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ATG Special Report — Forty Years at the Big Library

by | Jul 8, 2024 | 0 comments

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By Joseph Puccio  (Retired, Library of Congress) 

Against the Grain V36#3

I first stepped inside the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in April 1983.  I was fresh out of library school and nervous, having flown in for two days of Library of Congress Intern Program selection interviews that were to commence the next day.

Joseph Puccio

The magnificence of the Great Hall somehow heightened my anxiety.  Then, I found myself standing in front of a large wooden display case that held the Library’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible.  As I gazed at it and thought about the history of the book course that I had recently completed, I was overcome.  My knees started shaking, and I had to find a place to sit and regain my composure.

I pulled it together for the interviews and earned an invitation to participate as a paid intern in the upcoming twenty-week program of rotational work assignments and orientations.  There was no guarantee of a permanent position at the end of the internship.  Nevertheless, my wife Barbara and I decided to take the risk, leaving our jobs in Florida and moving up north.  I am glad that we did.  Those twenty weeks have now morphed into over two thousand weeks.  And, believe me, I have seen and experienced a lot.

After the program, I was fortunate to be appointed to a reference librarian slot in the Serial and Government Publications Division.  My cubicle featured an IBM Selectric typewriter and a grey metal desk that had the look and feel of World War II era government surplus.  There was one computer in the division — a Compucorp terminal that was used by the Chief’s secretary to produce letters and other formal documents.  Everyone else was left to use typewriters to create documents and to employ correction fluid to fix errors.

Within a couple of years, the division had received its first personal computer, and it was in such demand that a memorandum was sent to staff with the subject line, Guidelines on the Use of PC Computers.  It stated that the one PC should be used “… for tasks that will make the most efficient use of staff time and machine time and effect the production economics for which the machine was designed and which justify operational costs.”  It went on to direct that the PC could be used to create bibliographies and finding aids, but it was not to be used for routine correspondence.  Of course, it wasn’t all that much longer until PCs supplanted typewriters across the Library. 

As a Newspaper and Current Periodicals Reading Room reference librarian in the 1980s, I typically assisted readers to find article citations by suggesting standard printed sources for them to consult.  The emergence of online resources such as DIALOG flipped the searching responsibility to the librarian.  Patrons in the reading room did not have direct access to the online resources.  Instead, the librarian had to serve as an intermediary, signing on in a back room via dial-up (using an acoustic coupler and hearing that electronic screech each time a connection was made), doing the carefully designed search (so as not to waste costly online time) and printing out a list of citations on thermal paper.  It would be a while until reading room users would have direct access to online databases, although CD-ROM indexes were increasingly available to them in some disciplines.  

Access to online information took a giant step forward with the 1993 launch of LC MARVEL (Library of Congress Machine-Assisted Realization of the Virtual Electronic Library), using gopher software from the University of Minnesota.  It provided text-based information about the Library and its services in addition to offering “easy access” to textual resources available over the Internet.  Library staff were provided with these instructions:

To access it, telnet to marvel.loc.gov and login as marvel.  This will connect you to a “generic” Gopher client.  Initially only 10 ports will be available to outside users for direct telnet connection.

Although gophers had their moment, they were soon replaced by browsers such as Mosaic that truly opened the gates to the World Wide Web.

While technology was moving forward, the Library faced recurrent funding issues, hitting a low point with budget reductions resulting from the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985, informally known as the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act.  Its purpose was to reduce the Federal budget deficit and to eventually produce a balanced budget.  When fiscal belt tightening takes place, it is just a matter of time until individuals are impacted.  That’s where I entered the picture.  In early 1986, reductions hit the Library, and Sunday reading room service was eliminated, as were some of the evening hours of opening.  At the same time a “reduction in force” was put into place.  My division chief handed me a letter stating that my position was being abolished and that I was eligible to be placed in another position in the institution.  It would be at a lower grade, but I would have pay retention at the higher grade for a temporary period.  So, off I went to the Congressional Research Service.

Meanwhile a group of external activists began a “Books Not Bombs” campaign to protest the Library’s reductions in service.  Multiple protests took the form of reading room sit-ins that led to a number of arrests.  Eight of the individuals were eventually found guilty in DC Superior Court of unlawful entry.

Funding was restored to the Library a few months later, and I was offered back my previous position at my higher grade.  I gladly accepted.  

