National Geographic : 1950 May
The Nation's Library It Serves and Is Served by the World By ALBERT W. ATWOOD NEARLY every visitor to Washington, no matter how brief his stay, enters the Library of Congress. Here, in the two largest buildings in the world devoted exclusively to library purposes, are almost 30,000,000 separate pieces of material, the greatest collection which man has ever made of his own recorded ideas and thoughts. Each year between six and seven million new holdings pour into these two buildings, and even after duplicates have been disposed of and serials bound into volumes, there is a net gain of well over a million. If each one of the million people who enter the Library every year gave it a book or other item, the total would be less than the holdings which are actually added! The Library of Congress is a gigantic work shop throbbing with activity, turning out in formation instead of steel or automobiles. It is consulted constantly for all manner of purposes by all manner of people, and is in touch with the far parts of the earth by cor respondence, telegraph, telephone, cable, radio gram, and through personal visits for the pur pose of collecting and exchanging material. Many Questions-Sometimes Too Many Answers Increasingly people go to the Library, or write or telephone, to secure information and to get answers to questions. "People come in here desperate because they lack the information they need to write a book or thesis," the chief of one highly specialized section said; "but after three or four weeks they avoid meeting my eye for fear I may give them some more material!" From every part of the globe an ever-mount ing, almost overwhelming torrent of books, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, maps, music, phonograph records, manuscripts, pho tographs, microfilms, and documents pours into the Library to make it the greatest col lection of its kind in existence. No statistical summary, however imposing, is half so impressive as the sight of the incom ing material itself, the so-called accessions. They come in cartons of every size and shape, in "wooden cases, mailbags, flimsy paper bun dles, and battered valises and trunks, and are measured by tons, carloads, truckloads, and ship bottoms. The official who must find space for all this new material went to the Bush Terminal in Brooklyn one day not long ago to see a single, newly arrived consignment of 487,595 books! In the stacks I gazed at 1,900 unopened mail sacks of Japanese material. Nearly a thousand other sacks were being opened and the material sorted and classified, not by paid librarians, for whom there was insufficient ap propriation, but by graduate students repre senting universities specializing in Japanese. Their institutions were compensated by dupli cate copies which they might find. In an age when so much published matter is in serial form-that is, in newspapers, maga zines, journals, bulletins, directories, and cat alogues-the Library has a huge mass of di verse material to deal with. An entire division is required just to record these serials bound and unbound, more than a million of which are received each year, and to obtain missing copies from publishers. So many questions pour in from other parts of the Library concerning the location of a particular serial that to save time several tele phone operators move to and fro around the room, plugging in instruments at that section of the special card catalogue where the facts about the particular serial are to be found. Where does this vast mass of material come from? Part answer is that there is hardly a country where the Library does not have a buying agent. If there is no book dealer, then the consul or a legation official acts as agent; if we have no diplomatic relations with a par ticular country, then a consul in a neighboring country serves. Books Sought in Faraway Places The Library acquires books through dealers in Liechtenstein, Cyprus, Portuguese East Africa, Belgian Congo, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Indochina, Bangkok, Rangoon, Ceylon, and Pakistan, to name a few places. In Finland the University of Helsinki acts as agent; in Dakar the consul; in Nigeria a church missionary bookshop; and in Korea the president of a college. In a single year new arrangements for blan ket orders were made in Iceland, Korea, Japan, southeast Asia, Greece, and North Africa. But only 15 percent of the Library's acquisi tions come through purchase. Masses of ma terial are obtained by gift, exchange (domestic and international), transfer from other U. S.