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Then & now: Welcome to MLK Jr. Memorial Library

"Please empty your pockets and put all of your electronic devices on the bin," DC Library Police officers used to tell every patron entering the revolving doors of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The days of passing through a metal detector at the city's central library are long gone.

Photos by the author.

Under the tenure of Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper, the library has modernized the 1st floor's Great Hall (originally Peterson Hall) and is creating a "Digital Commons Technology Space."

The library police also have a new perch that resembles a judge's bench. The desk follows the same 1970's style as the original circulation desk, just around the corner.

"Welcome to MLK Library. May I help you?" is now the refrain greeting patrons at the library.

How time flies.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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The sad thing is while we've gotten rid of mini-TSA at the library, we've added it to other buildings, like the Reeves Center and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs in SW ( Can you imagine showing ID and being scanned to enter Safeway or McDonald's? Public buildings should be open to the public. We've got to put an end to the fear. It was especially egregious to be scanned and show ID to enter the Reeves building in order to vote.

by MV Jantzen on May 2, 2013 3:57 pm • linkreport

Hear hear! Less security theatre!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on May 2, 2013 4:33 pm • linkreport

they need to do something about the non library activities that happens in the bathroom and staircases, I have seen it some many times

by 3rd floor on May 2, 2013 4:52 pm • linkreport

It was especially egregious to be scanned and show ID to enter the Reeves building in order to vote.

This is interesting. When you vote at at DCPS school that has metal detectors, the standard policy is that voters don't have to go through security. Also, I voted early this past election at the Judiciary Square building and they had a separate entrance for voting with no metal detectors.

by dcdriver on May 2, 2013 5:07 pm • linkreport

My biggest concern is the ID requirement at One Judiciary Square. That's where the Office of Administrative Hearings is located, and OAH is the place where people contest (among lots of other things) evictions from homeless shelters and denials of public benefits.

If you have just been evicted from your homeless shelter and are trying to get back in, or have been cut off TANF or IDA, there's a good chance you don't have an ID or a lot of time or money to go get one (even the IDs provided by the Dept. of Human Services require you to actually get there; not easy if it's hard for you to walk, you have a lot of stuff/kids with you, you have no money for the bus, etc.) And without the ID, you can't go to OAH. I think that's a major civil rights issue.

by sbc on May 2, 2013 5:21 pm • linkreport

I had no idea there were so many metal detectors in operation downtown. So much for "leader of the 'free' world."

by Chris S. on May 2, 2013 6:33 pm • linkreport

Sorry, the MLK library still sucks. The design is a disgrace. Most of the equipment is barely functional. And the whole place reeks of piss. Even if you do find a reason to go there, it closes at 5 most days, so good luck making it to the library after work. And can we stop naming the worst public buildings after MLK?

Here's a challenge - name a major American city with a central library that is worse than DC's.

by ------ on May 3, 2013 7:42 am • linkreport

The best thing about the new desk is that no one has to see that officer's white socks with his boots. For shame, sir.

by Graham on May 3, 2013 9:15 am • linkreport

I miss the cool pneumatic tube stations that you used to be able to see around MLK library. I think they're all sealed off now. Here's a picture:

by iaom on May 3, 2013 9:41 am • linkreport

1. Why do we have a separate "Library" police? Can't that just be part of MPD? Surely that's inefficient.

2. John Muller: really? We're at the point where the most exciting thing our library has done is to remove metal detectors? Can you smell the sad? MLK Library is still an embarrassment. MLK Library still sucks.

I was in there three days ago and almost cried. The "Great Hall" is still a sterile, empty box that takes up half the first floor (rather than, you know, books.) The "digital commons" is 5 antiquated dell desktops, of which 4 work. The police "bench" didn't care about the loud fracas going on between four patrons in the middle of the room. And it still smells like urine.

The only consistent praise the library gets is faint kudos for it's "architectural significance" from well-meaning stubborn preservationists who have long since lost the public debate over this property. The capital's library should presumably be better at other things than that. But this one's not really good at anything.

by Ronald on May 3, 2013 10:11 am • linkreport

The metal detector at the MLK Library was THE most sensitive I've ever been through. I'm glad it's gone.

by Capt. Hilts on May 3, 2013 10:39 am • linkreport

"Here's a challenge - name a major American city with a central library that is worse than DC's."

Gee, I kinda figure the Library of Congress to be in the top 10 nationally.

by Chris S. on May 3, 2013 11:05 am • linkreport


Hear hear! Less security theatre!

