Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of DC Public Library, poses on one of the newly renovated stairwells created by OTJ Architects and Mecanoo.

Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of DC Public Library, poses on one of the newly renovated stairwells created by OTJ Architects and Mecanoo.

The D.C. Public Library has completed a three-and-a-half-year, $211 million renovation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, and the critics are loving it. The main branch boasts dramatic art, winding staircases and a rooftop garden. There’s even a slide in the children’s reading room.

But the re-opening of the main branch comes in the midst of a pandemic and unprecedented challenges for public library system.

Some librarians say branches opened prematurely and put staff and patrons at risk. Others worry that the libraries, which often serve as a safety net for those who lack shelter and computers, haven’t provided enough for District residents in need and won’t be able to support students forced to learn online during the coming school year.

We talk to DCPL Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan about how the library is trying to live up to the challenges of 2020.

Produced by Lauren Markoe


  • Richard Reyes-Gavilan Executive Director, D.C. Public Library; @dcpl


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast a new book by podcast hosts "Call Your Girlfriend" traces their big Friendship.

  • 12:00:14

    KOJO NNAMDIBut first in the heart of Penn Quarter the main branch of the D.C.'s Public Library has maintained its impressive modernist façade for nearly half a century. But anyone who has visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in recent years also knows that this impressive shell covered a dark and dingy interior.

  • 12:00:32

    KOJO NNAMDINow after three and a half years and $211 million the library is full of light, art and amenities that may surprise you. We'll talk about the newly renovated main library. We're also going to talk about public library branches across the District and how they're trying to balance their mission to serve with the risks of welcoming people back to the stacks. Joining me now to discuss this is Richard Reyes-Gavilan the Executive Director of the D.C. Public Library. Richard, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:00:59

    RICHARD REYES-GAVILANKojo, it's so great to be back.

  • 12:01:01

    NNAMDIRichard, we'll get to some of the safety concerns about reopening libraries including concerns from librarians later. But I want to start with the renovation of the main library. You have described a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library before the renovation as a punishing experience. For those who have never visited the District's main library, what did you mean by that? What was wrong with that building?

  • 12:01:24

    REYES-GAVILANWell, Kojo, I think you described it pretty accurately in your intro. The building was dark. It was dingy. There was a tremendous amount of just interior yellow brick, this buff yellow brick that we figured out very early on in the design process wasn't structural. So it could be removed. There was very little sense of way finding, meaning that you didn't really quite know what to do when you go into the building. And when you found the stairs you were often confused about where to go. Again, the darkness, the lack of any type of, you know, optimism, the lack of really any great destination is something that all of our visitors experienced coming into that building for many years.

  • 12:02:12

    NNAMDIGive us a general idea of what the library feels like today now that the renovation is complete.

  • 12:02:18

    REYES-GAVILANWell, I've got to tell you, Kojo, and I, of course, am biased as the Director of the library system, but I have been in the building on many many tours with Washingtonians and members of the media. And overwhelmingly the reaction is that they could not believe that it is the same building once you start exploring the interiors. The amount of natural light, the amount of space, the ceilings feel higher, the air smells cleaner and feels fresher. You can look at all four sides of the building at one time. There's a real just sense of energy. There's a sense of joy. There's a sense of delight. These are the concepts that we've been talking about for years with our renovated neighborhood libraries, but something that was certainly lacking with the MLK library.

  • 12:03:16

    REYES-GAVILANBut we have finally achieved all those wonderful characteristics of 21st century libraries. They make you want to come in. They make you want to stay for long periods of time to explore and to better yourself. Not just through getting a book, but maybe by attending a program. Maybe by about being inspired through a short walk through an outdoor reading garden or attending a lecture or a workshop. There's just so much that is going on in that space in the new building that people are going to be just overwhelmed with options and happiness. And that's something that I think, you know, we all need in desperate amounts right now.

  • 12:04:00

    NNAMDIYou planned a reopening of the library on September 24th. Given where we are in the pandemic, can that still happen?

