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Local history buffs rejoice: The D.C. historical society’s research collection is back

Jessica Smith, left, research services librarian, and Anne McDonough, library and collections director, in the Kiplinger Research Library at the Historical Society of Washington. It reopens Tuesday in the historic Carnegie Library building at Mount Vernon Square.
Jessica Smith, left, research services librarian, and Anne McDonough, library and collections director, in the Kiplinger Research Library at the Historical Society of Washington. It reopens Tuesday in the historic Carnegie Library building at Mount Vernon Square. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
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Lovers of local history will be delighted to hear that everything old is new again at the Historical Society of Washington. After a peripatetic few years, the society’s Kiplinger Research Library is reopening Tuesday in its old home: the Carnegie Library building at Mount Vernon Square.

“Our move is done,” said Anne McDonough, the historical society’s library and collections director. “We are thrilled to be welcoming researchers back and to be able to provide new programming.”

It’s been a grim few years for genealogists, house-history compilers and other District history obsessives. Both the Historical Society of Washington and the D.C. Public Library’s Washingtoniana collection have, from time to time, seen their hours reduced, access curtailed or doors closed entirely because of everything from surprise mold to broken air-conditioning, from long-needed renovation to the insertion of an Apple store.

The Apple store is downstairs from the Kiplinger Library, but nice thick doors keep the sounds of retail hubbub at bay.

A large, open space bisected by book shelves greets researchers. These shelves hold a lot of stuff McDonough feels will be useful to have at hand. There are genealogy materials, including cemetery records, marriage licenses and indentures of apprenticeship. There are general local history books, including big, coffee table titles and a selection of books that were once part of The Washington Post’s in-house library.

There are binders full of photocopies of the Columbia Historical Society photo collection, some 16,000 images, and of the Wymer Collection, the society’s most requested collection: nearly 4,000 photos of Washington streetscapes taken from 1948 to 1952 by John P. Wymer.

There are real estate atlases and vintage guidebooks, too.

“We have a lot of these,” McDonough said. “I think they were neglected.”

More bookshelves wrap around the eastern end of the room, holding nearly the entire collection of the society’s books, everything but the large folios.

One of the benefits of moving is being forced take stock. In the library’s case, that meant touching every single book for the first time in 15 years, when the society moved from its previous home in the Heurich mansion. That gave the society’s staff and volunteers an opportunity to check each book’s vital signs. Was it falling apart and in need of rebinding? And what size was it, anyway?

The height, width and depth of every book was measured in centimeters — per Library of Congress standards — then the total converted to feet to determine whether the 2,695 books would fit on 243 linear feet of shelving. The answer: yes, with five feet to spare.

“I had a very involved Excel spreadsheet,” said Jessica Smith, the society’s research services librarian.

Four storage areas in the building allow 95 percent of the collection — which includes manuscripts, church records, corporate archives, pamphlets, postcards and an old adding machine used by Hechinger Co. — to be stored on site, more than before.

“We have more efficient storage, and it’s easier to pull,” McDonough said. “All the pain of the move has been worth it.”

When I visited, McDonough had set apart some interesting books to feature in a little display. They included a book called “The Life and Adventures of Prof. Robert Emmet Odlum,” with the wonderful, and literally breathtaking, subtitle: “Containing an Account of His Splendid Natatorium at the National Capital. His Diary — The Swimming Drill, Illustrated — Reminiscences of Great Swimmers — Stories of the Land and Sea — His Great Swims, Jumps & c., with the Letters of Thanks from Persons He Rescued from Watery Graves — The Life-Saving Services, & c., & c., Together With Other Valuable Information.”

I’m definitely going back to read that.

The Kiplinger Research Library, 801 K St. NW, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday. You must make an appointment. To request one, email library@dchistory.org, or call 202-516-1363, ext. 302. (McDonough said there should be a few same-day slots available every day.)

Free monthly “Hometown History” programs, one Tuesday a month at 6 p.m., will introduce users to specific resources. They include “House History Collections & Resources” (Sept. 24), “LGBT Collections & Resources” (Oct. 22) and “Genealogy Collections & Resources” (Dec. 17).

There’s another change at the Historical Society of Washington: After five years as executive director, John Suau resigned in June. Julie Koczela, chair of the board of trustees, said a search for a new executive director will begin after Labor Day.

The galleries in what’s called the D.C. History Center — including one that houses “The Big Picture,” a stunning exhibit of panoramic images — have attracted more than 25,000 visitors since opening in May, “which is huge for us,” Koczela said.

That compares with the 11,500 people who visited the historical society in all of 2016.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.

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