When Roxanna Deane came to Washington in 1968, D.C. history was pretty much left to Civil War buffs and genealogists.
As a public librarian, she worked with conspiracy theorists and president-watchers who populated the D.C. Public Library's small Washingtoniana collection, searching for details about their ancestors or evidence about Lincoln's assassination.
"They weren't thinking of [Washington] as a home town," she said.
That changed. The black power movement grew and the city moved toward home rule. Historians began focusing on social movements and the regular people who worked and lived in the city, not just those who ruled it.
And Deane, as head of the Washingtoniana collection for 20 years, pushed to expand the section to what it is today, a sprawl that houses maps, community archives and a million-photograph collection from the Washington Star that she won despite interest from the Library of Congress.
When she retires Friday, Deane will end a 36-year career that spanned dramatic moments in the city's history and, colleagues say, transformed the way people learned about city history.
"She really turned it from a fledgling operation to something that is celebrated across the city," said Rita Thompson-Joyner, the library's assistant director.
For Deane, that meant collecting and showcasing materials that capture the nation's capital as a regular city but one that intersects with the nation's most powerful figures and institutions.
"It's a city of people who live here, not just the congressmen and the president," Deane said. "But you can't divide it so neatly. Local people work for the government. Local people built the White House."
So she has tried to show that, through projects and acquisitions that now crowd shelves and fill cases in the division with browning pages of newspapers, stacks of maps and cartons of old material. In 1981, she began the Oral History Research Center to document the lives of residents, a project that led to two published books, "A Georgetown Childhood: G.R.F. Key" and "A Foggy Bottom Family: Nora Drew Gregory." And in 1987, she spearheaded the creation of the D.C. Community Archives, where advisory neighborhood commissions and other organizations can leave their records.
When she began at the library, Deane said, students were taught local history by learning about the White House and not much about anything else. Now, ninth-graders in public schools learn about the neighborhoods and local figures through a history curriculum she helped develop.
Deane has been willing to fight to expand the collection, as she did in landing the archives of the Washington Star after the newspaper went out of business in 1981. Several groups, including the Library of Congress and George Washington University, tried to win the right to house the collection of a million photographs and 13 million news clippings, officially owned by The Washington Post.
Deane made her case in part by pointing out that the library would keep the collections accessible to the public, with librarians ready to help visitors explore them. That is one of her favorite parts of the job -- helping people find answers.
She delights in seeing the excitement of third-graders as she shows them 200-year-old documents, or in watching junior high students find their addresses on plat maps, which show what buildings stood where centuries ago.
"Being a librarian is like being a detective," she said. "You never know what the next question is."
Carl Cole, 61, a lifelong Washingtonian and avid library patron, described Deane as "one of those rare great people" who bring passion and knowledge to their work.
"In this town of notables or pretended notables, to me, Roxanna is the kind of person we should be building memorials and naming buildings after," Cole said.
Library visitors will enjoy Deane's work even after she retires, Cole said, because she is responsible for so much of the Washingtoniana collection.
Though she has spent her adult life immersed in the story of one town, Deane grew up without getting to know a home town. Her father was in the Army, so she moved often. When she came to Washington after college, she asked for work as a librarian and was hired on the spot. She began in the general reference division but soon switched to Washingtoniana, largely because no one else wanted to work there. "It's stuff," she said, explaining why most librarians who prefer books would find it unappealing. "It's maps, newspapers -- just stuff."
After retiring, Deane plans to move to Canyon Lake, Tex., and to work three days a week in the public library her sister runs.
Karen Blackman-Mills, who worked for Deane for 10 years and is now chief of the Washingtoniana division, said the library will make do but is reserving the right to tap into Deane's D.C. wisdom.
"No one expects to fill her shoes at all," Blackman-Mills said. "We have her contact info. If nobody else knows the answer to a question, we'll contact her."