  • 12:04:06

    REYES-GAVILANIt can, Kojo. So right now September 24th is our targeted date. We're very happy to say that the building was built on time and on budget. It's very important for me to get that in there. And so September 24th is the date that we have planned. How big or small the opening will be, I think that remains to be seen. It's certainly not going to be the four day extravaganza that we had been talking about back in January or in 2019. It could be something much more limited. It could only be just opening the doors to the first floor, which has the public computers, a new café, our most popular and new reading materials and a little outdoor patio.

  • 12:04:57

    REYES-GAVILANSo we are still figuring out what the various options might be for reopening, but we are crossing our fingers that we will be able to reopen. We will be planning a larger extravaganzas and grand openings I think probably in 2021, again, pandemic permitting, of course.

  • 12:05:19

    NNAMDIRichard, let's talk about some of the new features of the library starting with what I have been made to understand is your favorite, the curving staircases. What do they look like and what was the intention in building them?

  • 12:05:31

    REYES-GAVILANWell, Kojo, I think the biggest, I think architectural defect that the old MLK Library had was the inability for individuals to find their way through the building in any logical way. And probably the most important concept that we discussed with our architect very early on is create this -- almost like this sense of adventure. Our inimitable Dutch Architecture Francine Houben from Mecanoo described it as creating a journey of learning. So we wanted to spend a lot of time creating a beautiful staircase. In fact, now we have two. And we also wanted to expose those staircases. So we were able to remove a lot of the brick in the entrance of the building so people could actually see where the public stairwells were.

  • 12:06:26

    REYES-GAVILANAnd so there is just going to be a desire to take those stairs to wherever they go. And, you know, you will find something phenomenal on every single floor of that building up through the reading garden. And I should say quickly that, you know, understanding that now everyone can take stairs, we still wanted to make sure that people could appreciate the beauty of those winding stairs. So we have elevators banks within the staircases themselves. So if you are getting off the elevator, you can still appreciate that sense of grandeur that sense of moving upward.

  • 12:07:04

    NNAMDIWell, I was frankly a little surprised that your favorite feature was the staircases, because I think despite not being a child anymore that I would have chosen the slide. Can you talk about that? And the children's and teen's section.

  • 12:07:17

    REYES-GAVILANYeah. Absolutely, Kojo. The slide is going to be a big hit. There's no way around it and it was very important for us to introduce something that is just pure unadulterated fun to that library. And so we reclaimed a little bit of space in a stairwell and we found a perfect location for a slide that won't bother anybody, who's doing serious work. It won't bother readers. It won't bother researchers. And it will just be this little opportunity for a kind of a playground in the middle of the city and in the library. You likely saw Mikaela Lefrak fly down that slide a week or two ago.

  • 12:08:01

    REYES-GAVILANSo she tested it and it works fine. And I think kids are going to love it. And it really represents everything that we tried to accomplish with that building, which is to make it more joyful to combine learning with recreation. And to really give the city just something that they can absolutely love and be proud of. So that slide connects the children's room down to -- close to the first floor, not quite down to the first floor. But children and teens are going to have this, you know, purpose built space. A little story time amphitheater, lots of little reading nooks, just spaces where they can feel as though this is their home.

  • 12:08:40

    REYES-GAVILANAnd the teens, of course, are going to have a space in which they can do some hanging out. They've got study rooms that they can book for periods of time. And they've got lots of other options within the entire building not just in the teen space. And I should say that I'm very proud that the Library Board of Trustees a few months ago voted to name our teen room after legendary educator and painter Alma Thomas. That's really, I think, important commemorative for us.

  • 12:09:13

    REYES-GAVILANThere's a terrific group of Alma Thomas aficionados in the city, who donated, I believe, 12 small Alma Thomas paintings to the library. So we will be displaying some of those paintings. But more importantly using those paintings as a tool by which to educate students about the history of the city. So lots of exciting stuff going on for kids and teens.

  • 12:09:34

    NNAMDIHere's Peter in Washington D.C. Peter, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:09:38

    PETERGood afternoon. My questions is about the books in the library. I'm artist and I used to use the library constantly as a reference for many things. And the book collection slowly just went away. You stopped buying new books. And the new branch libraries have only the most generic and superficial art books in them. And you can't use any of the university libraries. UDC will let you in, but you can't use the copying machine without a card. So I'm just wondering about like the books in the library.

