Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Whither Washingtoniana?


As the temporary closure of Martin Luther King Memorial Library in Washington DC for long-overdue renovation draws nigh, a huge question remains unanswered for the local history community—whither Washingtoniana?

Plans have been announced for the relocation of the DC Public Library’s administrative offices to an office building at 1990 K St NW. For those less familiar with Washington DC this location is near the end of the downtown business district, ten blocks west of MLK Library.  It does have the advantage some transit access—an Orange/Blue/Silver line Metro station just one block away and the Circulator and Metro buses. The building itself, built in 1978, is slated for redevelopment; other temporary residents include the displaced Goethe-Institute.


The 24,000 square feet of space is to be leased for Library administrative offices. A tiny space, 5,800 square feet, has been leased for public service: “will host a computer training classroom, up to 12 public computers, space for adult literacy programs and a center for accessibility, space for holds to be picked up, and a small collection of new books…” 1

While that space is simply inadequate, the silence on public access to Washingtoniana during the several years’ closure renovation has been deafening. Washingtoniana is unique—not only the unequalled collection of local history materials on Washington, DC, it is the resource for current information on Washington (the uniqueness of this combination is probably unrealized by the Library itself). Every format of material has been collected: books, photographs, newspapers, microfilm, magazines, archival materials, sound recordings, video recordings. The collection was initiated in 1905, and became a separate division in 1928. It expanded greatly with the 1982 donation of the Washington Star photograph and newspaper clipping morgues. In 1996 I was able to write:

The Washingtoniana Division has evolved far beyond a traditional local history room – devoted to antiquarian and genealogical interests – into a department rare in scope and content among American public libraries. Washingtoniana aims to collect the substantive materials of the city’s life and times, including laws and regulations, history, description, economics, religion, sociology, physical geography, education, housing, architecture, urban planning, art, literature, fiction, and biography – in addition to antiquarian and genealogical materials. Washingtoniana also collects maps, theses and dissertations, postcards, archival materials, and databases. Today’s collection stands at approximately 20,000 volumes, 1,000 linear feet of vertical files, more than one million photographs, and 8,000 reels of microfilm. 2

Other specialized collections have particular strengths but Washingtoniana is the foundation as starting place for researching the history of District of Columbia– Any serious researcher on Washington DC makes use of Washingtoniana. Georgetown Branch Library’s Peabody Room of Georgetowniana has been brought under Washingtoniana’s jurisdiction since then. Washingtoniana has straddled the division between public library and special collection offering uniquely open access. No other special or academic library collection offers similar access.

Even with generous physical access, intellectual access has always posed a challenge. Cataloging of materials is divided across several online and paper catalogs. Preservation has been a concern as well—progress is being made–materials have been microfilmed and now are being digitized and housed in “DigDC.” “Dig DC is your portal to selected digital collections from DC Public Library Special Collections. Find photos, maps, oral histories and more documenting the history of Washington D.C.” Washingtoniana participated in the U.S. Newspaper Program (USNP) as the District of Columbia grantee.

The historical primary and secondary research resources of Washington are distributed across numerous institutions—each with its own goals, resources and governance—and ownership of materials. It is the responsibility of each to build a strong, vital role in the individual organizations in which they are embedded and bring those greater resources to bear for the good of the cause of documenting Washington’s history.  The concept of combining any should be put to rest, allowing each to draw on its own individual strengths and mandates. Digital collaboration is the proper realm of collaboration, not the chimera of unifying physical collections.

While efforts are ongoing to set the D.C. Office of Public Records aright—and much progress has been made since my post last year: “Struggling to Preserve: Washington DC’s Archives and Public Records Office” –it is uncomfortable, to say the least, to contemplate an multi-year embargo on access to the unique resources of Washingtoniana. A mooted extremely limited “service point” located somewhere cannot hope to be adequate for access to materials, both in scope and hours of access.

Local history is a core part of the public library mission–the American Library Association just recently published Local History Reference Collections for Public Libraries articulating trends, practices, users, needs for any public library local history collection. Neighboring Arlington County Library has invested in making its Center of Local History (formerly Virginiana Room) a model public library local history enterprise—but does not match scope of Washingtoniana for current materials. That the architectural renderings for the library renovation give no indication of any substantive research space is rather disturbing. 3

Continued near-term and long-term substantive provisions for access to this unique collection: printed text, vertical file, microfilm, map, and photograph collections documenting the history of Washington is what the D.C. population and the historical community locally and nationally require and deserve and should demand.


Further Reading

Washingtoniana marks its centennial (Published January 24, 2005) By Joshua Garner, The Common Denominator

Mecanoo, Martinez + Johnson. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Washington D.C., USA

Mecanoo, Martinez + Johnson to renovate MLK Library. By Philip Kennicott February 18, 2014Washington Post

  1. D.C. will move central library to a downtown office building during MLK renovation, Jun 29, 2016, Michael Neibauer, Washington Business Journal and  1990 K St NW will beTemporary Space for Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, Matthew Gilmore, July 5, 2016, H-DC.
  2. .C. Public Library’s Washingtoniana Division Marks Centennial. Matthew B. Gilmore.Washington History Vol. 8, No. 2 (Fall/Winter, 1996/1997), pp. 77-78.
  3. DC Public Library Releases More Renderings of the MLK Library Renovation. By Sara Johnson October 22, 2015 Architect

One comment on “Whither Washingtoniana?

  1. Pingback: Whither Washingtoniana – addendum | Washington DC History Resources

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This entry was posted on August 5, 2016 by in DC History, DC Public Library, Washingtoniana.
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