You might remember last year when officials closed the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress at night for the first time in 88 years. Eighteen researchers refused to leave, were arrested, then jailed and spent 16 days on trial for "unlawful entry." Congress realized their political blunder at creating such a cause ce'le`bre and allocated more funds. The Main Reading Room reopened -- ironically during the same week a jury returned a guilty verdict on what came to be known as the "Library Eight." After that, library officials promised they'd never curtail access to the reading room again.
Well, this week, the Main Reading Room is closing again -- 20 months to the day after the first time, on Dec. 9, this time all day and night for renovation and this time with the irony that Mikhail Gorbachev will be in town, a man who presides over a national library open far more hours than ours.
This year one wonders how many people either realize or care that such a thing is happening. This year one wonders how many people know that Congress is actually increasing its reading-room space during the renovation. And this year this patron wonders if he has to get himself thrown in jail again to make people aware they're not taken into consideration about changes at what's billed as America's national library.
While there's little doubt that renovation of the 89-year-old Jefferson Building is needed -- it will allow the library to regain its international prominence among world research libraries by increasing optical disk capacity, card catalog terminals and study space -- the impending reduction by two-thirds of workable public space will create, as one reference librarian put it, "a circus." Understandably so. Plans for public use during the renovations are nebulous. Repeated attempts by this "radical researcher" to get specifics on the library's plans for public access have been rebuffed by both the new librarian, James Billington, and the Public Information Office -- another irony from a place whose mandate is to disseminate information.
The Main Reading Room will be closed for at least a year, maybe longer. I can imagine the long waiting time for books and can already hear the complaints of the reference librarians, who will bear the brunt of their superiors' public-be-damned attitude.
Those of us who fought the good fight last year (and won) carried a hope that, at least, our efforts had forced library officials to pay more than just lip service to public patrons. Now this patron carries the hope that the building Mark Twain called "that great literary storehouse" will stay open to anyone who gets the urge, however small, to discover his own answers, and that the world's largest data center won't be working against him.
-- Fredric Alan Maxwell