Photos: Farrah Skeiky
Photos: Farrah Skeiky

Before Renovations, MLK Library Rocked the Stacks

People don’t often associate nightlife with libraries. The fluorescent bulbs hanging above the bookshelves and blinding computer screens shut off when the sun goes down. Past 6 p.m., the only inhabitants in the big buildings are the characters living within the pages bound by spines of different shapes and sizes.

Google told me as much when I put in the address for the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library on February 24. The app powered by perhaps the most in-the-know AI on Earth indicated the building, set for renovations this month, had closed its doors for the night. However, in this case, the infallible search engine was incorrect.

Upon pulling up, the library was indeed alive. Instead of books enclosed in darkness, light emanated through the windows. The MLK Great Hall, where people rarely stopped to meander, was now the center of attention. Tabletops and desks meant for folks checking out the books du jour instead acted as a resting place for buckets containing ice and beer, and wine glasses filled to the brim. Two stages bookended (pun intended) the room, as bands would trade off playing, leaving people to drift from side to side.

Troublemakers hadn’t invaded the city institution. No, this was a celebration for Rock the Stacks, a project dedicated to the memory of Annie Lou Berman, and a loud send-off for the soon-to-be upgraded DC staple.

“I think she would have loved it,” says Linnea D. Hegarty, executive director of the DC Public Library Foundation. “She would have had such a great time at the party. To have gotten these people together is so great. She had friends from a lot of different avenues.”

The genesis of the idea for both the ALB: Rock the Stacks album and its release party began when Berman started her staunch support of the foundation, organizing a fundraiser in 2007 for the Georgetown branch of the library. For a decade, Berman sought to use some of her musical connections to enhance that of the library’s. After her death nearly a year ago, Anna Fuhrman and Hegarty began to actively reprise Berman’s goal of a musical event similar to the 9:30 Club-hosted benefit.

“We wanted to do the album, and a similar benefit,” Hegarty says. “It was an ambitious idea.”

Upon meeting with staples in the music scene like Ben Gilligan and Jerry Busher, the record came together. Artists submitted mostly original or unreleased songs, and the music had to be collected months in advance before the party in late February. The deadline to submit was September 1 at midnight, and it came down to 11:59 p.m.

“We submitted them on the actual deadline,” Hegarty says laughing. “People really pushed hard, and I think we started to see even more how it honored her memory.”

Hegarty says about 400 people congregated in the Great Hall, with the foundation raising $45,000. By all accounts, the first initial foray into a full-blown musical event was successful. People danced under the lights, and because of the cause, a positive energy could be felt throughout the building.

“It was all around love,” Artemis Thompson says. “I’ve done this for 20-something years in DC, and I’ve done a lot of shows where there’s no love, just competition. This one was about positivity. I had a lot of fun onstage and freestyled a whole lot [laughs].”

Thompson was one of the ALB All-Stars, a super group of local talent birthed just for the occasion. It consisted of Thompson, Renell McEwan, Betsy Wright, Amy Farina, Joe Herrera, Matt Rippetoe and Will Rast. Other groups on the album, and at the event, were Warm Sun, Fort Knox Five and many others.

“It was an honor to be a part of it, completely,” Thompson says. “It was an honor to work with Jerry Busher. I was working with one of Fugazi’s members, and that’s one of the most legendary [punk rock] bands in DC. I got to meet other people from the DC scene, and from different genres in the city.”

This project, built on the premise of people getting together and collaboration for a greater cause, is an example of how Berman “had her hands all over the project.”

“One of the things that was so amazing about Annie Lou is how she was always meeting people and connecting with others,” Hegarty says. “Many of these people, I had never worked with, but they felt a true commitment to the project.”

Even though the building housing this night of musical acts is now closed for renovations, the DCPL Foundation will continue to host events focused on the arts in DC. Hegarty assures the city that libraries will continue to play a huge role in the MLK’s absence.

“One of the interesting things about DC is that we’re a city who has grown up with the Smithsonian and other federal institutions,” Hegarty says. “In other cities, the library takes a huge responsibility as a cultural hub. We’re trying to do that for the local culture. We want people to know about go-go and punk, and for people to know the amazing art that happening in the city.”

For more information on the DC Public Library Foundation and its future events, go to www.dcplfoundation.org.

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