Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the D.C. Public Library system, is changing the way the city’s residents interact with its libraries. (Greg Kahn/GRAIN/for The Washington Post)

A year ago, Richard Reyes-Gavilan was standing in an upstairs dining room at the Hamilton, a trendy downtown eatery. He’d come to talk to a roomful of business owners and civic leaders about that building.

“I’m sure you’re all familiar with MLK,” says Reyes-Gavilan, the executive director of the D.C. Public Library, using shorthand for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the dreary, well-worn, four-story central library two blocks west of Verizon Center. Despite being designed by celebrated 20th-century modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the boxy structure is known less for its collection and more for its down-on-their-luck clientele who has inspired a lengthy list of restrictions on behavior such as bringing in bedrolls or “emanating an odor that can be detected by a reasonable person, from six feet away.”

“It was outdated the day it opened,” he tells the room. “It has been an unloved structure for a long time.”

He pauses.

“But it has always had potential.”

For the next half-hour, Reyes-Gavilan walks the attendees through contrasting images of the building, which opened in 1972, and renderings of planned renovations. If all goes according to plan, the library’s collections and staff will move out at the end of 2016 or early next year so construction can begin. MLK is slated to reopen in 2019 as a future-minded reimagination of a 21st-century public library.

Along with the usual collections and offices, the 460,000-square-foot space will include a rooftop garden atop a new fifth floor, two large performance areas, spaces for start-ups and students, a cafe and an interactive children’s reading room. A “maker space” filled with 3-D printers and laser cutters, dubbed the Fab Lab, has already opened. The price tag for the project is $198 million.

But Reyes-Gavilan’s ambitions go beyond bricks and mortar. He wants to put the D.C. Public Library at the forefront of American libraries, to be a model for the nation by embracing a “hacker” culture that treats library patrons not as passive consumers of information, but as creators. His mantra is “libraries are not their buildings,” but “engines of human capital.”

In that spirit, he has opened branches at public charter schools, sent librarians to train teen parents to teach their kids pre-literacy skills, and carved out space at MLK where people can record music or master laser cutting. In short, a library system for the Google age, in which online searches and YouTube tutorials are reflexive and asking someone to look something up for you feels quaint.

Reyes-Gavilan wants to put the D.C. Public Library at the forefront of American libraries. (Greg Kahn/GRAIN/for The Washington Post)

A few weeks earlier, on a sparkling April day, Reyes-Gavilan is in his fourth-floor office at MLK. His desk dominates one side of the room, a conference table runs along the wall of windows overlooking G Street NW and there are well-worn Barcelona chairs ringed around a glass-covered table by the door. In the far corner, there’s access to a closet and a small personal bathroom.

“There are times I can’t even have meetings in this room,” Reyes-Gavilan says, “because people will wonder, ‘What’s wrong with the MLK Library? You have this fantastic suite with your own bathroom and shower.’ ”

He has a packed schedule. He’ll be giving a welcome speech to new hires, going over plans for potential interim library spaces, hashing out what he needs to cover in his talks at community meetings like the one at the Hamilton (he calls it “the road show”), discussing graphic designs promoting the library’s new programs, planning the annual staff retreat and taking a first look at the new maker space called the Fab Lab. All of that comes with the job of overseeing MLK and 25 branches and an operating budget of $55 million for this year.

With close-cropped black hair, sideburns fading to gray, the 46-year-old became a librarian only after giving up his first ambition to be a writer. “I never had the stamina to be a real writer,” he says. “The one thing you can’t do when you’re writing is fake it.”

He was born in Queens, N.Y., the youngest of three sons of Cuban immigrants. His mother, Nora, stayed at home to raise her boys, while his father, Rodolfo, worked a series of odd jobs, including stints at a matchbox factory and manual labor at Creedmor Psychiatric Center in Queens Village, Queens. During the summer months, his father would bring him along to the mental hospital. To amuse himself, the then-8-years-old Reyes-Gavilan joined in the games of imaginary baseball that patients played without balls, mitts or bats. “You’d swing and they’d tell you to run,” he remembers. “I didn’t care, I was hitting a home run every time. At that age, everything you do was pretend, so it was completely and utterly normal.”

On Saturday mornings, his father would drop him off at the main branch of the Queens Library. “It wasn’t so much the books that attracted me as it was the place,” he says. “It was about going to a place that was free that you could get lost in.”

In his early 20s, he made a living selling books by helping his then-girlfriend’s father, Hank Salerno, a school principal on Long Island, with his side gig as a rare-book dealer. They combed sales at churches, libraries and estates, sometimes finding unexpected treasures, such as Thomas Pynchon’s high school yearbook. Reyes-Gavilan and then-girlfriend, Jennifer Salerno, also bought and resold trade paperbacks of counterculture literature at a sidewalk stand on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village.

Many years later, at Hank Salerno’s suggestion, he got his library-science degree and found work at public library branches in the Bronx. He learned “my calling was being in bigger buildings with more variety of activities going on. We’ve got some branch staff who are so good about making deep connections with their communities, churches, teachers and parents. That wasn’t me so much.”

Reyes-Gavilan eventually rose to chief librarian of the Brooklyn Public Library, earning accolades for initiatives such as establishing career centers in libraries. Then in 2013, DCPL’s Board of Library Trustees chose Reyes-Gavilan to replace Ginnie Cooper, another former chief librarian in Brooklyn, as executive director.

Gregory McCarthy, board president, says the board was struck by “the utter joy of education and entrepreneurship he associates with libraries and how he exudes that when he talks about what our library was and could become.”

Reyes-Gavilan sums up his vision for the library system during a visit to the Fab Lab on the second floor of MLK Library.

“This is going to be the heavy machinery aisle,” the lab’s manager, Nick Kerelchuk, says, as he gestures to a line of equipment along a wall, including a black rectangular device a little larger than a car battery. “This is a CNC [computerized numerical control] wire bender. Think of it as a home model of pipe bending, like you would use for making playgrounds or motorcycles.”

“Six months ago, Nick didn’t know anything about this stuff,” Reyes-Gavilan says later, sounding impressed.

“Libraries need more tinkerers” like Kerelchuk, Reyes-Gavilan says. “We still need traditional librarians to serve as intermediaries between you and your information needs. But we need many, many more people ... who don’t see their role behind a desk waiting for you to come to them with a question, but in front of the desk saying, ‘Let me show you how to do something.’ It’s about turning libraries into educational campuses where everyone is working as teachers.

“That’s my ideal.”

Corrections: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Reyes-Gavilan once found a copy of J.D. Salinger’s high school yearbook. It was Thomas Pynchon’s. An earlier caption also incorrectly indicated that a photo of Reyes-Gavilan was taken in his office.

Nevin Martell is a writer in Washington. To comment on this story, email or visit

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