By the 1990s, I was the Public Service Officer in the Collections Management Division (CMD), which placed me in the middle of a collections security crisis.  For at least a decade, concerns about thefts and mutilations of collection items had grown.  In 1988, a researcher was sentenced to three years in prison for transporting documents stolen from the Library and from the National Archives.  Meanwhile, evidence accumulated of thefts and mutilations of books (particularly art titles) in the General Collections stacks in the Jefferson and Adams Buildings, which traditionally had been open to all staff and to researchers who received a pass from a reference librarian.  In 1991, a radiologist was charged (and eventually pled guilty) with stealing $40,000 worth of books from the Library and the University of Maryland.  Later that same year, an attorney from the General Accounting Office was arrested with ten manuscript documents worth $33,000 in his pocket, although the full extent of his thefts was much greater than the ten items.  In 1992, a book dealer from Alexandria, Virginia, was arrested after a Library investigator observed him ripping pages out of a book and was found to have two maps under his sweater.

Decisive actions were taken to protect the collections.  The General Collections stacks were closed to all members of the public and then to Library staff except for those who needed access to perform their work duties.  At risk materials, such as folio art books, were caged.  Theft detection gates were installed at the exits of all three Capitol Hill buildings, and theft detection targets were installed in hundreds of thousands of volumes in the existing collections.  Surveillance video cameras were installed in reading rooms and collections storage areas.  Researchers could no longer carry collections materials between reading rooms.  These and many other measures served their purpose, but they were not welcomed by certain researchers and staff who had their access to materials restricted.

On the pleasant side during the ’90s, the Library’s Little Scholars Child Development Center opened in September 1993.  Our 15-month old daughter Katy was enrolled in the inaugural class, and we commuted together daily from Maryland, while she was a Little Scholar.  (Katy now has a library and information science degree from Drexel University and works at the Washington Research Library Consortium.)  

Without a doubt, the most upsetting day I experienced at the Library was Tuesday, September 11, 2001.  I had just returned with a cup of coffee to my desk in the CMD office in the Jefferson Building when the first reports came in.  One of the stacks surveillance monitors in the office was switched to a live television channel, and we watched the developments with increasing worry.  When word came that the Pentagon had been hit, I went up to the second floor of the Great Hall and looked out the windows facing west past the Capitol and across the Potomac River to Virginia.  The smoke was very visible, and it was frightening.

An evacuation of the Library began shortly after 10:00, which was hampered by technical issues with public address communications.  When I did leave that morning, the area near the Library was somewhat chaotic — there were people everywhere, hustling in various directions.  Senator Patrick Leahy, followed by a number of individuals I assumed were his staff, moved quickly by me.  I had heard rumors that there were bombs in the Metro system.  So, I didn’t want to travel home that way.  Luckily, I caught a ride out of DC with a colleague.  Of course, that day led to all types of security enhancements that are routine parts of our lives today.

On October 1, 2017, I began a 120-day detail as acting Associate Librarian for Library Services while my boss was detailed to serve as acting Deputy Librarian.  In all honesty, I did not want to do the detail.  I had been quite happy and felt fulfilled in the preceding few years serving as the Collection Development Officer.  I knew that serving as a mega-administrator would not be very satisfying.  But I was asked, and I said yes.  Much as my twenty weeks at LC turned into two thousand weeks, my 120 days on detail grew into a year and a half.  It was a relief to me when in April 2019 I was free to go back to doing collection development work.

Friday March 13, 2020, is another date to remember.  We had been hearing the dire warnings about this new COVID-19 disease and how it was about to sweep the country.  An all staff message that day instructed, “Starting on Monday, March 16, employees who have work assignments that are appropriate for telework and who are capable of teleworking will telework for as many of their daily work hours as possible, even if they do not regularly telework.” 

So, I packed up some papers and other materials that would be needed immediately and planned to work from home for a couple of weeks.  Little did I know that it would be two years until the Collection Development Office staff and I came back onsite on a regular basis.  During the fulltime teleworking, we somehow became closer and were able to be productive owing to the nature of our work.  Nevertheless, I longed to see people, especially Library of Congress people, in person again.

When we finally did return in 2022, I found on my desk, my Page-a-Day Cats calendar still displaying Friday, March 13, 2020, with a photo of a black cat and that day’s inscription, “Though many Americans see black cats as unlucky, some parts of the world consider them good luck.” 

One morning recently, before the Jefferson Building doors opened to visitors, I went to the Great Hall to once again gaze at the space that overwhelmed me in April 1983.  It is still magnificent!  And I stood in front of the Gutenberg Bible, now housed in a sleek new modern case.  It was just the two of us, with me a bit more experienced than upon our first meeting.  This time, it was more like seeing an old friend.  My knees remained steady.  

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