They [the Oregon timber companies] say they ought to be allowed to cut in the wilderness areas because nobody goes there. Well, I don't go to the Library of Congress very often, but that doesn't mean I want it logged. -- Ken Kesey, in a speech at the University of Oregon, 1975.
I HAVE A PREGNANT WIFE, no job to speak of and a 1972 Volkswagen Beetle that starts only when you curse at it in Spanish, but I am wealthy. I am afraid of many common household objects including scissors and insecticide, but I am self-confident. I have every album Grand Funk Railroad ever made, but I am cultured.
People wonder how I have transcended such circumstances, but it's no secret: I owe it all to the Library of Congress.
And now the library is under attack.
I am always amazed when longtime Washingtonians tell me they have never been to the Library of Congress. Since I came to Washington six years ago, I have just about lived there. I go at least twice a week, sometimes six times a week.
I originally used it for dating. It's a good place to find out the truth about a woman. First, if she refuses to go there, it probably means she c-a-n-n-o-t r-e-a-d, if you get my drift, so best to break it off cleanly. And if she does go, it gets you way beyond the guess-her-personality-by-her-drink nonsense, which is pretty imprecise when she has only 20 varieties from which to choose. A brandy alexander may allow some room for ambiguity, but Milton Friedman's Free to Choose removes all doubt.
The first date I took to the Library of Congress wasted the afternoon with Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, while I sweated through the tangled ethical-epistemological strands woven into into Robert Heinlein's Destination Moon. It was over before we unzipped our backpacks for the guard at the exit.
The books, of course, are the library's main attraction, 21 million of them at recent count. I use them for research on free-lance stories and also for insights in my personal lifetime quest for Ultimate Meaning. I have also found many E-Z hamburger recipes. It is all there, from Alfred North Whitehead's Symbolism, Its Meaning and Effect to Joan Maurer's Curly, An Illustrated Biography of the Superstooge. The persistent reader can increase his sexual prowess with advice from bound copies of For Men Only (though the 1967 volume is particularly dog-eared) or bone up on fire-brigade drills at Vermont women's colleges in the 1890s, which were canvassed in The Lady's Companion.
I believe many people avoid the Library of Congress because they think it is only for members of Congress, but members of Congress don't use it at all; they are too busy. Frequent users include LSD casualties and Heritage Foundation fellows, though the distinction is admittedly subtle. The two groups have similar intents: to gather evidence about the enemy, be they brain eaters from Neptune or subversives in the airline industry intent on reregulating. It is inspiring to see them toiling elbow-to-elbow in the common trenches of knowledge, trying to protect our planet from trisexuals in government or the Unitarian threat.
But my favorite dedicated users are the evening and weekend crowd. You begin to appreciate how precious the library is when you see working stiffs coming in after their shifts night after night. These include the exhausted-looking Korean woman photocopying 200 pages of immigration arcanum, the young public-interest warrior extracting the latest on acid-rain defoliation and the Italian historian squeezing in every possible moment here before he must return to a homeland which, ironically, possesses less data on some aspects of Central European peasant life than this American library.
These moonlighters are the ones who are under attack -- indeed, they are already gone. Earlier this month, an $8.4 million cut by Congress and a $9.9 million whack dealt by the mindless Gramm-Rudman-Hollings process led the library to close Sundays and every weekday evening but Wednesday. That doesn't affect an indigent like me, but I worry about working people who feel, as Abraham Lincoln, that "the things I want to know are in books." Now, where will they find the things they want to know after working hours?
The Library of Congress offers a loving literary embrace of nearly all that is published. Recently, I typed my own name into the computer terminal there, and on the screen arose a reference for an article I had written some months earlier. I got a lump in my throat. I felt that through dumb luck and sheer grace I had been allowed to join a fellowship of people who shared the deepest yearning of my heart: the urge to pass along what they had learned, not just to the inner sanctum but to all comers. We are not an exclusive group -- with its books, periodicals, tapes and films, the library's contributing membership is more than 100 million and climbing, including Florence Nightingale, Adolf Hitler and many people who never made much of a splash either way -- but I cannot imagine any group to which I would rather belong.
In opposing the cutbacks, Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin said, "These are times that try men's minds, that tax our consciousness, our resources of wisdom, knowledge and information . . . We, the greatest library on earth, serving the greatest republic, are needed as never before by an imprisoned humanity." That seems about right to me. I know that Congress must reduce the deficit, but I also realize that it is unfairly emotional and illogical to point out that returning to the library's original budget would cost six-tenths of 1 percent of this year's "Star Wars" budget, so I won't mention it.
But I must say that if I were a member of Congress, I would fight like hell to keep the most complete repository of information in the world from becoming the exclusive domain of the chronically unemployed and interest groups that can afford paid researchers. I would try moral arguments first -- Boorstin's comment would be a good place to start. If that failed, I'd use economics and make an educated guess that the ideas gleaned in the approximately 938,000 man-hours devoted each year to night and weekend study have probably saved this country considerably more than $18 million. And if that failed, I'd build coalitions, call in my chips, refuse to cooper the other guy's pork barrel and generally try to steamroll it with good old clandestine politicking. If it can be done for nerve gas, it can be done for S. J. Perelman, though I would not put it that way.
And if all that failed, I'd call a news conference and tell everyone I tried, and the road to damnation is paved with ignorance, and let them all go away speculating that I'm getting too old to cut it in politics anymore. They would probably be right. And then I'd retire and spend all day reading in the Library of Congress and maybe write an article now and then about what I found, which would be all I really ever wanted to do anyway.