At first glance, Washingtonians might not notice major changes to the building they remember at 9th and G streets NW. The exterior, protected by historic preservation laws, looks much the same, with a little less brick and more glass on the ground floor amid the stark black boxes that define the structure. Step inside, and the cavernous lobby still gapes beneath the same mural of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the library’s namesake.
But go deeper, and improved services abound: a tool library where residents can check out hammers and drills for home projects; office space for nonprofit groups to serve the community; a gleaming 290-seat auditorium for concerts and author talks; special offices for getting a passport or conducting a video visit with a relative in prison; a new rooftop garden overlooking downtown.
“A library, before, used to be somewhere where you would come and be quiet,” said Gregory McCarthy, the Washington Nationals vice president who chairs the library’s board of trustees. “You come to this library and you may not be quiet. And that’s great.”
The D.C. Public Library hopes that this updated version of its hub will draw huge crowds — the library’s goal is a million visitors a year, about twice as many as patronized the old Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. Most of the 25 branches in the library’s portfolio also have been renovated in recent years, with some seeing double or triple the foot traffic after the construction, McCarthy said.
While the D.C. library system is best known for those branches, its central library has lacked the stature of some cities’ grandiose hubs. “When I think about cities like L.A. and New York, those [central libraries] are destinations that people go to when they’re visiting the city. I don’t know that MLK has had that reputation in the past,” said Ursula Gorham, co-director of the library science master’s program at the University of Maryland. “This may be a chance to really promote it as this revitalized institution in D.C.”
Whether the crowds eventually materialize (post-pandemic, of course — the initial reopening will allow only a small number of visitors inside at a time) will be a verdict on the library’s decision, after a years-long public debate, to preserve this building as a civic space even as the area around it has rapidly gentrified.
“There was just so much fighting over this library for so long,” said Robin Diener, executive director of D.C. Library Renaissance Project, a watchdog group that advocated for keeping a library in the historical building. “I’m glad we saved it.”
Diener said she regrets that the city dismissed talk of building above its valuable downtown property, suggesting the airspace could have been converted into affordable housing, office space or a school. “The only discussion we had was whether or not we wanted luxury housing — or nothing. That was unfair,” she said. “That I regret very much. … Who knows what we could have come up with if we had that discussion?”
Above all, however, she said she is relieved that the central library remained downtown, where library staff are interested in keeping the building open late. “We think of libraries nowadays — maybe this is a bit of a change — as part of the nightlife. There are performances. They’re open late for readings and meetups. Having that be part of the downtown just seemed absolutely critical,” Diener said.
Before the library shuttered for the renovation in 2017, its most loyal customers included homeless people, who often spent the day inside to enjoy shelter from the elements and access to the Internet. The new facility will embrace that role, with “peer navigators” on hand to help homeless people access services and a “coffee and conversation” program to connect them with library patrons who have never been homeless.
“One of the tenets of a public library is that it’s welcoming to all. It’s important that we continue to do that,” said Maryann James-Daley, the librarian in charge of the central library’s day-to-day operations. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks look at this shiny new building and think, ‘Oh, there isn’t a place for me.’ The point is that this shiny, beautiful place that we’re opening up is for you. It’s for everyone.”
Library leaders decided to keep the public computers, which are the key draw for many homeless patrons, upfront and visible on the first floor for that reason, McCarthy said.
But they also hope to attract additional patrons: more teens from nearby middle and high schools to enjoy the lounge chairs and comics collection after school, more parents who will bring their children to the story-time room and send them squealing down the built-in slide.
At one point, the slide came out of the plans to save money. Richard Reyes-Gavilan, the library’s executive director, made sure it was included, albeit without the descent all the way into the lobby that was once envisioned. “One of the things we’ve lamented about this building for so long is how uninspiring it was, the lack of delight,” he said. “We need that slide as much as we need the bookshelves.”
James-Daley said she hopes the ground-floor garden, the small cafe serving premade food and the new fifth-floor rooftop patio might attract downtown workers taking their lunch break, just as the nearby Portrait Gallery’s atrium often does.
The basement is full of other amenities one might not expect in a library: a dance studio with wood floors and mirrored walls; two recording studios for teens to do school projects and adults to create podcasts and advertisements; a lab where artists can use a 3-D printer or a sewing machine or woodworking tools.
The new roof, with its mix of indoor and outdoor space and a new catering kitchen, will be available for paid rentals for events like conferences and bookish weddings. Many private rooms will be free for the public to reserve, from meeting spaces for groups like Advisory Neighborhood Commissions and Boy Scouts to small study spaces for students.
The building also has dedicated second-floor offices that nonprofit groups and government entities can take over for months at a time to work directly with clients. The city’s health department might use the rooms during health insurance enrollment season to get residents signed up for health care. Community Tax Aid, a nonprofit, will meet there with low-income residents from February to April to complete their tax returns. “At any one time we might have eight or nine organizations working out of this space,” Reyes-Gavilan said.
In other words, the aspiration is to create not just a library, but a multipurpose community service center — and theater and coffee shop and art studio, all rolled into one. Eventually. During the pandemic, librarians still aren’t sure how many in-person services they’ll be able to provide. But Reyes-Gavilan says the renovation’s huge open spaces will help. “This is a great building for social distancing,” he said. “There’s no way around that.”