What We’re Hearing: Special Collections Focus

Washingtoniana and Black Studies Should Be a Showpiece

Library customers have expressed ideas for expanding and displaying more of special collections focusing on Washington’s history and the African-American experience in the United States – now housed as the Washintoniana Collection and the Black Studies Center respectively. Once the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library renovation is complete, people want to see, touch and learn more about the city’s past and the experience of blacks in this country over the past two-plus centuries.
Below are some specific ideas and suggestions expressed at the Library Design Roundtable in April and in a recent focus group of special collections patrons from all over the city.

Strut the Library’s Stuff

Exhibit artifacts and books from Washingtoniana in The Great Hall, under stairways and in other highly trafficked parts of the library, some said.

Some exhibits should be visible from outside, “a teaser to draw people into the building.” Exhibits would liven up the entrance area, one person said. Celebrate D.C. with books and displays about the city’s history, said another, pointing to the Philadelphia International Airport as an example, which in 1998 hosted exhibits that help humanize the airport space, showcase the city’s unique cultural life and enrich travelers’ experience.

The Library does not lack materials to display: Washingtoniana, launched in 1905, now houses a vast array of materials dating as far back as 1800 – more than two centuries of D.C. daily newspapers on microfilm; postcards, maps and real estate records; and even college and high school yearbooks.

You Can Judge a Book by its Cover

Customers feel that Washintoniana and Black Studies are hidden treasures, and that the Library should showcase them more effectively. Parts of the archival collection should be stored out in the open, essentially on permanent display, one community member said. People should even be allowed to touch some artifacts.

Technology offers ways to generate interest in the Library’s special collections: create digital stations throughout the building; install a digital television wall featuring footage of historical speeches and access to more online are just some ideas.

Make Special Collections More Welcoming

Ideas for making special collections more inviting include warmer lighting, comfortable seating and flexible meeting spaces for different sized groups.

What should go? Filing cabinets and a plastic chain to restrict access. Instead, have a central reception desk that serves a dual role: provide information and control access.

More of a good thing

Don't tuck special collections away in the basement, some said. It deserves a prominent location. The wish list also includes:

  • More space for community members and staff to process materials
  • More seating in the micro-film area
  • More power outlets at tables
  • Computers for use by researchers
  • More natural light and seating by windows
  • Classroom space where teachers and students could work with the collection

Potential partners

Community members suggested expanding the library’s special collections through partnerships such as: