Page 153 article text (OCR)
Close quarters: The Library of Congress is rich in material, but poor in space and manpower. Photo shows part of the staff at work. by James Ridgeway Alexander Cockburn WASHINGTON, D.C. O ne of the glories of the United States is the Library of Congress. Housing--73.9 million "pieces," 16 million boob, and an endless profusion of manuscripts, films, newspapers, rare letters, historical documents, it is the largest in the world. It is also the central cataloguing agent for the nation. Just as the FBI stores fingerprints, the library keeps the most complete records of the world's published literature. Its nearest rivals, says John G. Lorenz, acting library chief, are probably the Lenin Library in Moscow and the British Museum in London. But it far outstrips them. '" While the library serves the nation, its first responsibility is to Congress. Faced with the information glut poured R out by the 2.5 million federal bureau- crats, Senators and Congressmen rely increasingly on the staff of the library's 2. Congressional Research Service for i facts and figures. I'- This vast storehouse of information, 14 now in its 175th .year, is beset with worsening problems--lack of space, lack of funds, lack of staff. But the problems go deeper. Of the library's 16 million books at least 6 million are literally crumbling. Walk through the marble aisles of the main reading rooms and into the stacks where books are crammed, deck upon deck, and indeed in piles on the floor. There is a musty odor of decaying paper, and everywhere on the floor are rotting books. For the last five years a team of British experts has struggled to halt the insidious decay. For the rarest and most valuable books and documents there is a laborious rescue technique. The crumbling books are carefully dismembered; each page enclosed in a plastic sheath and the book reassembled. But for the others, said Donald Etherington, one of the experts, this technique is too expensive. One possible alternative is to re- move the acid that rots paper. Right now the only way to do this is to treat each sheet individually. But the experts think, and Lorenz is hopeful, a way can be found to treat the 6 million afflicted books on a bulk basis. Each year the library is inundated with 16 million pieces of printed matter. The staff must sift through this paper avalanche, selecting the 3 or 4 million items judged worthy of admission to its shelves. Each book has to be catalogued, then stack attendants must try to squeeze them into the already overloaded shelves. Waiting to read There hasn't been enough room and the books get piled knee-deep on the floor. People seeking to use the library may sit hour upon hour in the reading room, often vainly waiting. They may have traveled hundreds of miles to study a particular book only to get a yellow slip announcing "not on shelf." 'Trying to get a book out of there is just amazing," says a Congressional assistant who has probed the library's problems. "The space shortage is incredible." Stack attendants freely admit that as many as 30 percent of book requests cannot be filled. The main work of the library falls on the shoulders of 4500 employees who spend their days in the stacks, where lighting is often bad and the air unhealthy from the dusty volumes. "You wouldn't believe it," says Bob McCoy, president of the union local in the library. "On the music division deck of the main building people have to wear masks. The material they work with is . literally falling apart, just rotting." Serving Congress While Congress is sympathetic to preserving the world's greatest library, it has its own immediate needs which result in even greater problems. The library is there to serve Congress first and only secondarily to act as custodian of the world's greatest literary collection. Every day in the library's Congressional Research Service, the telephones ring upward of 2000 times. These are urgent calls pouring in from the House , and Senate for information, analysis, long-term research, and every one of them, no matter how seemingly trivial, must be answered with the greatest possible speed. "About half the calls are for information and can be answered on the same day," explains Charles Coodrum, assistant director of the service. "The other half are analytical and take longer." Contrasted with the scholarly hush of the main reading rooms the Research Service offices resemble the city room of a major metropolitan newspaper. Phones ring constantly, computers whir, tickertape machines clatter as the requests are dealt with. The demands on the 600 staffers of the Research Service vary widely. Increasingly the work involves analysis of complex issues and is handled by specialists. But about half the calls are for quick information. "What's the status of the Equal Rights Amendment in Nebraska?" will send a staff member to a computer to key in the query and send a print-out of the answer speeding to the member's office within minutes. Answering the mail Many Congressmen and Senators simply do not have the staffs or time to deal with all their routine constituents' requests. So the service staffers find themselves answering their mail. All in all, the problems of the library seem immense. Preserving the rotting books on microfilm Would cost $200 million, says Lorenz, and now the library spends only $1 million a year on microfilming. But he hopes for the best "We think the microfilming program is making a dent on preserving material and that research will come up with a method of lengthening the life of paper," he said. Meanwhile, every day the technicians struggle to keep the rot from spreading. Lorenz believes progress is being made. Already Congress has helped; the new,, large James Madison Memorial Building is going up right across the street from the main library on Capitol Hill, and when finished, it will at least provide modem storage. Experts are struggling to preserve priceless historical documents like these crumbling 150-year-old newspapers. But they're hampered by lack of funds.