Martin Luther King Jr library
Photo provided by Martin Luther King Jr. Library

The Newly Restored Martin Luther King Jr. Library is One for the Books!

After three and a half years of renovations and modernization, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library has reopened! While their plans for a multiday reopening celebration have been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, the library, a branch of the D.C. Public Library system, is holding online classes, workshops and enrichment programs that cover topics ranging from Shakespeare to graphic design to languages.

The 48-year-old library was designed by architectural pioneer Mies van der Rohe, known more commonly as just Mies, in the 1960s. In 2017, Dutch Architectural firm Mecanoo was recruited for the remodelings at the prime downtown location, close to Capital One Arena, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. The library was once notorious for being a hideaway for the D.C. homeless population, who would use it for cover from the elements. Its light-deprived interior, along with its severe exterior, led Mecanoo to focus on finding a balance between the dramatic outside and a bright, intuitive, wood-centric core.

In addition to its aesthetic upgrades, such as the restored mural devoted to Martin Luther King Jr. in the main lobby, the library has added a fabrication space in the basement that boasts sewing machines, 3D printers and tool rentals on site. The updates aim to bring about enrichment and skill enhancement opportunities and access to tools beyond those you would usually encounter at the library. Here is a place to use your hands, with tactile elements in every corner. As you climb higher within the building, you encounter inviting reading nooks, modernized seating and colorful art.

The $211-million-dollar renovations provides the library with a chance to connect with the community through unconventional design, and tools that would ordinarily be too expensive or oversized for a 75-square-foot D.C. apartment. Are you looking for a recording studio to try out that new podcast? Or perhaps you’d like to learn about horticulture at a rooftop garden with panoramic views? Maybe you just want to pick up a good book while your kids take turns on a massive wooden slide? The updated library has a little something for everyone.

Library-goers will even be able to convert floppy disks and home video into relevant digital versions at the memory lab, with the help of trained staff members. Kiss those VHS tapes goodbye!

On the same floor is the accessibility center, an embracing, safe space for your children to explore and learn with inclusive tech, such as text-to-speech JAWs readers, ZoomText and MAGic. The Center for Accessibility also hosts classes in ASL and Assistive Technology, along with book clubs, game nights and guest speakers throughout the year. All services are free and open to the public and will run virtually through the time of social distancing. Take a peek at the calendar (dclibrary.org/calendar/monthly).

With D.C. Public Schools remaining online for the remainder of the academic year, the library looks to fill a void in the lives of students, teachers and parents by offering a safe and engaging space to connect and learn. Every school day after 4 p.m., you can tune in with your kids for “Family Learning at the D.C. Public Library” via the library’s official YouTube page. These videos, covering themes related to history, culture, STEM/STEAM and much more are recommended for school-aged children, as well as teens and their families.

If you’re already a library card owner then you have access to more than 15 million free online resources, from movies to e-books to music and online classes – all for free! If you don’t have a library card yet, you can purchase one on the D.C. Public Library website (D.C.library.org/getacard) for $20 and spend the year exploring the massive library of content and resources.

The grand reopening of the branch did not go quite as expected, but the library provides an essential reminder for all of us: the importance of opportunity, education, exposure and, above all else, fun in our communities. It is a space for transcendence, for hands-on experiences, with a namesake that signifies strength, hope and belonging. Before the start of the pandemic, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library was projected to host over 1 million guests per year. While there is no telling when they’ll be able to reach that number in the future, one thing is for sure: they’re ready to open their doors, ushering in a community of free thinkers, learning and growing together.