Bastion Against the Barbarians

photo of the Library of Congress

This is your library

Just imagine how different America would be if more members of Congress knew how to read. I’m fantasizing pretty wildly, given that one of our political parties has turned slack-jawed ignorance into a noble virtue. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, “intelligent designers”.) Congress has the best and largest library in the world, and if they were to use it, think how much they could learn that would be useful to a legislator: the history of Russia, Muslim culture, basic junior high biology.

This past week with members of a science writing group I belong to I went to the Library of Congress. We were in the Adams Building, which houses the Science, Technology, and Business Division, behind the main library building. We entered through some of the usual security, then up the elevator, down a hall, through the reading room, up some stairs, down another hall, and to a small room with a big table. We began by meeting with Connie Carter, head of the Science Reference Section. Connie is clearly enthusiastic about her work, and when she talked it was obvious that she was excited by her topic.

Part of our presentation involved show-and-tell, as Connie passed things around, including samples from a series of pamphlets called Girls and Science Education. According to Connie, the library has a “fabulous collection” of science activities for school children. She also showed us a photograph of Isaac Asimov with a former librarian, framed with a limerick he had written for her, beginning “Said a certain young damsel named Ruth”. Unlike really good limericks, however, there was nothing obscene about it.

I’ve spent most of my life around and in libraries, and I was married to a librarian. Listening to the librarians here at the Library of Congress, I was struck by the fact that although the library is HUGE, it’s…just a library. You can go there, talk to librarians (or call or email them), and look at books. The librarians help you find things, and they stressed how much they want to do that.

Many people do go there for research, and while the science section may be mostly people working in science (I’m guessing), we were given the example of the novel The Family That Couldn’t Sleep that was researched there with help from the librarians. Another example Connie gave of helping people with research was a book she had located, in which a doctor talked about how he treated Lincoln after he was shot. She found that book for an actor preparing for a movie role about Lincoln (not the recent Spielberg movie). As she said of these activities, “It is fun to be a library of last resort. We have a great time.”

While we were visiting the library I was also thinking about something I’ve pondered on other occasions, the changing nature of libraries with new technology. One of the other science writers addressed this, asking whether the Library of Congress is working on digitizing the entire collection, to which Connie responded “We’ll never be able to do that.” Another librarian, later in the evening also said, “If anyone tells you the print book is dead, they are lying to you.”

Nevertheless, a little over 100 years ago we began creating new ways to record information other than on pieces of paper, and that process has shifted to high speed in the last 20 years. The Library of Congress, like any other library, has to respond to the changes. I asked whether they also collect things that only exist in digital form. One of the librarians (let it be noted, a young one) said she had proposed that the library collect certain science blogs, an idea that has been accepted. In addition, even now the library has not only a webpage, but a Flickr page and a Youtube page for videos of talks people are asked to give.

Following our talks with the librarians we were taken to the science reading room. The room is less grand than in the main library across the street, yet it has carved stonework and square pillars on the sides, and if you don’t look too closely, the carvings seem a bit Mayan in style. Another large room has somewhat the ambiance of an old-fashioned bank, back when banks believed in grandeur (before they succumbed to the American belief that tawdry cheapness looks “modern”).

The librarians emphasized that they want people to come in, to use the library in person. Every librarian who talked to us was very friendly, and all of them seemed enthused about what they do. Which was good to hear. They help to keep the barbarians from climbing over the walls, even if they can’t keep those barbarians from being elected.

[Since this is my personal blog and therefore not required to make sense in any fashion, I want to add an unrelated item—back in smarty pants school we called that a non sequitur. I learned this week that I did not get a science writing job I wanted very much. Well, the planet earth can kiss my ass, but as long as I’m forced to be here and endure this world, I will by God enjoy it. Yesterday evening I had an opportunity to spend time with Sergei Tolstoy, the great-grandson of the Tolstoy of War and Peace fame, and I made a point of speaking some with Sergei in Russian. He’s 90 years old, and I was a little shocked how healthy, lively, and intense he is. I thought “My God, you can be like this at 90? Sign me up.”

And I know, he’s only the great-grandson. That’s pretty far removed from great-grandpappy with the beard, and we didn’t talk about literature at all. But hey, did you get to spend the evening having wine with Tolstoy’s great-grandson listening to stories about being in Paris with his mother or working as an intelligence agent at the end of WWII? Huh, didya?]

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