Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

Whither Washingtoniana? Plans sketched, concerns rebuffed, closing March 4

MLK Library is slated to closed March 4, 2017 for three years at least. Planned is a final design meeting, Thursday, Feb. 2. 2017 at 6:30 p.m. (location not yet announced).

November 9, 2016 Richard Reyes-Gavilan, director of the DC Public Library gave a public briefing on the plans for the gut renovation of Martin Luther King Library. Concerns raised about physical access to Washingtoniana resources during the closure were entirely rebuffed in a bravura performance by Reyes-Gavilan; the Library was unwilling to discuss plans with anyone from the public, not a proffered ad hoc public committee, no one. Staff were too busy.

In the interim “just-in-time” access is proposed for most materials — rather than “just sitting on a shelf waiting for you” (where you might choose it yourself). This attitude about access during closure bodes ill for the new facility. Requesting materials from closed stacks is in no way “just-in-time” access, needless to say. Plans presented for access were sketchy and incomplete. Materials are to be scattered across at least four locations. Severely restricted public access to some unknown fraction of the collection will be provided at the Peabody Room (“some” materials by request), the Historical Society of Washington (10 am-5 pm T-F by appointment, 1 Sat/month), and at the Library of Congress Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room (archival materials by request). Washingtoniana goes behind (many) closed doors, nothing will be accessible on open shelves, most everything only by appointment–if granted.

After the March 4 closing an undetermined amount of time will pass before any materials are available at any location.

The floor plans for the renovation were shown and have been posted. 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 as has been suggested, Washingtoniana and Special Collections face no net gain of space. Washingtoniana will be shifted to the east side of the building. apparently the one reference desk (or service desk) for the collections will be located here, with none in Black Studies. Missing too are shelves for ready reference at the reference desk.

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. What light would be available is a puzzle–the well will be surrounded by shelving–no sunlight. Also a 30 x 30 space has an outline of DC. Nothing else.

New MLK 4th Floor plan

New MLK 4th Floor plan

MLK 3 to 4 void

MLK 3 to 4 void

Washingtoniana currently has several elements on the 3rd floor (besides 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 floor plan 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.

A shortcoming and obstacle to making any of this work is the lack of bibliographic control/intellectual access/cataloging. The international database is OCLC’s WorldCat. http://www.worldcat.org The Library has used it to populate its local database but has never paid for/invested in listings in the master database–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 very underutilized.
Additionally, as a reference collection Washingtoniana was never even fully cataloged into the local database. The open stacks collection is perhaps 75% in the catalog. Yet 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 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 unknown/unarticulated. The floorplans are unenlightening. Whether everything would even return is a concern–it could be all to easy to allow a partner to retain custody.

Reminder: Final design meeting, Thursday, Feb. 2. 2017 at 6:30 p.m.

We started here back last August: https://march.rutgers.edu/2016/08/whither-washingtoniana/

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This entry was posted on January 17, 2017 by in DC History, Washingtoniana.
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