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Women Who Rock: Meet the Librarians Championing Local Music at the D.C. Public Library

By Callie Tansill-Suddath | Features

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Photos by Mark Hoelscher for DCMD 

At the D.C. Public Library, you could borrow a book, see a punk basement show and record a track in a professional studio all in one day. 

With roughly 20,000 scores of sheet music, 10,000 vinyl records, an archive completely devoted to the city’s punk scene and a recording studio, DCPL is more than just an educational institution–it’s become a champion for local music.

Michele Casto, Bobbie Dougherty, and Maggie Gilmore, are the driving forces behind the library’s close relationship with D.C.’s music community. Through partnerships with Capital Fringe and the Levine School of Music, they have put on 40 free concerts annually over the last few years, including five punk basement shows at the MLK Library.

There’s also the D.C. Punk Archive, which they all play an integral and ongoing role in organizing. Since its opening in 2014, the archive has evolved into a sweeping collection of one of the country’s most iconic DIY scenes.

The MLK Library serves as the primary location for the D.C. Punk Archive and the majority of the library’s music programming, but that will all change this spring as Casto, Dougherty and Gilmore prepare for its three-year closure and renovation. Once the improvements are complete, the MLK Library will offer up more resources for local music lovers like brand new practice rooms and listening stations for tapes and vinyl records. In the meantime, plans are currently underway to move its Punk Archive and some of its recurring concerts to other locations.

For this installment of Women Who Rock, we spoke with Casto, Dougherty and Gilmore about how they’re championing some of the city’s most interesting music.

Could you give us a little background on the archive and the history of how it came to be?

Maggie Gilmore: Basically there was a perceived need for preserving the amount of ephemera people have been keeping over the last 20-plus years in their basements, closets and shoeboxes. Through discussions with the punk community, there was a plan to create the actual punk archive within Washingtoniana, which has been a local archive for Washington, D.C. for a long time.

[At the beginning], the punk archive had a few collections and a handful of items. Part of doing the basement shows was really to promote the fact that we were creating this archive to the community that we want to serve. The shows themselves serve the purpose of advertising what we were up to, as well as gaining the trust of that community and saying “we are here for you and we are here to preserve a history.” We were trying to say this is a living history, and the punk scene is alive and well in Washington, D.C. Part of this history is also very much about a venue, so we’ve also created ourselves as a venue to participate in the culture as well.

Michelle Casto: It launched in 2014, but the planning started a year before that. The idea had been floating around among various librarians for a while and it finally took off when we met a filmmaker, James Schneider. He was doing a film, Punk the Capital, at that time, and was able to put us in touch with a lot of people in the music community that he had met. He really liked the idea of preserving a lot of this material he had come across and knew it was important, but not necessarily accessible or preserved very well.

By spending all that time meeting with people from the community, we had already gotten some collections in when we launched and had a month-long series of programs. We already had a lot of good publicity. I think it’s because we spent all that time doing outreach that we were able to start with a lot of support from the community, which has been really important for the success of the project both in terms of building the collection and programming. Even if they’re not donors, researchers, or if the archive side is not really their thing, it’s a way people can participate and also bring current musicians into the fold so it doesn’t feel like this dusty, old archives or nostalgia project. We’re documenting the present as well as the past–that’s how the shows kind of tie into the archives.

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What are your roles within the archive?

MG: I started as a volunteer. I now serve as the unofficial music librarian and I do a lot of programming. One of my professional passions is to support the creative economy and the music community in a financial capacity, because we are an institution that has a budget to make something happen; to set a good example of how public institutions can support a music community in a city. So, we can do that by paying musicians to perform. Each program brings in an audience that may not have interacted with library resources before.

I do the basement punk shows with Bobbie, but I help facilitate the Capital Fringe shows at the MLK library. We have a partnership with Capital Fringe, supported by the D.C. Public Library Foundation. Through those examples, we’re looking beyond just grant money or foundation money. 

