At 5:30 on Saturday afternoon, it was the last hour of the last day before the Mount Pleasant library was scheduled to close for a 17-month-long remodel. Patrons slowly filtered out, some looking wistfully around them at a classic interior they’d never see again, as librarians shooed them towards the door.

Others didn’t leave so quietly.

“Who’s ever heard of Martin Luther King before?” yelled Chris Otten, an organizer of the small but lively protest on the sidewalk outside. “Have you heard of Gandhi? Have you heard of civil disobedience?”

While people vacated the upper floors, Otten revealed, his band of monkeywrenchers had locked open the door to the basement with a chain and padlock. A few pranced into the darkened interior, to beats provided by a roving sound system recognizable from recent Funk the War protests.

“The protesters have broken into the library,” an agitated library manager said into his iPhone, over the music and chanting. Police soon arrived on the scene—within an hour, six squad cars and two vans crowded the corner of 16th and Lamont—and tried to sever the chain with bolt cutters. “I live in the neighborhood. I agree with you,” a police sergeant remonstrated with Otten. “I just gotta do my job.” Delighted protesters started busting break dance moves, while Ward One city council candidate Jeff Smith had arrived to hand out stickers and lit.

This dustup was only the most recent in a string of protests around the last of three original Carnegie libraries to be renovated, which has become a flashpoint for local library activists. The $11 million facelift, they say, poses a fire hazard to surrounding buildings, inconveniences disabled patrons, and will desecrate the building’s historic interior. “It’s inappropriate and disrespectful,” said Faye Armstrong, of Historic Mount Pleasant. “It’s a cookie-cutter approach to what a modern branch library should have.”

In particular, preservationists lament the destruction of an elegant sun room in the back of the library, which will be replaced by a large addition for meeting space. The architect’s plans retain the original fireplaces and some murals, but vinyl and linoleum dominate the surfaces.

Patrick Sheary, the curator of furnishings at the Daughters of the American Revolution museum, looked heartbroken as he surveyed the oak circulation desk, elaborate cornices, and cast-iron shelves that would be junked in the remodel. “These are solid walls. You just don’t really get those anymore,” he said, patting the plaster. “People don’t really get the extent of what’s going to happen.”

The larger problem, activists say, is D.C. Public Libraries’ lack of response to community concerns. Despite several public meetings and a survey done on the front end of the project, the Library Renaissance Project (a Ralph Nader brainchild started in 2002) is pushing for the closure to be delayed until questions of accessibility and fire safety in the finals plans can be addressed—or at least until the opening of interim library, which is supposed to be ready by April 26.

This week, two Advisory Neighborhood Commissions will release reviews of the library plans undertaken by outside contractors at the cost of $3,000 apiece. According to ANC commissioner Chris Otten—also a Library Renaissance Project field organizer—the studies find that the library’s plans for a wheelchair ramp fail to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Even if DCPL doesn’t take the studies into account, he noted, they may serve as evidence in a potential lawsuit against the city.

“One of the reasons there’s been a lot of failure in the library system is that they haven’t been open to the public,” said Robin Diener, leader of the Library Renaissance project, who argued good-naturedly with a cop, sign in hand.  “Unfortunately, the library takes all suggestions as criticism. I think that’s unusual, and that’s a shame.”

UPDATE: DCPL spokesman George Williams emails this reasoning for the gap between closing the old library and opening an interim:

“The three week period between closing one location and opening another is so that staff can move the books, computers and other items between locations. Here is some of what happens during the three weeks:

  • pack up the books, DVDs, and other items
  • disassemble and pack up the computers,
  • pack up the phones and other equipment like book displays etc,
  • move the items to the new location,
  • unpack everything, catalog the books before placing them on the shelf [this is important so that we can direct users to the right places in the new location],
  • set up the computers and the IT network, then test everything
  • set up new book displays,
  • clean the new location once everything is put in place”

Photo by Lydia DePillis