  • 12:10:16


  • 12:10:17

    REYES-GAVILANYes. Thanks for the question. Of course, one of the most important attributes of a central library in a city is to serve as that repository for deeper collections. Collections that don't fit or may not be appropriate for a small 15 or 20,000 square foot neighborhood library. So I would like to assure the caller that we are paying a tremendous amount of attention to the need for a deeper collection not only in the arts, but across the humanities. And it is something that we will be building, I think with city funding.

  • 12:10:53

    REYES-GAVILANAnd in fact, we are looking to work with our great partners the D.C. Public Library Foundation to help add to that depth and breadth, because we know how critical it is for people, who may not have access to university libraries to be able to get those academic titles and titles that may not necessarily be best-sellers, but are still crucial to the work of our residents.

  • 12:11:17

    NNAMDIIzeta tweets, "I'm really very eager to know and hear about the accessibility of the building from the elevators to other accessibility features." And Maurice couldn't stay on the line, but wants to know, "In the new MLK Library, why did they not provide a room on the first floor for the center for people with disabilities as opposed to having them go upstairs. I'm asking that, I'm thinking back to an earthquake that happened a few years ago. People with disabilities were not on the ground floor. And it was hard for them to evacuate." Richard, we only have about a minute left in this segment.

  • 12:11:47

    REYES-GAVILANSure. So in terms of the program planning for the building, I'd have to go back about five years. But we wanted to make sure that our center for accessibility was in the appropriate space in the building with the proper adjacencies. There are many elevators in the new building and it's one story up in the second floor.

  • 12:12:10


  • 12:12:11

    REYES-GAVILANYep, okay.

  • 12:12:12

    NNAMDII'm afraid that's all the time we have in this segment. But Richard Reyes-Gavilan will be with us when we come back. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:45

    NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Richard Reyes-Gavilan, the Executive Director of the D.C. Public Library. And so far we have been talking about the grand renovation of the MLK Library, which is set to reopen on September 24th. But I wanted to get to some of the safety issues amid a pandemic. Early in the pandemic, all library branches were closed. How many are open now and how are they operating differently than before, Richard?

  • 12:13:12

    REYES-GAVILANSure. Thanks, Kojo. So at the moment we've got 14 of our 25 neighborhood libraries are open for what we call take-out plus. But what I'll describe that as a very limited access to those 14 buildings. If you want to borrow a book you need to place a hold on that book. And that book will be waiting for you more or less at the buildings entrance in the vestibule there. Residents, unfortunately, still do not have access to our reading rooms, to our program spaces, our study spaces. All those spaces remain off limits. But we wanted to make sure that we could at least get people their books. The other important thing that we are offering currently in those 14 branches is limited access to public computing. So, you know, typically we might have 20 or 25 computers available in one of our branches.

  • 12:14:14

    REYES-GAVILANRight now we're probably offering depending on the library maybe four to eight computers just so that people can be appropriately distanced while they're using those computers. So those are the two major functions that are taking place in those 14 open locations. However, full building access is not what we are offering now. And, you know, we look forward to doing that at some point, but we're not there yet.

  • 12:14:44

    NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you're quarantining books after they're returned to the library. Can you explain that practice?

  • 12:14:50

    REYES-GAVILANSure, Kojo. So file this under the abundance of caution. We are following best practices of libraries around the country, who are following closely a study that is being funded in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. We are quarantining books now for 96 hours upon their return in order to just be 100 percent absolutely sure that there can be no trace of the virus on any of the surfaces of the material that comes back. So material comes back into our building and we hold on to them. We don't touch them as much as humanly possible for four days at which point we can begin processing them for getting them back on the shelves or getting them ready for their next reader.

  • 12:15:44

    NNAMDISome librarians have noted that DCPL began opening its branches earlier than those in many neighboring jurisdictions. And they say they don't feel safe on the job. Staff have also complained that they haven't been told when colleagues have become ill. Here for instance is Joy in Washington D.C. Joy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:16:03

    JOYI am an avid patron at one of the branches. And it is my understanding although it's never been confirmed by the library that you had a personnel test positive for COVID. My concern is I have inquired of the library no one is allowed to confirm that. And I think you owe a responsibility to both the patrons and the public about this. I have inquired with your union. I have an inquiry into the American Association of Librarians. Is there a best practice for this? Are you following best practice? And what can I do as a patron and a neighbor to be safe? As well as can you finally confirm that you did have a COVID positive personnel?

