DC’s Central Library is Reborn: The Culmination of 15 Years of Library Modernization

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, in the heart of downtown, officially opened its doors two weeks ago after a three-and-a-half year, $213 million renovation.

Its renovation has received accolades from the Washington Post’s editorial page and architecture critic. The original 1970s building was designed by modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. It had sharp, clean angles and was so symmetrical you could fold it in two and every wall and beam would line up. Dutch architects from the firm Mecanoo brought in elegant touches that were overlaid as contrasting rounded and asymmetrical in order to keep their additions distinct from the original design. The redone gigantic staircases, for example, wind upwards unevenly, with light shining down from similarly uneven round skylights.

But the MLK Jr. Library is so much more than an architectural statement—its function has been recast as a dynamic, multipurpose community center. Of course you can check out books and read in silence. But you can also be loud in the videogaming section for teens, in the dance and recording studio in the basement or in the many meeting rooms any member of the public can reserve for free. You can check out construction tools and use a sewing machine. You can access government services from the DMV, inquire about a housing voucher application or apply for unemployment insurance. While you wait, you can safely leave your small children in the next room over to play and read in the kids’ section, which includes a giant slide designed to enchant children.

“The new, reimagined MLK Jr. Library will be place for District residents of all backgrounds to gather and interact.  It’s going to be a center for education, fun, and civic activity – a place that helps unite our city.  Whether you’re earning a PhD or seeking a GED, this building has something for you. It’s also going to transform that part of downtown with seven days a week first class activations,” said FC2 Trustee Gregory McCarthy (Washington Nationals) who has served as president of the DCPL Board of Trustees since 2014.

The MLK Jr. Library is the centerpiece of a complete overhaul of the city’s libraries. It started in 2005 with Mayor Tony Williams, who created a blue-ribbon panel, with FC2 backing, to travel across the country, study and bring home best-practices. Then-FC2 CEO John Hill led that panel and preceded McCarthy as board president. Joining him on the Board today is Trustee Victor Reinoso (Independent Sector). Many other Trustees have helped the libraries succeed over the years, including Richard Levy of the Levy Group, Jair Lynch whose company (Jair Lynch Real Estate Partners) managed the MLK Jr. Library’s construction, Neil Albert (Downtown BID) and many others. DCPL executive director Richard Reyes-Gavilan led tours of the new MLK library for FC2 Trustees just before the ribbon cutting.

Now 15 years after the blue-ribbon panel, 24 out of 25 of the city’s libraries have been renovated with nearly half a billion dollars invested. They are classy, architectural masterpieces. Francis Gregory library in Ward 7 was designed by David Adjaye who also designed the Smithsonian’s African American History Museum. The Anacostia, Bellevue and Benning libraries—all East of the river—received architectural design awards.

Everything inside, from customer engagement to programming, has been redone as well. Each library’s programming is responsive to the needs of their neighborhoods. Some have more computer and internet access, others more meeting space or senior services.

DC residents love their new libraries. Some branches saw foot traffic double or triple after renovations were completed. In a DC auditor survey last year of citizen satisfaction with agency services, libraries received by far the highest marks. Three-quarters rated their libraries as either good or excellent. The MLK Jr. library is expected to be a destination unto itself, attracting a million visitors a year.

More improvements are coming. The DC government is about to issue its first-ever master facilities plan for libraries. Since the blue-ribbon panel, the city’s grown by 100K residents, creating library deserts. Brand-new branches will be built and others modified to stay in sync with their neighborhoods.

The journey to a modern DC library system, in Gregory McCarthy’s words, “speaks to our residents’ love of libraries and our elected leaders’ dedication to fulfilling the original vision.”