Library’s Impact Often Unnoticed

Posted January 15, 2004 at 1:53pm

Rising nearly 160 feet along First Street Southeast, at the edge of the Capitol’s East Front, the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building would seem to be hard to miss. But according to at least one lawmaker, Members often do just that.

In the midst of a heated debate over fiscal 2004 funds, Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) suggested to fellow members of the House Appropriations Committee: “I got to tell you most Members don’t know were the Library is” — even though the primary building is right across the street.

But after more than 16 years at the LOC’s helm, Librarian of Congress James Billington offers a more tempered view.

Billington argues it isn’t that Members aren’t aware of the Library — which occupies three buildings on the southeast corner of the Capitol grounds — but rather that the institution is so tightly incorporated into Congress that lawmakers sometimes fail to notice its role in their day-to-day activities.

“I think … it’s so much a part of the fabric of the way that Congress functions, that I think they see it, and quite properly, as part of the legislative [process]. … They see it as part of the overall things that happen here on Capitol Hill without necessarily making a direct connection to the Library,” Billington said.

Billington asserts that even those resources most integral to Congress, like the LOC’s Law Library and the Congressional Research Service, which fulfilled nearly 800,000 research and service requests from Congressional staff and Members in fiscal 2002, may go unobserved. “Often perhaps a busy Member won’t realize how much of what has gone into their reports and analysis actually originated in CRS or resulted from some inquiry at the Library,” he said.

And to some Members, Billington can be just as anonymous as the agency he directs.

“I would not consider him the world’s greatest lobbyist,” quipped Michigan Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R), vice chairman of the Joint Library Committee, before adding: “He’s affable, intelligent, respected … that gives him a lot of credit with Congress.”

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), who interacts with Billington in his capacity as chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, agrees. “He’s dedicated. He’s not a face-to-face guy. He works Congress through his achievements,” such as the celebration of Bob Hope’s 100th birthday, and making major acquisitions, such as the 1507 world map by cartographer Martin Waldseem ller.

While the Library works to educate Members about the agency’s resources and functions — for example, it organizes a retreat for new Members at the start of each Congress — Billington acknowledged it can be challenging.

“I think this awareness, certainly the involvement, we can attest to that quite dramatically, is steadily increasing in recent years. Naturally, we at the Library always feel that there’s so much here, we would like it to be better used and better known,” Billington said. “But I think realistically, given the pressures on the Congress, the amount of the involvement that has been steadily increasing is very gratifying and attests to the fact that very often people are aware of an event, I suspect, or aware of some borrowings or some use of the Library facilities but don’t see the Library as a whole, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

While lawmakers make use of Library space for meetings or various events, Billington said that various programs that extend to Members’ districts — such as the Veterans’ History Project or the Local Legacies Project in 2000 — have helped increase Members’ direct participation with the Library.

“I think almost all Congressmen are physically inside these buildings for some reason or other,” Billington said. Among more recent programs, the Librarian notes that the newly established John W. Kluge Center, created to bring elite scholars to Capitol Hill, is another way to connect lawmakers to the Library.

“Part of the focus of bringing these big thinkers from around the world to the Library is making them available,” he said. “What we’re bringing is people who aren’t necessarily working directly on public policy but are the superior, in many cases, the supreme representatives of the major academic disciplines to give some perspective … and can bring the collection of long experience in the scholarly world into direct contact with Members themselves.”