Advisory Panel Member Interview: Robin Diener
Published on Friday, June 20, 2014 - 2:20pm
Recently we spoke with Robin Diener, president of the Friends of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, and a member of the MLK Library Renovation Advisory Panel. She shared her thoughts about the opportunities this project presents to the city.
A Once-in-Many-Generations Opportunity
The library renovation is “terribly exciting,” according to Robin Diener, president of the Friends of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, a private, nonprofit organization of volunteers and advocates. “We at MLK Library Friends want to see as many people as involved as possible,” said Ms. Diener, a reading teacher and long-time library advocate. “We want to do everything we can, including advocating for funding, to create the greatest central library possible. It’s a once-in-many-generations opportunity.”
Her organization’s members have suggested establishing centers on:
- Civil rights
- Freedom of the press
A Building for Public Use Only
Ms. Diener cited a “very big concern” of Friends of the MLK Library: Rather than engage a developer to help fund the renovation, which would involve constructing additional floors for private residential or office use, Ms. Diener said her group strongly prefers that any partnership be with another public agency. She cited the D.C. Archives, a community college or a high school for the performing arts as examples of partners with missions that would complement that of the library.
Because the library serves a public function, the city must be involved in any partnership discussions based on prioritized facilities and services. And that conversation needs to happen “sooner rather than later” to inform the design process, according to Diener. “No one would build a house without knowing what was going to go into it or on top of it,” she said.
D.C. Archives is one example: “They might like to create a museum area to display their valuable and interesting historic documents,” Ms. Diener said. “Perhaps D.C. Archives would offer classes in genealogy or research skills. And Washingtoniana might go very well next to the D.C. Archives – not combined, as they are different, but side by side.”
A Call for Open Discussion About Homelessness
“Homelessness is an issue of society at large that disproportionately affects public libraries,” she said, adding that D.C. is not the only city affected as libraries offer a public, safe space with access to information. “The chronically homeless in particular gravitate to libraries, and the central library in particular is affected.”
Ms. Diener said she was “shocked” back in 2006 that a report by a blue ribbon task force on the future of The DC Public Library failed to mention homelessness.
She lauds the Library’s commitment to serving D.C.’s homeless and other vulnerable populations, citing several innovative initiatives including a Skype setup allowing residents to communicate with relatives in jail and Sing, Talk and Read (STAR) DC, the library’s citywide early-literacy program. The DC Public Library uses the STAR program to support regular outreach at D.C. General, a shelter for homeless women and families.
“The renovation provides an opportunity to think about what else could be tried,” she said, adding that The Friends of the MLK Library are planning a conference to discuss homelessness and the public libraries. “We need to look at ways the library can support the city’s efforts. If homeless people are a constituency of the Library, we need to provide them with services that fall within the Library’s mission – keeping in mind, however, that the Library cannot do everything.”
“There are a lot of questions that need to be examined and options to be explored,” Ms. Diener said. “The Advisory Panel can help bring these things to light so everyone participate in creating what I call the ‘Dream Library’ – referring both to love for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message and work, as well as to what this process could result in: A dream come true.”
The Friends of the MLK Library will host a June 26 conference on homelessness and libraries featuring the Library’s executive director Richard Reyes-Gavilan; the library’s new health and human services coordinator, Jean Badalamenti; Bill Turner, a West End Branch librarian who leads a reading group at Miriam’s Kitchen; Maria Foscarinis, founder and executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty; President and CEO Msgr. John Enzler of Catholic Charities which has a branch across the street from the library; and Brian Carome, executive director of StreetSense, the publication homeless individuals write and sell.