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Undergoing a Three-Year Renovation, Here’s How the MLK Library Plans to Continue Its Live Concerts and Music Archives

By Katie Strzeszewski | Features

Before it closed in March for a three-year renovation project, the MLK Library held one of the largest local music archives in the city. Thousands of vinyl records, sheet music, a state-of-the-art recording studio, instruments, and the sweeping Punk Archive collection all co-existed under one roof. The library also served as local music venue, hosting several shows a month. Relocating the library’s music programming, memorabilia and materials proved to be a daunting task for library staff members Michele Casto and Maggie Gilmore.

“We were really careful about choosing what to put where to provide maximum accessibility to our collection,” said Casto.

The contents of the MLK Branch were ultimately split into many locations across the DCPL system, including the Historical Society, the Library of Congress, K Street Library Express, the Peabody Room at Georgetown Branch Library, the Goethe-Institute, a storage center at Penn Center and a deep storage location in Maryland.

In terms of accessibility, the biggest exception is the sheet music. “The sheet music was largely neglected,” explained Gilmore, “and there were a lot of people in administration who didn’t understand how that collection is used.” So Gilmore spent time collecting and analyzing statistics around the sheet music – who was using it and why – in order to present the argument that it needs to be preserved.

“[Most of] the sheet music collection won’t necessarily be accessible for the next three years because it is in deep storage,” said Gilmore.
The renovation offers an opportunity for Casto and Gilmore to catch up on other work. “A big part of the move was cleaning up the collection,” said Gilmore, “so that when we come back into the building, we have already weeded out what was too old to be on the shelf any longer or things that weren’t circulating at all.”

“There’s so much we have that people don’t know we have because it isn’t catalogued yet,” added Casto.

PunkArchiveCollection

Above: Flyers donated to the library’s Punk Archive

Another big component to MLK’s music services was Studio Lab–which housed the library’s recording and video production studios. The operation has been temporarily moved to Shepherd Park Neighborhood Library, and continues to offer free classes for library users.

Both librarians are looking forward to MLK Library’s renovation and making use of its new features. “A new rooftop garden and a café downstairs,” are some of the new features Casto is eagerly awaiting.

Gilmore is more excited by the development process. “I am excited to work with the administration in selecting our shelving,” she said. “It seems like a small detail, but it’s incredibly important for a sheet music collection or a vinyl collection.”

Gilmore is hoping to have shelving with more dividers to better support the sheet music binding and prevent it from sagging. She’s also looking to get browsers or bins for the records to ensure they’re preserved more properly. And for both Casto and Gilmore, a new HVAC system will be a blessing; temperature control makes a difference in how well and how long certain items can stored.

For those who want to listen to the library’s record collection, Gilmore is voicing support for listening stations, and she confirms that there will be a new auditorium space as well. “It will be upstairs and more accessible than our old basement auditorium, although it may not be as appropriate for grungy, grimy basement punk shows.”

The library’s popular punk basement shows will come to the surface this summer, as it gears up to host a limited-number of concerts at Woodridge Neighborhood Library’s rooftop. The first one is scheduled for June 14 with Elliott Levin Quartet–featuring David Hotep (Sun Ra Arkestra), Luke Stewart and Nate Scheible–and weed tree.

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  • Michele Casto

    I’d just like to add that the DC Punk Archive collections are accessible during the renovation. Contact me at michele.casto@dc.gov for more info.
    Michele