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House Panel Chides Library of Congress
Librarians Say It Shouldn't Be Compared With Corporations on Tracking Its Inventory

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007

Corporations such as United Parcel Service and Wal-Mart know how to keep track of their packages and merchandise, a weary but sympathetic congressional panel told officials of the Library of Congress yesterday.

"That might be a good model to follow," suggested Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), the ranking minority member of the House Administration Committee. In the past year, spot-checks have shown the library hasn't been able to account for 10 to 17 percent of its books, monographs and bound periodicals.

The example of how the private sector moves items around wasn't one that library administrators thought fit. "We are a working library, not a storehouse. It requires a different approach," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.

The panel was alarmed, however, that even 10 percent of the general collection, materials available to the public using the main reading room, would not be on the shelves at any one time. Before 2001, the library reported that 20 percent of the general collection couldn't be found. In March, the library's inspector general reported the figure as 17 percent. Since then a dedicated search by the library has reduced the number to 10 percent, officials said this week.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) said the private sector seems to do a better job. "If they have a 10 percent rate, they would be out of business," said Lungren.

The library doesn't have the same resources as corporations, said Deanna Marcum, the associate librarian for library services. Right now the library uses labels that cost 8 cents each, and bar codes would cost 55 to 60 cents each, Marcum said.

The panel also questioned the slow pace of the inventory of the 135 million items in the library's holdings. Since 2002, 20 percent has been inventoried. The library receives thousands of new items a day. Billington pointed out that the library's attempt at counting and cataloguing "had no precedent in the world library community."

As the library modernizes, one holdup is the system of paper call slips used in the main reading room. The mistakes made on them can lead to unsuccessful searches for books. Lungren said the inspector general's reports in 2002 and 2007 concluded the call slips were outdated.

"That suggests not much has been done," said Lungren.

"We are indeed doing something about it," Marcum said. Consultants are working on computerizing the system, she said. "The work will be done in 18 months."

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