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Washingtoniana marks its centennial
(Published January 24, 2005)

Staff Writer

Tucked away on the third floor of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in downtown Washington is the largest collection of local history and artifacts, dating back to the 1700s.

Called "Washingtoniana," signifying the relationship of everything within its walls to the history of its namesake city, this special division of the D.C. Public Library marks the centennial of its founding this year.

"For us to reach 100 years of actively collecting the history of Washington, D.C., is something we should be proud of," said Monica Lewis, the library's director of communications.

Lewis said the centennial celebration, which kicks off Jan. 27, will be a year-long event, because the exact date of Washingtoniana's creation is one part of local history that has not been collected. It was in 1905 that librarian George Bowerman first established the Washingtoniana collection, occupying space in a single room in the Central Library. Its mission was to collect and preserve the history of the nation's capital.

"I think he [Bowerman] would be so proud to see what started as a little germ in his head has blossomed," said current Washingtoniana Division chief Karen Blackman-Mills.

For the staff of the Washingtoniana Division, being able to sustain and expand the collection over its 100-year history reflects the determination and passion that D.C. residents have for their city.

"It means that history is not lost," Blackman-Mills said.

As times changed, so did the Washingtoniana Division. The collection played a musical chairs type game within the Central Library for years, moving from room to room before being relocated to its current spot in the 1970s. The division briefly closed its doors during World War II.

One constant about the Washingtoniana Division is its ever-growing collection. By purchase or donation the collection prides itself on having some of the rarest items relating to the history of the District.

"The reason why it's so large is because we've been doing it so long and so well," said Blackman-Mills. "We have a name and recognition and people like that."

Its name and recognition helped secure Washingtoniana's prized possession: a collection of more than one million photographs and 13 million article clippings spanning over 100 years from the Washington Star newspaper, which went out of business in August 1981. Though the Washington Post Co., publisher of the Washington Post newspaper, owns the rights to the Star's collection, its addition to the Washingtoniana Division made an impact like no other previous gift, officials said.

Washingtoniana competed to get the Star's collection with several other institutions, including the Library of Congress and George Washington University. Blackman-Mills said that it was the library's promise to open the collection to the public that won it the donation.

Library staff emphasize that public access to Washingtoniana's full collection of the District's rich history shouldn't come at a cost to library patrons.

"It doesn't cost you a dime to get into this place," said Lewis. "We just want to publicize what we have."

Library patrons use the Washingtoniana collection for various reasons. One recent patron was doing research about the property values around Metro stations.

"I couldn't find the data anywhere else," she said.

Another patron stumbled into the room to look at the exhibit on the emancipation of slaves in the District.

"You can find things that are unique and historical here," he said.

With only nine staff members, the Washingtoniana Division continues to collect anything and everything relating to the District. Within its walls patrons are able to see maps of the District dating back to the 1800s when the Anacostia River was called the Eastern Branch, or what Georgetown looked liked 100 years ago.

Perhaps among the more impressive parts of the Washingtoniana Division are its subtleties. The library's Community Collection features countless documents and articles relating to the lives of D.C. residents as far back as the 1700s. One exhibit features an 1822 city directory which list the names, addresses and occupations of D.C. residents at the time.

"Everything in here is a treasure," Blackman-Mills said.

It is the Washingtoniana's treasures that has attracted Pulitzer Prize winning authors and news organizations to be among its researchers, spawning numerous books on topics from slavery to genealogy.

The snowball growth that Washingtoniana has experienced during its lifespan may be largely due to its dedicated staff, who perform tasks including helping patrons, preserving documents and grant proposals, and collecting library material.

"You have to be completely immersed [in Washingtoniana]," said Blackman-Mills. "There is no getting rich here; we are grossly under-funded."

Blackman-Mills said the library's inadequate funding limits the amount of work the staff can do. But she stresses that as the collection continues to grow, available room continues to shrink, and the Washingtoniana Division's shabby appearance hardly befits a 100-year legacy.

"We would like to see [the division's quarters] spruced up a little," Blackman-Mills said.

Blackman-Mills noted that the mayor has been supporting a proposed new central library on the site of the old Washington Convention Center. She said the staff also hopes to someday be able to post its collection of photos online to make them more accessible to the public.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator