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As his holiday nears, the primary tangible trace of the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in downtown D.C. is the main branch of the public library named in his honor. Amid our legions of bronze generals, presidential buildings, stadiums named for the highest bidder, and other monuments to conventional wealth, clout, and politics, the library seems a fitting and lasting tribute to a man of humility who fought for social justice with weapons of education, intellect, dignity, and human values. Yet despite its symbolic power as a preserve and propagator of King’s durable and ever-relevant precepts, his library is struggling mightily against the cruel and heavy toll of neglect. Intended as a marvel of architectural simplicity and functional efficiency, its Mies van der Rohe design of a dark, glass-and-girder box now seems more tedious than innovative, ranks among our most abjectly bleak public buildings, and offers at best a forlorn welcome. Entering past an alley of homeless through a ridiculously massive security checkpoint (is knowledge really that dangerous?), visitors emerge into a vast, fluorescent lobby that projects an ambience more of sheer emptiness than any sense of dedicated purpose, bypassing elevators that haven’t worked in years, to clamber up dingy stairs whose torn plastic ceilings periodically ooze buckets of mysterious liquid. A mere three decades after its acclaimed opening, the MLK’s principal honor has become an annual spot on the D.C. Preservation League’s list of the most endangered local places. Yet, as the apt saying goes, books shouldn’t be judged by their covers, and neither should the MLK’s decrepit structure obscure the glory of its holdings. Where to start? While researching an upcoming Legal Times “After Hours” piece on Carl Orff, I found that the MLK offered 12 different recordings of his seminal “Carmina Burana” (many in multiple copies), plus most of his operas, oratorios, and even a full set of his innovative children’s music, together with their scores, all essential resources for serious study, all available for circulation, and all accessible through a fine Web site catalog. By pointed contrast, the entire library system of far more affluent neighboring Montgomery County, Md. (supported in part by a significant chunk of my property taxes), has a grand total of one Orff recording (or perhaps had � it has been “in transit” for months) and not a single score. Or how about videos � MLK houses a circulating collection of thousands, ranging from travelogues and career instruction to an eclectic selection of foreign and experimental film, including a complete version of Stan Brakhage’s “Dog Star Man,” arguably the most celebrated (yet obscure) of all avant-garde movies. And, yes, there are books aplenty � not just the best sellers and murder mysteries to which my county seems to devote so much of its budget, but a scholar’s delight of deep collections of biographies, literature, Black Studies, and Washingtoniana. Plus, there are frequent art exhibitions, training programs, assemblies, and meetings, a genuinely knowledgeable and helpful staff, and a store with $3 coffee mugs that just may be the best souvenir bargain in the whole town. Alas, budget constraints threaten all this bounty. Many of the precious paperback scores are already in tatters for want of permanent binding, LPs are increasingly scratched without protective inner sleeves, and videotapes battle damaging vagaries of temperature and humidity inflicted by an erratic HVAC system. The Recent Past Preservation Network Web site estimates D.C.’s library maintenance outlays at less than one-third of the national average, and recent hopes for relief were dashed when the D.C. Council recently jettisoned a $45 million library allotment to help fund its new half-billion-dollar baseball stadium. Rather than renovating the building or preserving its irreplaceable treasure, the latest plan is to tear it down and build a smaller replacement at the former Convention Center site. Yet, the current facility was designed to last 150 years, but already is deemed unsalvageable after a mere 32, so there’s little cause for assurance that a new structure would fare any better. Along with all the commemorative sermons and speeches slated for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, let’s celebrate and protect the library that was to have borne his ideals into the future for generations to come. Peter Gutmann is a partner at the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice and can be reached at [email protected].

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