We’ve started doing the Jazz in the Basement series, and we will move it, as well as the punk shows and Fringe shows, to community spaces, neighborhood libraries or outdoor spaces in the next three years. The Jazz in the Basement series is funded through an internal budget.

MC: Unlike Maggie, I’m not a musician and don’t have a music background. I’m very interested in it, but wouldn’t consider myself an expert. 

My background is in history. I work in Washingtoniana, which is the local history department of DCPL and also where the D.C. Punk Archive collections are housed. My role within the project is managing the archive itself, the collections’ side of things (as opposed to the programming side, which Bobbie and Maggie handle). This entails outreach to donors, organizing/processing collections, preparing exhibits, providing access to the collections (everyone from researchers to tourists) and managing volunteers.

Bobbie Dougherty: I’m a Teen and Adult Services Librarian at the Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood Library and I have worked for DCPL since 2008. My professional passion is non-traditional library programming – including initiatives like the Tour de DCPL annual library bike ride and the D.C. Punk Archive. 

My non-professional passions these days include karaoke, pinball, the TV show Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates and professional wrestling.

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Do you have a background in music?

MG: I have an undergrad degree in voice performance. I started as a volunteer here at the library just shelf-reading the sheet music collections because I was using [them] and [they] were not in order, so I said ‘hey, can I help volunteer?’ Then, I was hired as a library associate. After I went to grad school to get my MLIS, I came back, and now I’m the unofficial music librarian, mostly working with the circulating sheet music and vinyl records that we have.

I didn’t realize you had vinyl records

MG: We have over 10,000 vinyl records!

What do you think is unique about the D.C. DIY community and its music scene?

MG: Definitely the culture. The DIY ethic is very open and accepting. People have a platform to try things. 

I think D.C. has always been a very welcoming environment for experimentation. There are also many independent labels in D.C., and I definitely appreciate how many people are making an effort to support musicians on the administrative side of things. 

MC: There’s this tradition of these independent labels that have been around. Our Punk Archive project starts in 1976, when the Slickee Boys put out their first seven-inch record via Kim Kane’s own label, Dacoit Records. It seemed like every generation kind of supported the next one. Those were earlier bands that were helping create a space for the hardcore bands that came later. And then the labels–Dischord is the most obvious one–but there were others that came out around that time that [were] models for future labels to create their own later version.

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MC: D.C. stands out because it’s not so big that is loses its local feeling, like NYC or LA. People go there, and there are local things, but you can’t really separate it from people who come there for the music industry. In a lot of cities, it’s a very localized scene, whereas D.C. is just big enough to be big but not so big that it loses it’s local feeling.

BD: And the idea that D.C. is so transient. This part [music] of D.C. is less transient than other parts of D.C.–economy or population. The music stays and the people that are committed to music [stay.] I think that’s totally across genres, D.C. is more nascent. They’re part of the fabric of the city.

How do you envision the D.C. Punk Archive to grow? Since it’s still relatively new, but is old enough to be an established part of the library. What do you hope the impact of it is?

MC: I think it has become everything we hoped it would be. Not that I don’t want it to continue to grow, because we do. I think that we’re sort of shifting focus because it has been successful in terms of collecting, programming and use. Now, in my department, one of my colleagues is building a go-go archive. Instead of making the punk archive bigger, it’s making a music archive that represents more than just punk. That’s the direction we would like to go.

MG: Using some of the successful models from the punk archive project and some of the processes we went through to build the go-go archive in the next few years.

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Is that happening at the MLK Library?

MC: It’s happening now.

BD: There have been go-go collections since before there were punk collections here.

MC: We’ll continue to program, provide access to the collection and digitize the collections.

MG: We do hope that digital interaction with the archive–whether it is a visually-accessible map of venues through D.C.’s history, having playlists available for people who may be in an educational setting or outside of D.C., or just curious or nostalgic– will have some kind of discovery element to it.

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