A Man on the Inside:
MLK Library Through the Years
I recently had the chance to catch up with Information Specialist Glen Wells of the downtown Martin Luther King Jr. Library. I first met Glen in the early 80s, soon after meeting my former wife, a librarian. It’s amazing that he was the face of that library for at least 30 years. I went through there for the occasional event or Friends of the Library meeting, but never frequently enough to notice this was his permanent post. He had his finger on the pulse of MLK. He knew the people. If you needed to find something or someone, he could tell you where to find it or at least where to start looking. (Though he didn’t know to worn me about the faculty elevator I got stuck in years ago). He was a confident, friendly and welcoming face – which is important when he’s the first face you see in the central branch of the library of the nation’s capital. I’d say that’s second only to the Library of Congress.
I found Glen pushing what may have been the last cart full of books on the afternoon of March 4, just before MLK Library closed its doors for the next – so they say – three years.
Ken Martin: What does this library mean to you?
Glen Wells: [The MLK mural] has always been a good point of reference for me because every time I see it, I remember when they first brought it in. It hadn’t dried. It was still wet. And we always kidded each other that Dr. King’s eyes would follow you all over the whole building. Every time I come in, till today, I still take great advantage of going through the mural and all the changes we’ve been through. It’s an interesting place to work and that is what kept me coming all of these years. There was always a host of expert librarians that would tell you anything that you wanted to know about any subject in the world. They spoke all different kinds of languages. I knew who to go to for what information I needed.
KM: My favorite spot in here has always been Washingtonian. It brings back so many memories of this town and what our community did in this town: what “Chocolate City” was really all about.
GW: Not to mention they had a historian. His name was Mr. Keys. He is an old Georgetown pioneer and I think he dies at a hundred years old. I could sit there and talk with Mr. Keys and he would give me a whole semester in about an hour. He was so knowledgeable. Another really interesting person was Quadir Madyun. He was the chief of the Black Studies and Philosophy Department and a student of Wallace Deen Muhammad. Madyun was so engaging and knowledgeable that I became a student myself and am still a student of Wallace Lee Muhammad. There were so many different departments: Technology, Business, Black Studies (one of my favorites), Sociology… I work in all of the departments doing everything. I never finished my degree, but learned so much that I didn’t think I needed one. I knew more than the professors know – the people that were supposed to know.
KM: Those sound like the right qualifications to land you on the information desk. How many years were you the first face someone saw when they came in here?
GW: I’mma stop at 30, but I’m sure it may have been much longer than that because I have seen children grow up here. I say, “I remember you. How old are you now?” And they are married and have children and grandchildren. I always wanted to treat people as if they were coming to my home. I would treat them just how I would want to be treated.
KM: Well, I’ve always been amazed at how close-knit the staff is: more than any other agency in District government. Even though you were separated and delegated to different parts of the city, you still had a family unit that was tight.
GW: Absolutely. We wanted to keep that presence and that is what I tried to present when persons came into this library.
KM: I think that is the reason why people keep coming back and the reason why you foster friends in the community. I don’t see that in other agencies. You’ve got community support as opposed to community complaints.
GW: Well, when a person come in and find out that they are welcome and that everybody comes in that door is welcome, they come back. And vice versa. If you go some place and find out that you are not welcome, you don’t return and you tell everyone else, “Don’t go there, they are going to treat you bad there.” I just hope that the renovation will still keep the same warmth of the library. For example, on the campus of Duke University I was overwhelmed by the buildings and the monstrosity of the whole thing. But on the campuses of Howard University and Hampton University I felt right at home. I hope this building keeps that same sense of warmth and you won’t become overwhelmed with technology.
KM: I think it needs to be a place where people feel at home. What are you expectations for homeless people that come here on a day-to-day basis, as a result of the renovation.
GW: I would hope it would become a center where they can pick up where they left off.
Glen has been reassigned to the Tenleytown branch of D.C. Library. This is an excellent addition to that branch because of his sensitivity to homeless patrons.
Ken Martin is an artist and vendor for Street Sense. This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.