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For two years now, the D.C. Library Renaissance Project, founded in 2002 by Ralph Nader, has been trying to get the D.C. Public Library (DCPL) to host adult-literacy classes in branch-library meeting rooms, only to be foiled on the basis of “Rule 7.” The rule, which comes from a list of DCPL meeting-room regulations, states that “No regular classroom meetings are permitted.”
That’s news to Nancy Saum, who holds weekly classes in qigong, a Chinese exercise involving breathing patterns and body postures. Saum says she’s held regular classes without any trouble from the DCPL for nearly two years in one of West End Branch Library’s meeting rooms. Branch Manager Barbara Kubinski says the class is “a library-sponsored event” and therefore permissible. Nor have the Needlechasers of Chevy Chase encountered the restriction: Their group meets monthly in a Chevy Chase Library meeting room to discuss the finer points of quilting. (Karen Butler, manager of that branch, says that regular meetings are allowed but cannot be booked for more than three or four months at a time.) And the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library holds weekly sign-language classes in its open area.
“That rule is abrogated at will by various librarians around the city,” says Robin Diener, director of the Renaissance Project. At a recent D.C. Council hearing on adult literacy, her predecessor, Leonard Minsky, called out several librarians by name and accused them of stonewalling his efforts. Diener speculates that Rule 7 might not be the real issue at stake: “There may be something about the style of Mr. Nader and Mr. Minsky that has a certain brashness to it,” she says. “They don’t like Leonard.”
Former DCPL Interim Director Francis Buckley, who met with Minsky regarding the rule, says that certainly has something to do with it. He admits that Rule 7 isn’t always applied in a hard-and-fast manner—“There is always some discretionary aspect of its application,” he says—and adds that he and librarians “did say that we’d consider relaxing that rule for groups we were cooperating with.” The Renaissance Project, says Buckley, is not such a group. “They had presented this proposal to essentially take over the literacy program of the library.…They had no experience in literacy activities,” he says. “They’re not a reliable organization to work with.”