By James V. Grimaldi and Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
About one-sixth of the books, monographs and bound periodicals at the Library of Congress weren't where they were supposed to be because of flaws in the systems for shelving and retrieving materials, according to a survey to be made public at a congressional hearing today.
Officials at the library say they believe most of the missing materials are misplaced, not stolen or lost.
Investigators for the congressional library have told lawmakers on a House oversight committee that its review of the retrieval system for the general collection concluded that a 17 percent of materials requested could not be found.
"A subsequent review found 4 percent were either on nearby shelves, checked out to the public or marked with the wrong call numbers. But it remains deeply troubling that nearly 13 percent are unaccounted for by library officials," said Howard Gantman, staff director of the joint congressional committee on the library.
The Library of Congress's Office of the Inspector General did the survey earlier this year but did not make it public.
Library staff followed usual procedures and no follow-up audit was necessary, according to the report by Karl W. Schornagel, the library's inspector general, but the chairman and ranking member of the House Administration Committee were so upset by the finding that they have summoned James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, to answer questions about it at a hearing today.
The 17 percent rate of missing materials "is unacceptable, and a clear indication that we must reassess how we manage this Nation's priceless collection that exceeds 130 million items," said Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), the ranking Republican on the committee, in a statement.
Since receiving the assessment in the spring, library officials have accelerated efforts to track down the books. "The number of not-on-shelf books has dropped each year. A quality assurance team in the past several months has reduced that rate to 10 percent," said Deanna Marcum, the associate librarian for library services.
Established in 1800, the Library of Congress is one of the world's largest research facilities. It has 135 million items, including almost 20 million books, 59.5 million items in the manuscript division, and nearly 3 million sound recordings and radio and television broadcasts. It has 615 miles of shelving.
Ehlers and committee Chairman Robert A. Brady (D-Pa.) told Billington they want a thorough accounting of how the library is managed and how the collection is protected.
Since 2002 the library has been conducting an inventory, prompted in part by a series of thefts in the early 1990s. However, the inventory is only 20 percent complete, Marcum said.
In June, the committee requested the "most recent estimate of the number of items in each collection." In his response, Billington said "inventory control is an ongoing process."
The problems with keeping track of materials can't be traced to a single source. The problems start at the front desk, where the public still uses paper call slips, a method the inspector general called "outdated and inefficient." That creates a problem because when the paper request is filled, and the item is off the shelves, it does not show up on the automated system as "charged out." Then when the employee goes to the shelves, it is technically missing.
The survey found that 42 percent of the requests at the library last year were paper call slips. The remainder come from the library's staff and other libraries.
"Because we still have a paper request slip, the patron does not go to the online public catalogue and press a button. They write down all the information and sometimes the patron doesn't correctly copy all of the information," leading to a errors in the search, Marcum said.
In addition, the shelves are crowded, with books overflowing into carts and onto the floor of the stacks. The people who retrieve items might overlook the requested materials, Marcum said. The library has just built a storage facility off-site that has 1.2 million volumes and has recently opened a second one with the same capacity.
Some books are not on the shelves because they are in preservation workshops or are misplaced in the stacks. Some are also awaiting reshelving; putting materials back on the shelves may take up to four days, according to the inspector general.
The division that handles shelving, retrieving, inspection and updating the shelves is the Collections, Access, Loan and Management Division and is called CALM. Its librarians receive 2,000 retrieval requests every day and handle the requests from seven reading rooms and the staff. They put 2,000 items, including about 1,000 new volumes, on shelves every day.
The CALM staff has been reduced by attrition from 235 employees in fiscal 2000 to 162 in fiscal 2006. That division has hired contractors to complete the inventory and do the shelving in the hope of cutting the time it takes to get a book back in circulation.
Since fiscal 2003, the library has requested $12 million for inventory control and received $6.3 million.