Plenty of changes at Library of Congress

Adrienne LaFrance / Special to The Washington Post /

Published Sep 1, 2013 at 05:00AM

WASHINGTON — The Library of Congress no longer needs the computer room that visitors once used to search its electronic card catalog. These days the entire library has a wireless Internet connection, so workers this summer put a collection of old microfilm machines in that room instead.

Meanwhile, the library's old-school physical catalogs, the kind filled with carefully penned index cards, have long since been relegated to cool basement hallways where schoolchildren marvel at their obscurity.

“I told them, 'Before Google, this is what we used to do,'” said Fenella France, the library's chief of preservation research. “They had never seen (card catalogs) before.'”

These are some of the several quiet moves that hint at much larger changes underway at the Library of Congress.

As libraries adapt to an increasingly networked and digital world, leading institutions are rethinking their use of physical spaces as well. At the Library of Congress, that means consolidating multiple reading rooms and making the experience of in-person researching more like the kind of one-stop shop we've come to expect online, a controversial plan that's still being debated.

At the same time, planners are trying to make online presentations feel more intuitive by designing collections of photos and navigation tools on the library's website so that they operate like Facebook, Amazon.com and other popular sites. Digital and physical changes play off one another.

For the first time in 40 years, a small team is also reinventing the way the library catalogs resources, developing a system that's designed to become the new global standard. Elsewhere in the library, staffers are creating the institution's first holistic online strategy of the Internet age and restructuring its stable of websites.

Bill Kellum, who oversees Web and mobile initiatives at the library, is leading an effort to centralize online resources by reining in the sprawl of countless websites that sprang up independently from various divisions of the library in the 1990s. Something similar is happening offline as the library weighs a plan to merge several existing reading rooms into the Main Reading Room.

“People compare libraries to churches,” said Kathryn Zickuhr, a researcher who has studied how libraries are changing for the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. “People talk about them as sacred spaces. Libraries evoke this sense of awe, this place of stillness and quietness and reflection. So there's this central tension we're seeing between the more traditional role of libraries and newer roles libraries have taken on.”

The Library of Congress claims to be the largest library in the world, with more than 155 million books, recordings, photographs, maps, documents and other items. It adds about 11,000 new items to its collection every day.

But where the Library of Congress used to meticulously index documents before making them public, it is now experimenting with sharing some resources before they have been fully cataloged. One of the most recent examples is the decision to make some of the papers of American Red Cross founder and civil rights activist Clara Barton available online.

But not everyone is pleased with the changes underway. Some regular researchers and library staffers have raised concerns about the physical consolidation plan, complaining that it ignores best practices and will do away with “crucial subject expertise” available in distinct reading rooms.

“In evaluating those spaces, we are looking at collections location and security factors, access to reference librarian expertise, the potential for accessing a variety of collections and formats from a single space, and other considerations,” library spokeswoman Gayle Osterberg said in an email. “Overall evaluation will be ongoing over the next year.”

Reference librarian Thomas Mann published a series of papers outlining his objections. One of his concerns is that a mash-up of reading rooms will blur the lines between reference and research, the former referring to answerable questions and the latter being more open-ended.

The consolidation “simply ignores the realities 'on the ground' for the sake of a grand 'vision' of unified, one-stop shopping that will inevitably lead to seriously diminished reference service,” Mann wrote in April. “It will do much more harm than good.”

Staffers in other areas of the library are also cognizant that moving forward can pose threats to existing resources, especially when money is tight. That concern is top of mind for Beacher Wiggins, who joined the library as a cataloger in 1972 and now serves as director for acquisitions and bibliographic access.

“There's no way I could have foretold where I would be today,” he said. “It was totally a manual, print, analog world. In terms of what the Web would create and digital content, I had no inkling back then.”

Other institutions face similar tensions between past and future. The Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, for example, has been around for more than 400 years, twice as long as the Library of Congress.

“Oxford ... has a half-millennium of history and, of course, there are many, many expectations that go with that,” said Wolfram Horstmann, associate director for digital library programs and information technologies at Oxford. “At the same time, digital-native students are coming in.”

Part of a $20 million restoration at Yale's Sterling Memorial Library this summer included designing areas for people who are used to coming together online in ethereal spaces that can be quickly built, deconstructed and then rebuilt another way. “Just like you can change your Facebook page or home page online, you're expecting flexibility and customization in physical areas,” said university librarian Susan Gibbons. “It doesn't have to be a dichotomy of physical and digital. In the ideal library of the future, it's all weaving together.”

Back at the Library of Congress, staffers are for the first time focused on how to serve people who might never set foot in Washington. That means considering how physical and digital spaces are being integrated and adapting library resources for use in physical spaces outside of the building. “Like if I'm on a mobile phone and I want to see what photos the Library of Congress has of places near where I am standing right now,” Kellum said.

Kellum and his team can imagine such Internet-connected appliances serving up Library of Congress resources such as Thomas Jefferson's 200-year-old recipe for vanilla ice cream. “The way people do things and the devices they do them on is changing so fast,” he said. “In our institution, we need to mature in a way that lets us react to these things. Changing from an internally focused model to a user-focused model is preparing us for that world.”