Since you're a stickler for neighborhood names, I feel entitled to be a stickler for security terms. "Security theater" refers to ineffective security measures that are largely for show and do little to add to real security. I don't think you want to argue that metal detectors are ineffective at keeping out guns, knives, and other weapons, because they indisputably work quite well in this regard.

Whether or not something like a public library *should* have metal detectors is a separate question. Presumably, not too many (read: somewhere between almost none and none) patrons are going to the library to get their stab on. The Supreme Court? Makes sense. A DC Public Library? Possibly/probably not. DC Public School? Problematic either way, although of course ideally the answer would be no.

For government office buildings like Reeves, I can certainly understand the desire for that level of protection. The ID question is more interesting, due to equity implications (metal detectors treat everybody the same, if nothing else). It would seem that getting people without fixed addresses some sort of government-issued ID (for free) would be a good policy to pursue and implement. It seems a little odd that we're not going to issue IDs to people in the country illegally while we preclude those who have been here their whole lives from obtaining one and taking advantage of government services.

by Dizzy on May 3, 2013 11:07 am • linkreport

@Chris S

You can't check out books from the Library of Congress.

by MLD on May 3, 2013 11:08 am • linkreport

Dizzy: Hi there. Nice to meet you. Do I know you? Just curious, since we're mixing twitter names and real names. I'm a little confused.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on May 3, 2013 11:11 am • linkreport


I hope to do a future post about the 1st floor renovations. They are ongoing and have been now for a couple of months.

I disagree with you. MLK Library is the people's library. It is a great library despite it's many flaws. It has character although many find it to be repulsive instead of inviting. The DC Library Police are part of that character. MLK Library is still old city.

The Washingtoniana Division is a sacred place for any and all forms of local historians or high school and college students looking into the city's history. The Adult Literary Resource Center is an uplift center for thousands upon thousands of people every year. The MLK Library is the dumping grounds for too many homeless and crazies to the ill attention of city leadership but it is also the training grounds for the city's underdogs; immigrants studying for their citizenship tests, teenagers from broken homes retreating to the library to finish their college applications, returning citizen learning how to use email for the first time, single mothers attending story time with their infants.

Although too many books have been weeded from the collection of late, the library still circulates books from the 1920s as well as the most recent works in every genre. It's the people's research library.

Sounds like you should give MLK Library another chance. It's not that bad enough to make you want to cry.

by John Muller on May 3, 2013 3:49 pm • linkreport

Nope, you don't know me. I'm not insensitive to the fact that it can be a bit strange/awkward to have a person using a pseudonym or handle engaged in a back-and-forth with someone using their real name, although I suppose blog proprietors are used to it. That, and I guess I'm just sort of used to thinking of you as IMGoph because that's how I first encountered you on DCist and for a long time thereafter. Anyway, if you prefer Geoffrey, then Geoffrey it is.

My last sentence should read "It seems a little odd that we're now going to issue IDs to people in the country illegally while we preclude those who have been here their whole lives from obtaining one and taking advantage of government services."

I will second John's comment about the Washingtoniana Division - it is invaluable. I actually attended a play at the MLK Library once that was about/set on a Metrobus. I think it was route 80.

by Dizzy on May 3, 2013 4:03 pm • linkreport

@MLD - True, that is inconvenient. Hopefully most of the collection will be available online one day.

by Chris S. on May 3, 2013 4:10 pm • linkreport

DC has a great library system. Its online services, and even its Web page design, are rich, attractive and easy to use. The book hold system really works. The libraries that have seen renovations, such as my local one, Mt. Pleasant, are really wonderful. The MLK building is magnificent. The building continues to marvel. Does it need renovation? For sure, but the building has incredible potential; shifting the seating areas around the perimeter of the floors, instead of being surrounded by the stacks, might be a good place to start.

by kob on May 5, 2013 5:35 pm • linkreport

I actually don't want to tell people how awesome the Washingtonia Division is, because the unwashed masses might ruin it. Ha!

by washingtonian on May 6, 2013 12:29 pm • linkreport

You know what MLK really needs? Chair rationing. It is unfair that the homeless people who get there when the place opens get to camp out on the only comfy chairs in the place all day. Either add more chairs to the cavernous and almost-always-empty Great Hall, or issue 1 or 2 hour passes for comfy-chair sitting. I'm tired of having to crouch down in the stacks to do any serious book skimming. More comfy chairs for MLK!

Also it does not smell all that much like pee.

by Kes on May 6, 2013 2:33 pm • linkreport

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