New Website DC by the Book Maps the City’s Literary Heritage

At a launch party for the site last night, George Pelecanos, Ann McLaughlin, and other writers discussed Washington’s history in fiction.

By: Emily Thompson

Washington is often cited as one of the most literate cities in the world, but it’s a lesser-known fact that the city also serves as the setting for countless novels. DC Public Library’s Tony Ross and Kim Zablud have set out to expose the vast world of local fiction by creating a new interactive literary website called DC by the Book.

The site provides a database of fiction books that are set in the District, and is based around an interactive map that shows the exact locations described in books that take place within city limits. Readers can enter addresses or ZIP codes to see which books have passages set nearby, and can also submit parts from books to be included on the map. The Institute of Museum and Library Services awarded Ross and Zablud a Technology Act Grant for the project last April, and the two began working on it in October.

The launch party for DC by the Book was at the Chinatown location of Busboys and Poets Wednesday, March 27. Librarians, historians, and avid readers walked through the bustling restaurant into a small room in the back corner of the building at Fifth and K streets, Northwest. The room was only supposed to hold 90 people, but a few more squeezed into the intimate space for a chance to hear about the new website and to see the local authors who had come to support the project.

Ross, who grew up in the area and was wearing a Cool “Disco” Dan shirt, began the program by talking about his initial idea for the map.

“I started to discover there’s this bigger world of DC authors,” he said. “This is a tool that’ll help people learn about their neighborhoods in a different way.”

Zablud then spoke about how she and Ross worked together to build DC by the Book, with the help of librarians in DC Public Library’s Washingtoniana Special Collections, as well as Beekeeper Group, the organization that built the mobile-friendly site. She also explained that they decided to limit the website to fiction to start out, but they may add poetry and nonfiction as the project expands.

For the second part of the evening, emcee and book critic Mark Athitakis introduced local authors as they read excerpts from their Washington-based books. Adam McKible, who discovered the “lost” novel When Washington Was in Vogue by Edward C. Williams, read over soft jazz music from the same period as the Harlem Renaissance-era book. Thomas Mallon also read from Watergate, his 2012 fictionalized account of the Nixon administration.

After the readings, renowned crime writer George Pelecanos and novelist Ann McLaughlin (The House on Q Street) joined the other authors for a panel discussion and audience Q&A.

“I want to write about neighborhoods that have been underrepresented,” said Pelecanos, who grew up in Washington and has written 18 books set in the city. “The books I was reading about Washington were not about the Washington I know.”

Although DC by the Book already has a large base of books mapped on the website, much of the content will come from readers who submit passages from relevant books. Ross ended the event by encouraging everyone in the audience to help grow the site.

“The best thing you can do to support this project is go home and read a book,” he said.