An ocean of books


Back in the 1950s when I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois, I understood the school's library, with over a million volumes of books, was the fourth largest in the nation; Harvard's was said to be the second largest, with three million volumes; and the Library of Congress, the largest, with five million volumes. Now after a week's research in the Library of Congress in early March 2002, I discovered its collection had swelled to 22 million volumes, making it something like an ocean of books. Indeed, if all its books are placed end to end, they certainly can cover the width of the entire Atlantic, with more to spare. To book lovers, isn't that a great blessing? You can swim in it, grabbing anything in print as you like. The answer, which may surprise you, is not necessarily an unqualified yes. For one thing, not everyone can jump into it, fish out anything you want. For another, even those with "reading privileges" cannot always get hold those they want. This takes a bit of explanation. In an orientation seminar I attended, a fast-talking, stern-looking librarian declared, "We are different from all other libraries in that we don't weed out books." What she meant is this. Back in 1800 when the library was created, the Congress appropriated only enough funds for buying 740 volumes of books. Over the years the library has proved to be so useful to the lawmakers that they allowed it to collect any books it considered to be of merit. (In addition, the U.S. Copyright Office, a division of the library, automatically deposits books it received with the library.) And the lawmakers have forgotten to tell it to get rid of the books it no longer needs. This no-weeding-out policy creates serious problems for the library. It has to find space and personnel to accommodate its unlimited growth. Over the years, three gigantic buildings, each a block long, have been constructed to house its collections, but it ran out of room as soon a new building was created. So books are scattered all over in these buildings, reaching the ceiling in one place and laid on the floor in another. Some have to be stored in places elsewhere in DC or even outside the nation's capital. Then a group of bureaucrats have to be recruited and trained to handle the enormous amount of routine business of the library-acquisition, cataloguing, circulating, reference, and so on. Soon another group of bureaucrats have come to serve the needs of the first group. Few of these people, however, actually do the work of getting the books to the readers. Take the staff of the Chinese section of "the Asian Reading Room" for an example. It has four staffers, three with Ph. Ds, and one, a technician. Only the technician goes to the stacks to find the books for the readers. And the books are located in a building a block away. So the readers have to wait 90 minutes at a minimum for the books they requested. What if the readers come after the technician has gone to the stacks. Well, be more patient and wait longer. In my own experience, I could not obtain the books in the same day as when I ordered, even though I happened to be acquainted with two of the Ph. D. specialists. I had to come back the next day to a shelf reserved for "overnight requests." There I found three of the five books I requested, along with books ordered by others that had been sitting there for days, collecting dust. What about the two requested books that refused to show up? One of them, I was told, "couldn't be located;" and another "was missing." What was the difference between the fates of these two books, I asked a librarian? She answered the question with a silent smile. What if you wanted to find out what really happened to these books? Glad you raised the question. There was a system to handle the situation. In "the Main Reading Room," located a short distance away from "the Asian Reading Room," a man with an African hairdo sitting in a book-lined cubicle, was in charge of "special searches." "We will find these books for you," he said with a shy smile. "Fill out these forms, one for each book." He handed me some blue-colored, multiple-copy papers--designed for a short-term search. When I came back the next day to see him, he apologized for not finding the books and handed me some yellow forms. "These are for the long-term search," he explained patiently. "Fill out all spaces, including your California address [he had learned about it]. We'll let you know when we find out what has happened." Under the circumstances, what would you say other than "No, thanks"? Why can't the readers go to the stacks to locate books themselves, you'd ask? It would save time and meet the readers' needs better. After all, don't other libraries have an open-stack policy? The fact is the Library of Congress had followed that policy-until ten years ago when pilferage and vandalism forced it to abandon the policy. Now books have to be located by technicians and are for in-room reading only. Don't get me wrong. The use of the library is not always a frustrating, dismal experience. The library has developed innovative procedures and set up high-tech machines to help the readers. Tours, orientation seminars, and information centers would impress you how marvelously resourceful the library is. The library's flagship structure, the Jefferson Building, with extensive renovation last decade, is a magnificent piece of architecture. Its marble rotunda, with statues and tapestries framing it, soars high like that of the Congress, and the Main Reading Room in that building, designed after the British Museum, has rows of tables arranged in circles, with a service area in the center, gives the readers ready access to everything stored in that room. You can spot people of every walk of life busy with their studies: students older than 18, business executives, college professors, or plumbers and carpenters. There are other reading rooms, 21 in all, housed in the Jefferson Building and the neighboring Madison and Adams buildings. They cover different regions of the world and are devoted to audio and video materials, maps, manuscripts, microfilms, photography, and so on. If you know precisely what you want-and with a bit of patience, learn where the materials you're looking for are located-you would find troves of "knowledge treasures;" and for the serious researchers, you would wonder how come you haven't made use of the library earlier. Of the greatest help to the readers, it seems to me, is the library's online catalogue. It contains almost exhaustive records of the library's collections. And the beautiful thing is that you can get access to the catalogue with your computer at home. Click on the library's web page, www.loc.gov and go on from there. You can construct a bibliography from the catalogue on any subject of interest to you before going to the library. Once there you can fill out the request forms on the books you would like to read and deposit them with the reading rooms' service personnel right away. Proceed with other tasks--like scouting the library's facilities--and then go claiming your requested books later. This would save you considerable time and anxiety. Needless to say, you can work out a bibliography on your research and make use of it in other libraries. There are other electronic search tools available, for specialized databases such as Book Review Digest, Declassified government documents, Dissertation abstracts, Facts on File, and the like. Here you would be able to access to indexes but, sometimes, full texts as well. Who may use the library? Anyone with a valid driver's license can apply for a reader's card at the library. Well, where is the library located? If you haven't been there before, you might agree that its location is one of the most conspicuous yet most ignored (by tourists?) places in DC. It sits right next to two great power centers of the federal government. Its three buildings are tucked in one area with Congress to the west and the Supreme Court to the north. Once with a reader's car in hand, you could roam freely-almost-any building of the library. "Almost" means you can get around anywhere only after security checks--"checks," plural, that is. At the entrance of each building, you have to be cleared like what you do at the airport; walk through the detectors under the gaze of unsmiling security guards who regard everybody as a potential terrorist. Still, you feel a bit thrilled as you show your card to the guards and get the privilege of bypassing the long line of visitors, who look at you with admiring glances. Your euphoria would not last long, however. You feel you are reduced to the level of a potential criminal again when you get to the entrance of some of the reading rooms. You are not allowed to wear overcoats, carry a laptop case, a briefcase; you must deposit them in a "cloakroom" (People in Washington really like cloak works). At the Main Reading Room, I was once asked to remove even my jacket. When asked why, the guard said, "your jacket has pockets." It certainly did. I had the urge to ask, "Are readers supposed to go in without pants?" America has no national library; the Library of Congress fills that role. It is certainly a venerable institution, ranked among the greatest of the world. The use of the library may well be a complicated and challenging task. But research work in modern times is always complicated and challenging. The library is in a sense like a computer. If you don't know how to use it-to use it precisely--it would drive you to hit your head at the wall. If you do, it enchants you with unending miracles. ( Paul H. Tai)