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WASHINGTON POST - D.C. public library system highlighted in Aspen Institute's national report

By Clinton Yates
October 14, 2014
The Washington Post

One of the District’s least highlighted gems is getting some national love. Tuesday, The Aspen Institute issued a report called “Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries.” The document is the work of the institute’s Communications and Society Program, which put together the Dialogue on Public Libraries to study how the facilities can be better equipped to deal with a rapidly changing information world. As it turns out, the District is doing pretty well in that regard.

In the 80-page report, DCPL’s MapStory program is showcased as an example of how libraries can succeed as 21st-century curators. According to the report, MapStory is “helping citizens to tell the stories of their neighborhoods and to see how they are evolving over time.” If you’re not familiar, check it out. The website allows people, using statistics from maps, to create animated data visuals that show things like, say, the growth of bike lanes or Safeway stores in the city over a given period of time. You don’t have to be a numbers or a maps geek to understand why this is a useful tool, beyond its novelty factor.

Kim Zablud, assistant director of public service at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library has been glad to work with MapStory. “Over 5,000 maps, which were on shelves, which were not digitized and there were some really interesting data sets just in the building,” Zablud said. “I just thought it was great because it was very innovative, I’d never heard of anything like it before, and truthfully, I am still conceptualizing it as I go, but I get a clearer picture every time I talk to the MapStory guys. I love this idea of … citizen cartography.”

More encouragingly, there is an understanding that overall, the city’s public library system is well-regarded. Even though the great Ginnie Cooper has moved on, it is still a fantastic resource. Amy Garmer, director of the Aspen Institute’s Dialogue on Public Libaries, thinks DCPL offers many qualities that make it an example for others.

“I think D.C. has been very forward looking and a strong model for an urban system. I think also it’s focused on people. In the sense of the library plays an important role in building human capital in the community,” she said. “Providing access to everyone, regardless of who they are. And that public mission is so important, particularly as more and more information and spaces seem to be privatized. So, there a kind of important service and balance that the public library helps to maintain. And I think by thinking about focusing on people and what their needs are, D.C. public library has done a pretty good job of adapting and putting in new services. It’s all meeting pretty critical personal needs.”

Interestingly enough, though, libraries still have a stigma. At MLK Library, they’ve hired a social worker to help the homeless population that uses the facility. It also happens to be a pretty fun place to skateboard. Over in West End, the issue of homeless people at the local library was an issue that drew rather stark lines in the community due to discussion of class and accessibility. As a result, in the District, for all of the fantastic libraries we have, it feels like we’re still fighting this notion that these are just book barns for homeless people and children. Other facilities like Bookmobiles and smaller, community libraries are sadly, a thing of the past.

The Washingtoniana collection, where most of the MapStory data is collected, is a perfect example. It’s an under-the-radar resource, but when activated, does wonders. “There is something just humanly fascinating about maps. We see the schoolkids come in. People love to look at maps. To plot things on maps. The way it just appeals to people, it’s a way of organizing information, I see constantly how much it appeals to people,” Zablud said. “I think definitely, school age children and high school teens, these are things where you can start to see them not just having fascinating conversations, but having very original conversations. There are things they can look at as the original researchers.”

The report discusses how better libraries make a better society, overall. “No longer a nice-to-have amenity, the public library is a key partner in sustaining the educational, economic and civic health of the community during a time of dramatic change,” it reads, in reference to the modern era of digital information. “Managers of local governments report that is it often difficult to prioritize libraries over other community services such as museums or parks and recreation departments that also serve a distinctly public mission. What libraries need to be is more intentional in the ways that they deploy resources in the community and more deeply embedded in addressing the critical challenges facing the community.”

According to the report, 69 percent of Americans 16 or older report high to medium level of engagement with public libraries. But when walking around D.C’s libraries it doesn’t feel like our participation is that high. (At last count, DCPL says there were just over 315,000 library card holders in D.C.) And that’s unfortunate. According to the study, it’s about more than just story time. “Libraries have always been an economic driver of communities,” Robert Harrison, city administrator of Issaquah, Washington is quoted as saying. “Libraries are like Starbucks without the coffee: an important place to build social connections. Anyone can use it.”

So, while election candidates tout grocery stores and cranes as the smartest path toward economic development, they might want to focus on the most overlooked buildings on the horizon: libraries. They’re some of the best resources the District has to offer but are rarely mentioned as one of the things that makes this city great.

Finally, someone noticed.

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