:
The District of Columbia Public Library is a recognized force
in the community for engaging the mind, expanding opportunities,
and elevating the quality of life. We believe that equitable access
to information, tailored to customers’ needs, equips people
to learn all their lives, embrace diversity, and build a thriving
This statement embodies what I believe urban public libraries
are trying to do all across the country. For some of us, the road
ahead is still long. For others, the vision is being realized.
The results come from a strong commitment to the values of public
libraries as presented in “The Library Bill of Rights”,
strong support from the principal funding source of local tax
dollars, enhancements paid for from donations and grants, expanded
activities in partnership with other community organizations,
regular use, as well as involvement and advocacy from the constituencies
we serve. Urban public libraries have the opportunity to affect
the lives of many more people than we did in the past. The question
is, “Will we be successful?” The answer is, “Yes
– because if we are not, then our democracy will have lost
one of its greatest assets.”
Before I respond to questions, I’d like to show you some
pictures of some of the transformed libraries described in my