Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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What percentage of the floor space in MLK Library actually holds books?

D.C. Public Library provided me with a few numbers: Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library is 433,036 square feet. Excluding the garage and administrative and mechanical areas, there are 175,215 square feet of space for the public, and that breaks down to 45,615 square feet on the first floor, and 64,800 square feet each on the second and third floors. Unfortunately, DCPL doesn’t keep track of the square footage occupied by its books.

So I headed to MLK with a tape measure in hand. The main shelves in the Popular Library on the first floor are about 295 inches long by 20.5 inches wide, or 42 square feet. There are 24 of those shelves, so they occupy 1,008 square feet. Add in the three lower shelves near the center of the room (169 square feet), the four shelves flanking the doors to the room (33 square feet), the display lining the lobby wall (46 square feet), the hold books (51 square feet), and the Martin Luther King Jr. display by the entrance (19 square feet), and you’ve got 1,326 square feet of books. That’s 2.9 percent of the total first-floor space.

Lest that sound puny, a few caveats. First, the second floor, with two general reading rooms, a children’s room, and a teen room, definitely has a higher proportion of book space. Second, the library has functions other than to house books: The first floor boasts the new 11,000-square-foot Digital Commons, hosts events in the large lobby, and serves as a place for homeless residents to stay warm and recharge. And finally, the anticipated renovation of the library could easily add an atrium or other features that would reduce total available square footage and make the building feel more book-dense.