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'Friends' confront library officials

(Published October 21, 2002)

In response to intense community criticism, D.C. Public Library officials appear to be backing away from a decision to abruptly transfer three longtime branch librarians.

"We don’t want the anger of the community," library Director Molly Raphael said at the end of a contentious two-hour meeting with the Friends of the Takoma Branch Library on Oct. 17. "I am a believer that you listen, you hear what people say, and sometimes you back away."

Raphael paused during her comments to apologize for being near tears. "I get emotional when I hear people talk about how important libraries are to them," she said.

Raphael and two of her top assistants met with the Takoma Friends group at the request of Ward 4 Councilman Adrian Fenty after the group cancelled its annual fall used book sale fund-raiser, which had been scheduled for Oct. 6, to protest the planned transfer of longtime head librarian Betsy Madero to the Lamond-Riggs branch. Some members of the Friends of the Lamond-Riggs Branch Library, also in Ward 4, attended the Takoma meeting to express similarly strong criticism of plans to transfer their longtime head librarian to the West End Branch Library.

Raphael acknowledged receipt of dozens of angry letters, telephone calls and e-mail messages from patrons of all three branch libraries after they heard about initial plans to transfer the librarians on short notice in early September. As a result, the transfers were indefinitely delayed.

Residents repeatedly assailed Raphael and Barbara Webb, who heads the library’s neighborhood services, during the meeting for their perceived inability to explain any policy or criteria for transferring library staff. Several persons criticized the transfers as "change for change’s sake."

Raphael called it a "common practice of highly used libraries" to transfer staff as a way to strengthen standardization within a library system. She said the announced transfers were "the first of a series of steps we’re going to be taking over the next several years" to turn around a sharp decline in circulation within the D.C. Public Library system in recent years. In contrast she said other large library systems across the country "are experiencing double-digit increases in circulation," despite providing computers for their patrons’ use.

Madero noted that she repeatedly orders new books for the Takoma branch that are never purchased by the library system due to budget restraints. "We lose circulation when we don’t have what [people] want," she said. She said many D.C. residents use reciprocal borrowing privileges at better-funded suburban libraries or go to the Cleveland Park Branch Library to find books on the New York Times bestseller list, which are purchased on a regular basis by that branch’s well-funded Friends group.

Angry words were exchanged throughout the meeting.

Raphael criticized the community for failing to demand better funding for the public libraries.

"Good funding is important and good funding happens when citizens talk to the people who are making those decisions. That is not happening in this community," she said.

Dodie Butler, former president of the Takoma Friends group, countered that the lack of community support for library funding results from library officials who "are not doing [their] job properly."

"If you are not getting people to testify, then you are doing something wrong – you are not engaging people," Butler said. "There is an enormous amount of goodwill toward the library. Step back and work with us. ...People in this government forget that we are just people."

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Sara Green cited many ways in which neighborhood residents view their head librarian’s value toward building a sense of community. She said installing a new "temporary librarian" who is nearing retirement robs a community of one of its strengths.

"You’ve been very insulting to this community," Green told library officials.

Webb acknowledged the perceived slight. "You’re right – apparently, we did this very, very badly," she said.

One resident, in conciliatory fashion, told the library officials they "have a lot of courage to come here and have us shout at you."

Raphael thanked residents for making "a number of suggestions that are useful to us." –Kathryn Sinzinger

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator