Last Wednesday, while I waited for a cab at the entrance of the Library of Congress, my eyes caught a bronze plaque mounted on the archway: "Library of Congress/Hours of Public Service/Main Reading Room: Monday thru Friday 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Saturday 8:30 to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m.
Despite two decades of using the library, I had never really noticed that plaque. But this night, the words "hours of public service" took on a sad irony. Beginning March 9, the library will close its reading rooms on Sundays and after 5:30 p.m. every week night except Wednesdays.
I grew up in my father's professorial library of history, law and political science books. My idea of amusement was to sneak old copies of Life magazine out of the attic, curl up in his big arm chair and read for hours by the fire. When these were exhausted, there were biographies, histories, diaries, encyclopedias and stacks of newspapers to be explored, to say nothing of back issues of The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly and The Nation.
When I grew up and returned to this area after college, the Library of Congress became my place, my hearth away from home. Regardless of the turns my career has taken -- in politics and out, on the Hill and off -- something always brings me back to Desk 131 in the Main Reading Room.
Research is now my first love. I spent seven years gathering material for Catherine Marshall's novel "Julie," set in Johnstown after the flood of 1889. What questions the author would throw at me! "When did Bethlehem Steel take over the Johnstown plant?" "Find a Penn Railroad timetable showing the schedules between Johnstown and Pittsburgh." "Where would California red wine have been bottled on the East Coast in the '30s?" And, zaniest of all, how to capture the noises of angry chickens! Solving that ultimately led me to an experiment by a prize-winning poultry geneticist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
Over the years I have met an amazing collection of people at the library. We come as seekers. Who were my compatriots last Wednesday?
A Cardozo High girl writing an English paper on careers. Her choice? Pediatrics.
A third-year law student from the University of Virginia. Her subject: the status of women in 17th-century England.
A Canadian professor of music, researching a book on Felix Mendelssohn.
A young women finishing her master's thesis on the "evolution of the sculptural ceramic menorah form." Taking 11 credits at two universities, she has no time to researc it during the day.
A former Cuban refugee, now a secretary at the World Bank, working toward a degree in English. Evenings are all she has.
What will happen to that plaque now? How many years has it been there, the "hours of public service" taken for granted? Will it be taped over? Taken down? What will happen when the doors close at night and on Sundays?
No, people won't die, nations won't fall, fortunes won't be lost. But it will a great loss, a silent tragedy.