District residents are flocking to the newly designed and renovated neighborhood libraries to find the latest in book selections, technology and a cozy place to relax. Once one of the city’s best kept secrets, the new public library system is gaining popularity among residents. Since structural and technical improvements began in 2006, circulation has increased from 1.2 million to 2.7 million books circulated.

“Definitely, more people are taking advantage of our neighborhood libraries,” said George Williams, director of communications, DC Public Library.

Library officials predict that circulation will increase another 16 percent this fiscal year to 3.2 million. In terms of usage, the library system measures by the number of books circulated.

“In fact, we know that thousands more residents are utilizing the libraries because of our public computer access and several online electronic features,” said Williams.

Collectively there have been 10,437 new library cards issued at Anacostia, Benning, Deanwood and Shaw since the facilities reopened this year. At the 22,000-square-foot Benning Library, more than 4,312 new library cards have been issued since its opening this spring.

Rick Tingling Clemmons, 67, was a critic of rebuilding the old Benning Library because he felt the developers did not seek community input and support. Now Tingling Clemmons believes the library is an asset. The father of eight said, “I’m glad the library is here but they still did not give jobs to African Americans in building it.”

Many public library and educational advocates believe the increase in patronage is directly related to the newly built and totally renovated facilities.

Every week, almost a hundred toddlers sit and listen to storytellers at the Watha Daniels Shaw Library. Toddlers can be seen skipping around gazing at different storybooks while nannies, moms and dads watch over the flock.

Hanifa Rasheed, 55, a grandmother in Ward 4, regularly visits the Shaw Library with her grandchildren. “The libraries continue to provide excellent services to D.C. residents. I’ve noticed in the last few years since the libraries have been newly built or renovated, more and more residents experience what I’ve made a part of a regular routine for my grandchildren for years.”

Independent procurement authority allowed the agency to build new state-of-the-art libraries, renovate some existing buildings and quickly assist local certified business enterprises grow.

In 2006, there were only 100 computers in the entire system. In July, the DC Public library was awarded $1.5 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to upgrade equipment, increase Internet connection speeds and increase the number of public access computers. Now more than 700 public access computers are available system wide.

“I was amazed at the many services available at the new libraries across the city. I am encouraging everyone to take advantage of these facilities,” said Jenise Patterson, director of Parent Watch.

Several popular features include: Bookflix; Playaway, self-contained audio books using high-end sound effects; iPhone and Blackberry applications used to search library catalogs; iPod downloads that appear for three weeks; Teen Space; DVDs; free WiFi; sight and sound adaptive services for the blind and hearing impaired; study rooms; large community rooms and adult learning programs.

“We are the first library system in the nation with iPhone capabilities and first in the world to offer iPod capable audio books,” said Williams.

It’s these features and more that draw school librarians to the neighborhood libraries as an extension of the educational process.

“When we visit the updated neighborhood libraries, it allows us to teach the students about other services that are available in the community to help them succeed in the classroom,” said Mukhtar Raqib, 25, librarian at Leckie Elementary School. “I can’t wait until our new neighborhood library reopens.”

The historical Georgetown Library reopened recently after a massive fire in 2007. Other historical sites such as Takoma and other Northeast libraries have been completed while Petworth and Mount Pleasant are still in the midst of a total renovation and restoration.

Future plans to continue rebuilding and renovations are dependent on the availability of capital improvement funds.

“We hope every neighborhood can experience the vast improvements we’ve made in the last few years,” Williams said.

Valencia Mohammed

Special to the AFRO