While I was sitting in the Social Science Reading Room the other night, a young woman in a green plaid skirt and a dark blue sweater and running shoes came over to my desk. She needed a volume I had. We chatted. She is a graduate student at a university in West Virginia and she's doing research at night for her master's thesis in social science. She has an internship in the city during the day. The library provides a shelf for her books -- a service lacking at most other local university libraries. "This shelf has been a tremendous help," she said. And it's so inspirational to be here. What am I going to do after they close the library at night?"
I remember what it was like to be a student at the Library of Congress at night. I, too, was working on my master's degree, in English. I was an "editorial assistant" -- a typist, really -- by day. I looked forward to my nights in the Main Reading Room.
Entering that room was like being transported. I felt warm and alive. The columns stretched tens of feet high. The magnificent dome soared overhead. Adorning the upper reaches of the alcoves were statues of poets and philosophers. A huge clock, overhung with a figure of Father Time with his scythe, checked off the minutes for the visitors at their desks below.
I always had a sense that the riches of scholarship were at my fingertips. Unlimited numbers of books could be ordered, and the service was fast. Time flew on those magical weekday nights. It always shocked me to see the clock pointed to 15 minutes before closing. When I finally got my master's degree, I qualified for a good rating in the federal government.
I didn't abandon the library. Later on, I began to write free-lance articles in my spare time, and the library was invaluable. I was never alone. I saw elderly people, young people, black and white people. Most of the men wore business suits, and I imagined they had come directly from the office.
But it was the women who interested me most. They reminded me of myself two decades before, stuck in an entry-level, low-paying job. Were they also using the library to find opportunity?
I feel sorry for that young woman in the plaid skirt and blue sweater and running shoes. What will happen to her when the doors close at night?