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Later this summer, the collected papers of legendary District homeless activists Mitch Snyder and Carol Fennelly will be archived at George Washington University’s Melvin Gelman Library. The files will supplement Gelman’s growing stacks on the history of the District and surrounding jurisdictions. But unless you are a student or teacher at GW, don’t expect to sample the collection.
Beginning July 14, the Gelman Library will close its doors to university outsiders. Library officials have yet to work out the particulars of the new policy, and have hinted that bona fide researchers may be allowed to arrange appointments to leaf through Gelman’s special collections. But if you’re just some plain old Joe Sixpack looking to browse through microfilm or the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, you’ll get the revolving-door treatment from library security.
GW’s new closed-door policy will reduce the drain on university resources created by outsiders coming in to conduct business research, says university librarian Jack Siggins. From July to December 1996, a whopping 38,000 outsiders made use of the library, he says. “Most of them were from nearby businesses and law firms, because we’re the only game in town in this area,” he says. Users of the District’s crumbling library system could certainly second that notion.
Students are cheering the new restrictions. “Tuition is up an incredible amount, something like 6.9 percent,” says Kuyomars Golparvar, president of the GW Student Association. “Restricting access is unfortunate, but the primary mission of the library is to serve the students.”
But the decision doesn’t sit well with Francine I. Henderson, head of the special collections department at Gelman. “I’m just wondering whether this new policy will make some people who may not have an ID feel that they’re not welcome here,” she says. “I do think it could.” She says she plans to work with library administration to try to loosen the policy once it is implemented.
Don’t bother, say some library connoisseurs. “It’s a third-rate library, at best,” says Bryce Suderow, a Civil War expert and free-lance researcher. “In this town, you develop a sense of the strengths of different libraries. Georgetown is best in foreign policy. Howard has a good African-American collection. GW has no strengths.”
As research libraries go, Gelman isn’t one to bookmark. In terms of the size of its collection, it ranks fourth among the five major academic libraries located in the District, according to the Association of College and Research Libraries. (Those libraries belong to, in order, Howard, Georgetown, Catholic University, GW, and American.)
Siggins launched an ambitious upgrade plan two years ago to put the GW library back on the top shelf. He secured a special $500,000 infusion to beef up the size of the collection and then increased the acquisitions budget by 15 percent two years in a row. The impending access restrictions are part of the plan.
In the eyes of Foggy Bottom residents, though, the library’s bold stroke is part of a grander plan to bully the community, which has watched in horror as the university has gobbled up swaths of residential real estate in its back yard. “Unbelievable,” says Foggy Bottom activist Maria Tyler. “It’s just another slap in the face.”