Great cities have great central libraries. Some are architecturally significant such as in Seattle or Copenhagen. Others are signature buildings that embody the civic spirit and unique character of a community, such as in Fort Smith, Arkansas where the citizens voted to tax themselves in order to build a main library building and neighborhood branches.
Regrettably, in other cities such as my own Washington, D.C., the main central library is a shattered husk of its former self. Riddled with asbestos, bereft of modern technology and crumbling from the inside out the building, dedicated to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivers little tangible value to the city and its residents.
Some will argue that in a digital age with iTunes, e-readers and online subscriptions that a public library is a waste of tax money. I disagree. A free public library, especially one in the heart of an ever-changing city, is much more than books, music, videos and a coffee bar. In fact, in the knowledge economy, a library with state-of-the-art Internet access is essential to the well-being of the citizens it serves.
At its core, a library is a gathering place for the curious mind and the social spirit. Cities thrive, say pundits Ed Glaeser, Richard Florida and countless others, because of the interactions among people in close proximity. This proximity allows for shared ideas, shared identity and shared purpose. More than this however, a library is a bridge between diverse parts of the city, an arena for the intellectual stimulation of children and a free venue for access to the Internet whether for employment searches or vacation planning.
On a grander plain, every instinct tells me that the written word remains as powerful as it has always been. In fact, stories, alerts, essays, treatises, research studies, blogs, tweets and also novels are more impactful today because of the vast number of distribution channels available to authors. As a society, we owe it to one another to ensure that the broad diffusion of information and knowledge is available in many forms to everyone. The city library ensures this access.
The Mies van der Rohe historic building that houses the D.C. library is 40-years old. A promising new study by the Urban Land Institute and the Downtown Business Improvement District recommends a number of options to reinvigorate the library. Suggestions include an outright sale of the building to developers which could earn the city anywhere from $50 to $70 million for such a prime piece of real estate. I favor a proposal calling for sharing and possibly expanding the space to attract private-sector partners that can generate the capital for redevelopment and long-term viability of the structure as a space that continues to offer a public benefit.