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“What’s the urgency?” asked Councilmember Marion S. Barry Jr. That was one of the many unanswered questions the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 5, when Barry’s lame-duck colleague Kathy Patterson tried yet again—and failed yet again—to win D.C. Council approval for a plan to build a new central library on the old Convention Center site.
Over the last year, the library scheme has been peddled vigorously by outgoing Mayor Tony Williams and the Board of Library Trustees and the Federal City Council, both of which are headed by John W. Hill. But the need for a new library is questionable, the financing plan shaky, the proposed location controversial, and many of the proponents’ arguments so dubious that they’ve gradually evaporated over the course of the debate.
Legislation to abandon the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library at 901 G St. NW and authorize a new library seemed to have died on Tuesday, Nov. 21, when the D.C. Council’s Education, Libraries, and Recreation Committee voted to table it. Yet Patterson and her allies decided to keep pushing, even though they clearly didn’t have the nine votes necessary to pass the authorization as an emergency bill. Instead, they tried a rarely-used gambit: a full-council vote to discharge the bill from committee. That required a simple majority of the 12 members present, but even that wasn’t doable: Only six voted for it.
In addition to Patterson, the aye votes were Linda Cropp, Vincent Orange, Adrian Fenty, Jack Evans, and Phil Mendelson. (The first three of those will leave public office with the next term.) Aside from Barry, voting no were Kwame Brown, David Catania, Jim Graham, Vincent Gray, and Carol Schwartz.
The supporters of a new library mostly reiterated arguments made by Williams and Hill, and generally seemed unfamiliar with the issue. A distracted Fenty commended the mayor’s “blue ribbon task force” on the library, which recently published a report that’s an embarrassing goulash of cliché, boilerplate, and irrelevancy. Orange floated by on a cloud, comparing MLK unfavorably to Paris’ Bibliotheque Nationale—which is, of course, the French equivalent of the Library of Congress, not a city library.
The opponents’ remarks were more pungent. Barry termed the claim that a new D.C. library would become a tourist attraction “idiocy”; Brown said the arguments for a new library are “foolishness”; and Schwartz called expectations of major federal funding “just craziness.” It was Barry who nailed the weakness of the case for a new library. It was apparent, he said, that advocates of the scheme just decided they wanted the library “and then went back to try to justify it.” A 6–6 vote says they didn’t.