Whither Washingtonia? Design Plans for Renovated MLK Library Leave Questions

By Matthew B. Gilmore

As I reported in August, 2016, the Martin Luther King Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. is slated to closed March 4, 2017, for at least three years, with reopening planned for some time in 2020. A final design presentation by the library is planned for Thursday, Feb. 2. 2017 at 6:30 p.m., at MLK Library.

On November 9, 2016, Richard Reyes-Gavilan, director of the DC Public Library, gave a public briefing on the plans for the gut renovation of MLK Library. After the March 4 closing an undetermined amount of time will pass before any materials are available at any location. After that time, Reyes-Gavilan said, “just-in-time” access is proposed for most materials, in lieu of them “just sitting on a shelf waiting for you,” or researchers chooing materials for themselves. This attitude about access during closure bodes ill for the new facility. Washingtoniana materials now go behind many closed doors and no longer will be accessible on open shelves; most everything will require an appointment–if granted. Materials are to be scattered across at least four locations, and severely restricted public access to some unknown fraction of the collection will be provided at the following locations:

  • Peabody Room (“some” materials by request)
  • Historical Society of Washington (10 am-5 pm Tuesday-Friday by appointment, and one Sat/month)
  • Library of Congress Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room (archival materials by request).

The floor plans for the renovation were shown in the meeting and have been posted on the library website. They in and of themselves are of serious concern. Washingtoniana and the rest of Special Collections will be shifted from the third floor to the fourth. This puts the collections on the same floor as the library administration offices, the auditorium, and the conference center. Rather than dedicating the entire floor to Special Collections as has been suggested, Washingtoniana and Special Collections face no net gain of space and could potentially lose space, as administrative office needs tend to grow. Having the auditorium and conference center on the same floor will be noisy and disruptive to researchers.

Washingtoniana will be shifted to the east side of the building. The only reference desk (or service desk) for the collections will be located here. There will be no reference desk in Black Studies. Missing too are shelves for ready reference at the reference desk.

New MLK Library 4th Floor plan — MARTINEZ+JOHNSON ARCHITECTURE/ mecanoo architecten

The reading room floor will be punctured with a massive thirty by sixty-foot hole (void/light well) down to the third floor great reading room– half the size of the current Washingtoniana reading room. Also a 30 x 30 space has an outline of DC, nothing else.

MLK 3 to 4 void — MARTINEZ+JOHNSON ARCHITECTURE/ mecanoo architecten

Washingtoniana currently comprises several elements on the 3rd floor (with additional basement storage):

  • open book stacks
  • meeting space
  • microfilm area
  • reading room tables
  • map area/tables/vertical files reference area
  • archival/photo research area
  • archives stacks
  • vertical files
  • photograph storage
  • periodicals, etc. storage
  • staff work area

The new floor plan does not articulate the use of the various spaces and seems to be missing much of these; oddly enough separating the on-duty staff from all the researcher desks physically and visually.

Ten tables will be available for researchers. A rather puzzling section of the proposed floor plan seems to indicate a classroom for sixteen. There are twelve seats, perhaps for microfilm machines. Perhaps this sections researcher space for archival materials. Office space for Washingtoniana staff seems a puzzling omission; some office space is located on the west side.

The west reading room is very curious, having twenty study carrels on the windows. The room is dominated by book shelving–perhaps this is where the current Black Studies materials go.

Another puzzling omission is any space designated for Washingtoniana in the basement. Currently there are hundreds of volumes of unique bound newspapers located in the basement.

An obstacle to making any of this work is the lack of online cataloging. The international database is OCLC’s WorldCat. The Library has used it to populate its local database but has never invested in listings in the master database, which means no one in the wider world knows what DC Public Library owns, crippling its use by scholars locally, nationally, and world-wide. The collection is unique in its scope but remains much unknown and severely underutilized.
Additionally, as a reference collection, Washingtoniana was never fully cataloged into that local database. The open stacks collection is perhaps 75% in the catalog. Far worse, the most unique items in the collection were never reclassified from the original Cutter Classification to Dewey Decimal in 1948. The materials, many incredibly rare or unique, stored in closed shelving, are accessible only via card catalog. It will cost tens of thousands of dollars to adequately catalog these—an investment the Library has never seemed interested in making.

The incorporation of Washingtoniana into Special Collections deprived it of a brand, identity, and mission a century old. What kind of Washingtoniana/Special Collections is planned in the renovated MLK Library is still very much unarticulated.

The final design meeting for the renovated MLK Library is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 2. 2017, at 6:30 p.m. It is free and open to the public.

Matthew Gilmore is the Editor at H-DC, a website which covers public humanities news and events in the District of Columbia. A link to Matthew’s webpage can be found here. He worked as a reference, collection development, and special projects librarian in Washingtoniana for a number of years.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on the author’s blog and was edited for publication on the MARCH Insights blog. The original post can be found here.