- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2003

FORT MEADE, Md. — If the Smithsonian Institution is America’s attic, then the Library of Congress is the basement. And like so many other cellars around the country, there’s stuff everywhere.

Librarians must maneuver around books stacked on the floor because there’s no room on shelves.

The space problem began 200 years ago and has only worsened as the library accumulated 127 million items, with 10,000 more coming in every working day.

Most of the books are in the Madison Building, which is among Washington’s biggest but can’t come close to meeting the needs of the world’s largest library collection.

“People think that everything goes onto the Internet these days, but the amount of print material is increasing by 7 percent a year,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said.

It’s not just books the library collects.

There also are ancient clay tablets from Iraq, the first map to use the word “America,” Stradivarius violins, century-old films and the latest hip-hop recordings.

A favorite of visitors is an exhibit with the contents of President Lincoln’s pockets on the night he was murdered — a pair of glasses, some Confederate currency and a few favorable newspaper clippings.

To handle some of the millions of items, the library is building warehouses at Fort Meade, Md., 30 miles from Capitol Hill.

The first of what could be as many as 13 buildings is finished and already almost half-full.

About 500,000 volumes have been trucked from Washington — 2,500 a day.

About twice as far in the opposite direction, storage is being developed at Culpeper, Va., for the library’s audiovisual material — such as recordings of Elvis Presley and Theodore Roosevelt, and movies of Thomas Edison and Ronald Reagan.

Steven J. Herman, chief of the library’s collections, access, loans and management division, also called CALM, said it probably will take four years and up to four warehouses just to get the books off the floor in Washington.

Around Mr. Herman in the Fort Meade warehouse, 30-foot-high shelves stretch more than 50 yards. Mobile elevators like those in warehouse stores move along the narrow aisles. Librarians pluck requested books, identified by bar codes, from lidded boxes on the shelves.

The boxes protect the books in case the elaborate sprinkler system goes off.

Protection also comes from the dim light of sodium vapor lamps, which Mr. Herman said allows fragile paper to survive for six times as long as it would under the ultraviolet rays in normal lighting.

Surveillance cameras work from the 37-foot ceiling. Motion detectors line the walls.

It’s a far cry from the library’s humble beginnings.

The Library of Congress was founded as a research tool for Congress.

It opened in the Capitol in 1802 with 740 volumes and three maps. The collection grew, but was virtually lost when British forces set fire to the Capitol during the War of 1812. Soon after, Thomas Jefferson gave the library a new foundation by selling it most of his personal library.

Everything copyrighted — more than 500,000 items in 2002 alone — has to go in the library, though some things are discarded when the copyright expires. Since 1809, all journals, printed reports and documents presented to Congress are preserved in two sets.

Storage problems were an issue almost from the start and by 1876 were so bad that a congressional committee said failure to find more space would be “almost insane, if not wicked.”

The situation did not improve. The Jefferson Building, the library’s current headquarters, opened 20 years later and was full within a decade.

In 1970, the library reported to Congress that the collection had grown by half in the previous 10 years. The increase, it said, “is heartening to the nation’s scholars but also a cause of dismay to the staff, staggering under the responsibility of finding a place to put them.”

The Internet has brought a new set of storage problems for the library: What should be preserved from the billions of items for future generations and how should it be stored? Congress has set aside $100 million for the job, which Mr. Billington figures will take at least five years.

Even with all the changes, the library remains true to its roots. It still does research for Congress.

And the public still can visit any time and ask questions of librarians.

Under a new system called “Question Point,” queries can be submitted by e-mail, and if the library can’t answer them, it has a network of other libraries to which it can send them.

“We’re not just a collection — we’re an active library,” Mr. Herman said. “We have standing orders with booksellers who know what we want. We get gifts — we have exchange agreements with foreign governments, more books in Chinese than anybody outside China and more books in Japanese than anyone outside Japan — 40 percent of our general collection is in languages other than English.”

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