The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library: A Dilemma

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The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library serves as the Central Library for Washington, DC. It is an iconic destination for both local and international bibliophiles. Towering above G Street NW in Washington, DC, this library is home to hundreds of thousands of books, not to mention the librarians who have dedicated their careers to maintaining the library’s vast collection.

However, DC’s central library is now faced with one of the most daunting challenges its librarians and archivists will ever face: combing through the accrued books and deciding which to keep, which to give to another branch, and which to donate. The task of sorting the library’s books, many of which have never been cataloged properly, has proven to be difficult, yet rewarding.

Moving Toward Modern


Image via Flickr by paulsimpson1976


The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library first opened its doors in 1972, taking the place of scattered local branches. It quickly became, according to Elizabeth Blair of NPR, a paragon of visionary thinking. In 2013, a sleek Digital Commons area with dozens of desktop computers for patrons’ use, as well as all the latest portable devices, took the place of the underused Science, Business, and Technology section.

The current renovation project, which is estimated to cost $208 million, according to the DC Public Library‘s MLKFuture website, is another leap toward modernization that will not only remodel the inside but also the entire structure. Planned features include a rooftop garden, updated technology, a conference center, and creative spaces for scientists and artists. The library plans to celebrate its community as well by sponsoring a contest for local artists to paint a mural on the ceiling, says Michelle Goldchain of Curbed.

While all this modernization is going on, the library is still sticking to its core function: a welcoming repository of information built to house scores upon scores of books. As the construction crews start working, the librarians and archivists of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library have work of their own.

Organizing and Donating Treasure

While the previous relocation of the Science, Business, and Technology section to create the digital center was no easy feat, the current project of cataloging and parsing the entirety of the library’s collection is an entirely different undertaking. The library is home to thousands of books stretching out in a well-organized maze of shelves and stands.

The librarians’ job is to carefully sort and catalog these items. According to DeNeen Brown of The Washington Post, items will either be kept in storage for when the remodeling project is finished, donated to organizations such as Better World Books, a social venture company that gives new life to used books, or the Department of Corrections libraries, or given to another branch within the DC Public Library system.

The criteria for which books stay and which books go are at the discretion of the librarians. Flaws such as crumbling spines, margin notes, or missing pages can be enough to send the book off to a charity where it can be sold or donated. According to Brown, many of the books being sent to charities are textbooks. Librarians check to ensure the book’s facts are up-to-date before sending them out in order to help avoid spreading misinformation.

The recipient of a vast majority of educational texts is Better World Books, one of the most innovative bookselling enterprises to date. For every book Better World Books sells, the company donates to high-impact literacy programs designed to get textbooks into the hands of every student, regardless of economic status. The charity is driven by both book and textbook donations, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is helping to support the cause through its donations.

In fact, donating books to Better World Books is only one way in which the library is continuing to provide education and literacy to the community and beyond despite temporarily closing its doors. Many books have already been removed to be placed at smaller satellite library branches where the public can access them.

Regardless of the state of the books or their contents, this sorting is a task that has been undertaken with care and concern. Kim Zablud, Director of Public Services at the DC Public Library, recently commented on this in an interview with USC MMLIS faculty: “People seek a master’s in library science because they believe in free and open access to information, which is a core democratic principle. As we closed the MLK building, we had a quiet moment to touch all the books, prepare the collection, and contemplate how much these pages have meant to so many people.  Looking forward, we’re excited for all the ways the Central Library is designed to be the city’s classroom, reading room, innovation lab, community hub and forum. People and community are central to the new design. Books are just the beginning.”

But what is truly exciting for the librarians and archivists is the treasure troves of undocumented, uncatalogued items that the library accrued and then forgot. Behind the scenes of the tidy rows the public sees, there is some chaos: untold numbers of book-filled boxes that came from times when other libraries needed places to store things due to renovation or overstocking.

Sifting Through Special Collections

In the now-quiet Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial library, boxes of unarchived papers sit undisturbed in back corners and crowded rooms. According to Brown, no one knows how many books the library holds, and the same statement can be applied to the various papers and artifacts stashed away. It is the librarians’ and archivists’ duty to make difficult choices about whether these items stay in the library.

That isn’t to say that this task is unwelcome. According to an interview Martin Austermuhle of WAMU 88.5 conducted with the special collections manager of the DC public library system, Kerrie Cotton Williams, the librarians are taking the project on with much enthusiasm. Williams stated, “We have great treasures here. A lot of our collections are discoverable and accessible. But like any repository, we have materials that have been hidden.”

This material is particularly exciting for Lauren Algee, an archivist within the system, who has been digging through boxes of old DC government documents. She has been posting the stranger finds for the public on her Twitter page, and she noted to Austermuhle that she hopes after the remodeling is complete, that the paper archives will be made more available to the general public.  

As many of the nation’s library buildings look toward modernization, future librarians must be ready to step up to the associated challenges posed by the changing nature of the library science field. According to the American Library Association, organization, management, and information technology skills are just a few of the traits demanded of current and future librarians. The USC Master of Management in Library and Information Science online program equips its students with abilities from project and budget management to collection management, which will be needed both to improve and maintain their libraries while also preparing for the future.


What Librarians Need to Know – American Library Association

Go Digital – DC Public Library

Dilemma for Librarians: Keep Thousands of Books or Donate them?  – Chicago Tribune

Re-imagine Your New Central Library – DC Public Library

With Modern Makeovers, America’s Libraries are Branching Out – NPR

What ‘Great Treasures’ Await Librarians as they Pack Up MLK Library? –

Fly Through Mecanoo’s Final Designs for Washington D.C.’s Martine Luther King Jr. Memorial Library –

Where to go now that the MLK Library is Closed – Curbed: Washington DC

MLK Library’s Grand Reading Room Ceiling will Become a Work of Art  – Curbed: Washington DC

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