Archiving Washington: The People’s Archive Creates Accessible D.C. History

A crowd gathers at the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. Photo credit: DC Public Library.

Timing is a funny thing. After learning about the journey of The People’s Archive (originally known as the Special Collections department of the DC Public Library) and their mission to create more efficient digitization, timing seems to look less funny and more like fate (or really good planning).

Over the past few years, the DC Public Library’s archive staff has laid significant groundwork for advancing their digitization and customer service. Essential elements of this plan came together just in time to help enhance reference services for researchers during the COVID-19 pandemic and provide access to important historic and cultural collections at a time of civil unrest.

As we honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and witness a new presidential inauguration this week, today’s blog looks at the Archive’s critical work to preserve and make accessible the stories of D.C.’s culture and its people.


About The People’s Archive and the
D.C. Public Library (DCPL)

Founded in 1896, the DCPL system now has 26 branches across the District’s eight wards. The Special Collections department of the system was renamed The People’s Archive to better reflect their mission “to connect [any researcher that seeks information] to unique resources that illustrate the District of Columbia’s local history and culture.”[i]

The archive is located on the fourth floor of the Systems’ newly renovated flagship branch, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, and holds reference materials and collections depicting life and history in the nation’s Capital. The archive’s three main collections include:

Joseph Curtis, an amateur photographer and historian whose entire photo collection is on the DIG DC site, stands on the steps of a Washington, D.C. home with family after the end of World War II. Photo credit: D.C. Public Library
  • Black Studies: Established in 1970, the Black Studies division grew from a “growing demand for circulated books by and about African Americans among Washingtonians.”[ii] The collection includes thousands of materials, including a 15,000-volume book collection, relating to the Black experience in the United States and throughout African diaspora.
  • Peabody Room: Located off-site at the DCPL’s Georgetown Library branch, this collection includes photos, maps, microfilmed newspapers, paintings, engravings and artifacts detailing the history of D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood.
  • Washingtoniana Collection: The oldest of the archive’s holdings contains millions of books, census records, directories, genealogical records, maps, newspapers, postcards, photos, real estate records and more materials from the late 18th Century to present day which depict life and culture in Washington, D.C. The collection also includes the D.C. Community Archives (also known as DigDC) which holds archival materials from individuals, families and organizations that have played significant roles in the political, artistic and social development of D.C.

There are numerous other collections within the archive such as the recent “Archive This Moment D.C.” project – a collection of public Instagram posts that illustrate daily life in D.C. during the initial period of the COVID-19 pandemic (March 25, 2020 to May 28, 2020). If you’ve ever visited the 9:30 Club or are a music lover, the D.C. Punk Archive holds posters, zines, fliers and more from the capital’s transcendent punk rock scene. The department also documents and collects the history and culture of Go-Go, the official music of Washington, D.C. Established in May 2012 after the death of Chuck Brown, “the Godfather of Go-Go”, the Go-Go Archive collection’s content includes oral histories, research files, photographs and over 10,000 archived tweets related to the growing #DontMuteDC movement.

The Road to Digitization

Workers install the Martin Luther King, Jr. mural by artist Don Miller in MLK’s memorial library. Originally unveiled to the public in 1986, the mural was restored as a part of the library’s renovation efforts. Photo credit: DC Public Library.

Kerrie Cotten Williams, Manager of The People’s Archive, offered insight into the past, present and future of the Archive’s digitization efforts.

The People’s Archives’ approach to digitization has been on a per-request basis. In the past, requested materials that could not be scanned in-house on traditional copiers were outsourced to a vendor for capture and the digital images were then sent to the user. The Archive would sometimes keep a digital copy of the images for future use. This approach significantly elongated the timeline in which images were delivered to the users and proved to be costly since the project sizes were typically very small.

A few years ago, the archive digitization team developed a strategic plan for the future of their digitization and digital preservation projects and how they could improve the customer’s experience while being more cost effective. Three tasks were at the top of the list to start evolving the reference and collections processes:

  1. Purchase an in-house scanner to fulfill image requests more swiftly while also providing a key tool to begin concentrated digitization projects on collections and other reference materials.
  2. Create a virtual reference request process to allow material copy inquiries to come in via a webpage, further streamlining their information request process. Email and phone queries remained another means to accept requests.
  3. Focus on staff and training to better facilitate researcher and internal needs
The Zeutschel 12000 A1 offers archival quality capture and fast capture speeds.

Two years ago, the archive staff began the search for a high-quality scanner. They chose the Zeutschel 12000 A1 for its ability to scan a variety of materials and its ease-of-use. Funding for the scanner was possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The scanner delivery and staff training was timed so that the unit would be operational for the reopening of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library after the completion of its three year, $211 million building renovation.

After training five team members on the scanner, the archive did a test run by capturing a small print run of Blacklight Magazine, a Black LGBTQ publication from the 1980s. Williams emphasizes, “The test allowed us to see what the possibilities could be for the rest of our collections and got us really excited about future possibilities.” She continues, “Generally, our team has been surprised at how easy and fast the scanner is to use.”

Women sitting at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool near Resurrection City in 1968. Photo credit: D.C. Public Archive

Around the same time the scanner became operational, the virtual reference portal went online, thus connecting the first two crucial elements in creating a streamlined process. “Our new virtual process has been a game changer,” says Williams. “Visitors aren’t allowed inside the library at this time because of the social distancing guidelines during the pandemic. The combination of the virtual request process and the scanner came at the perfect time to allow us to deliver images to customers quickly and in good quality while being cost-effective.”

The scanner is being used to fulfill the influx of digitization requests that come into the archive while the physical building remains closed to the public. The People’s Archive team is poised to continue their strategic plan and will eventually begin scanning full archive collections on the scanner.

Many of the digital images captured on the Zeutschel will be added to the DIG DC web portal where previously captured images and oral histories are already posted for worldwide access.

As the world turns its eyes to Washington this week, I encourage you to browse through the digital offerings of The People’s Archive. From the determined faces of protestors to the joyful smiles of school children and families, the Archive will offer you a peak into the deep history of our nation’s capital and its citizens. We at Crowley look forward to seeing the many digitization and access successes that The People’s Archives and the D.C. Public Library will have with their 12000 overhead scanner in the future!

Want to Preserve Your Community Stories?

Crowley’s knowledgeable imaging and hardware experts and network of industry professionals can support first-time and ongoing archive digitization projects for any collection size or type. Call (240) 215-0224 or click here for more information on scanning hardware or to speak with a member of our team.

Hannah Clawson, Crowley's former Communications Coordinator, cultivated a profound passion for historic preservation and held a deep appreciation for the company's clients and their invaluable contributions. You may still likely find her exploring local coffee shops, writing about her favorite bands, or enjoying a local rock show.




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