  • 12:16:56


  • 12:16:57

    REYES-GAVILANThanks, Kojo and thanks, Jay. So in terms of what the library can share, we need to be very careful about divulging any information that may need to a staff member's privacy being compromised. That said as we continue to work on refining our communications with the mayor's office, I think we are going to be a little bit more flexible in what we can share. I will say this that it is really important for those of us who understand at least a modicum of what it means to find the close contacts of people who have tested positive for the coronavirus that not everyone who enters into a building with someone who has a positive test is considered a close contact.

  • 12:17:48

    REYES-GAVILANSo the library's Human Resources Department begins the contact tracing procedure by determining who a staff member may have worked closely with. And then the Department of Health's contact tracers would also follow up with other close contacts, but again, it's really important to understand that a close contact is not just somebody who may have been in a building. A close contact is defined as someone who has spent significant time with somebody, about 15 minutes perhaps in close contact. And there is some other factors there. But I want to assure the caller that just coming into a building is not unsafe based on someone having possibly tested positive.

  • 12:18:39

    NNAMDIJay, thank you for you call. I don't know if you've answered Teresa's question. But Teresa you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:18:47

    TERESAHi. I wanted to follow up. My question was similar around what kind of precautions were going to be taken if a staff member was exposed to someone, just what the actual staff of the library, what kind of protections they would have as well. Thank you.

  • 12:19:03


  • 12:19:04

    REYES-GAVILANSo we, again, follow the guidance that has been provided to us by the Department of Health. It's very clear and it's very detailed. In the event that a staff member lets us know that he or she has tested positive that staff member is told to stay home or go home and begin the process, by which they will get tested. If we determined that that staff member has some close contacts, then we will have those close contacts also stay at home for a 14 day quarantine. I should mention that one of the things that we're doing at least for the time being is making sure that our staff work in cohorts to facilitate contact tracing.

  • 12:19:49

    REYES-GAVILANSo, you know, in a normal word we often have staff going back and forth. And, you know, filling in in teams. We're trying to avoid that as much as possible in order that we know who is working who. I should also say and, again, I'll stress that staff are compelled to wear masks and they're also compelled to stay away from each other, not just from the public. So if at all humanly possible we are stressing the need for staff to stay at least six feet away from each other and not just from the public.

  • 12:20:23

    NNAMDIEven though the District's libraries were closed for months they still lent out more books than before the pandemic. Can you describe the increases in demand for library materials and how the DCPL meet this demand?

  • 12:20:35

    REYES-GAVILANSure, Kojo. And I think I talked a little bit about this when I was on your show a few months ago. You know, we pivoted back in March to a, you know, complete virtual structure. And the demand on the libraries e-books and other electronic material has been just phenomenal and it doesn't seem to be abating. And so solving some of the needs for library material through our online suite of services and collections is great. Of course, we also know that there are individuals that don't use the libraries online collections. And I think that's one of the reasons it's very important for us to at least begin to provide this modicum of access to our physical materials.

  • 12:21:27

    REYES-GAVILANWe still have, you know, hundreds of thousands of items that have been checked out prior to the pandemic that are still coming back. And, you know, if you go to some of our neighborhood libraries you'll see lines out the door for people, who are picking up their physical materials. So it's a balancing act. But it's important for us to be able to provide people, you know, their reading material. In so many ways, I think the library provides people not just information, but, again, recreation and things that might help take their minds off whatever else is going on in the city or the country or the world. And it's something that, you know, we take very seriously.

  • 12:22:05

    NNAMDIOnly about 20 seconds left. But libraries have been a haven for people experiencing homelessness. Are they coming back to libraries as they open?

  • 12:22:11

    REYES-GAVILANWell, anybody who needs access to a computer can come to one of our open libraries and wait and get on a computer. So I will say that many people need access to technology, and we've seen that very clearly since the beginning of March.

  • 12:22:29

    NNAMDIOkay. Richard Reyes-Gavilan is the Executive Director of the D.C. Public Library. Thank you so much for joining us. When we come back, a new book by podcast host "Call Your Girlfriend" traces their big friendship. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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