Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the D.C. Public Libraries (DCPL), has a Zoom backdrop of the newly renovated Martin Luther King Jr. flagship library. It displays the facility’s ample light, airy structure and lively design—but what he’s most excited about is actually up on the roof. “We’ve known for a while that the need for outdoor space is more important than ever,” he says. “A few weeks ago the New York Times ran an article about libraries and outdoor integration. And we already have it, here, with our rooftop deck.” The 20,000-square-foot MLK Library rooftop is a safe, beautiful space on which to enjoy library materials, or just to get a little vitamin D in the midst of a study break.

Speaking of those library materials, one of the new programs Reyes-Gavilan wants librarians to know about is Beyond the Book, designed to get students from ages five to eight involved in activities related to a specific title with their families. “It’s about activating reading in ways other than just putting a book in someone’s hands,” he says. “We’ve had this gnawing feeling for a long time that we are not doing enough for children who have graduated out of the Books from Birth program. Third grade, as most teachers and librarians know, is a very important milestone for student learning. If you can read at grade level by the time you reach third grade, it is an indicator for future success.”

Future success will, most likely, involve future use of libraries—and, Reyes-Gavilan says, “you want to set the foundation, in libraries, for the exchange of ideas and information, in a welcoming way.” In the DCPL, every renovation completed in the past decade or so has “prioritized space for people more than in the past, when it was, you know, books front and center,” he adds. “Now we’re prioritizing learning spaces, idea spaces, partnership spaces.” A recent Night of Ideas held in conjunction with the French Embassy involved “incredible conversations with a really nice diverse crowd, on subjects from immigration to global warming.”

Cultivating that type of programming serves the library’s mission, which, in Washington, is closely tied to civil rights. “From the legacy of Dr. King to our city still not having voting rights in Congress, a lot of what we do here in to provide programming around basic human rights,” Reyes-Gavilan says. At the ALA annual conference, Reyes-Gavilan and colleagues will speak on a panel titled “What’s in a Name: Renovating a Library Named After Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” talking about programs “inspired by King’s vision of justice, equity, and civil rights,” he explains. “That permeates everything from our children’s programming to our special-collections programming.”

The DCPL has long focused on highlighting diverse authors, including in its One Book, One City program, where it chooses authors of color “almost exclusively,” and by offering book distribution through the DC Public Libraries Foundation, which reaches “people who may not have the time or inclination to attend a regular library program,” Reyes-Gavilan says. He says it often works with independent bookstores, including Black-owned Mahogany Books in Anacostia, to buy 100 copies of a book to give out locally. He also says he is sensitive to libraries “stepping out of their lanes” and conducting services that might better be done by other community groups, noting that when something is done in keeping with library location and purpose, “it provides a new type of visibility for libraries, and the benefits to the libraries as institutions will be long lasting.”

Since Washington’s libraries are “more or less evenly distributed around the city,” Reyes-Gavilan believes that the next program district libraries will be involved in is crucial. “We are participating in a massive device distribution program, along with the city’s chief technology officer, to get 10,000 internet-ready items out to those who need them,” he says. “These won’t be on loan. We’re saying this is something that people need in order to live. The devices won’t be handed out first come, first served. We’re working with government agencies like the Department of Aging and Community Living who have identified users.”

The DCPL executive director has his own history as a library user that influences his vision for the institution he currently stewards. Having grown up as the child of Cuban immigrants in Queens, N.Y., Reyes-Gavilan often escaped his family’s small apartment by heading to the local library. However, “I wasn’t a big reader,” he confesses. “That came later, but I loved the anonymity of the library. I could fidget with a lot of things. I was a real dilettante in some ways, which is a great attribute for librarians. I loved the microfilm readers, the dumbwaiter they used for special requests; it was like a factory and I loved exploring it. I hope that aspect of discovery hasn’t been completely lost in our age of smartphones.”

There will be plenty for ALA attendees to discover this year, since during the previous ALA conference held in the city in 2019, the MLK Library was still under construction. “On May 17, we learned we won the American Institute of Architects/American Library Association prize,” Reyes-Gavilan says. “We were one of five libraries across the country to do so—and we’ve won national historic preservation awards, too. But I mention those awards so that people will know how intentional we were in making the building reflect

Dr. King in ways beyond two-dimensional. I think people are going to be pretty impressed.”

He adds, “Going back to my own personal original interest in libraries, which wasn’t necessarily about books and reading, I want to say: we’ve built a space for people. In some ways, what people do here once they come in is of less interest to me than just getting them here in the first place. I don’t want to tell anyone what they have to do here. I may try to sell you on a great program or inform you about some kind of class but, you know, just coming here and experiencing the building’s overwhelming optimism is well worth everyone’s time. Go up on the roof and take in the city. It’s free. It’s the pinnacle of what I think a government can do for its people. It’s really cool to be a part of that.”

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