Lincoln Exhibition Riles Scholars

Posted April 29, 2008 at 6:36pm

Scandal at the Library of Congress usually is confined to the content of the books that line its shelves. But an ongoing spat involving Members of Congress, a rare collection of tomes and the scholars who study them — not to mention the cops, an Illinois lawyer, millions of taxpayer dollars and a possible presidential veto — is bringing a heightened sense of intrigue to the normally quiet stacks.

Crews by late June will begin moving a rare collection of European books at the Library to a smaller adjoining room. Permanent exhibition space will replace the mahogany-lined European Reading Room, which was restored a decade ago as part of the Library’s $81.5 million makeover of its flagship Thomas Jefferson Building.

The move is making way for new public space, which will debut in early 2009 with an exhibit commemorating President Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday.

The privately funded $1.2 million project is the brainchild of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, a quasi-Congressional group with offices in the Library and whose leadership includes Land of Lincoln Reps. Ray LaHood (R) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D).

All three lawmakers declined Roll Call requests to discuss the exhibit, but a well-placed Democratic House source confirmed that the Lincoln exhibit was first planned for the Library’s James Madison Building, the drab administrative monolith cornered at Independence Avenue and First Street Southeast.

Durbin’s and LaHood’s appreciation of the 16th president is certainly well-documented. Durbin alone has entered Lincoln’s name into the Congressional Record more than 40 times during the past 16 months. LaHood, who represents parts of Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield — and holds his former House seat — has entered his name into the record seven times.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the two lawmakers balked at honoring Lincoln in the glum Madison Building, the source said. After all, Thomas Jefferson not only has his own Library of Congress building, but the Founding Father has a library named for him within his own building.

“They stressed that it needed to be located in the Jefferson,” the source said.

Matt Raymond, a Library of Congress spokesman, was not aware of lawmakers pushing the Jefferson Building for the Lincoln exhibit. He attributed the move to the Library’s ongoing effort to optimize square-footage, particularly with often-vacant academic research areas whose usage “is about one-quarter of where it stood 20 years ago.”

“Where [the Lincoln exhibit] started is where it is going to be … the space currently occupied by the European Reading Room,” Raymond said. “I don’t understand why people are trying to make this tie to Lincoln. To us this is an issue of proper allocation of resources.”

Raymond also stressed that the evicted books — and researchers — “will be moving to beautiful adjacent space with all the current levels of service and access to reference materials continuing.” He also said that plans for the space after the Lincoln exhibit closes are already in the works, and could include exhibits honoring the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Pulitzer-Prize winning political cartoonist Herblock.

Eileen Mackevich, the Lincoln commission’s executive director, disagreed slightly with Raymond’s characterizations of the exhibit’s location. She said Durbin, Jackson, LaHood and other lawmakers on the panel “are intimately involved in every detail” and that initially there was “background noise discussions about the Madison.”

But when it became time for firm decisions, Mackevich said, “the exhibit was always planned for the Jefferson.”

“The Madison is an administrative building, so of course people would want to have the exhibit for the most revered president of the United States in the building where everybody comes to visit,” she said.

An internal Library of Congress document obtained by Roll Call shows that as far back as January 2006, the Library was planning to place the exhibit in the Jefferson Building. That information was not made public, however, until at least mid-March of this year — and likely in response to a quickly forming mob of enraged Goethe, Pushkin and Gogol scholars.

Before the European Reading Room and its staff were officially reassigned, a dozen or so angry researchers staged a silent protest in mid-April in the Library. Pictures on the group’s Web site show the Capitol Police patrolling the room soon after.

Before the Library officially announced the move, scholar Anita Kondoyanidi said she first sensed an eviction in the works when she spied engineers and architects streaming through the European Reading Room.

“We basically found out when I saw people come in with architectural plans,” Kondoyanidi said. “It was strange that they were pointing at the plans.”

“What we found out later on [is] that this project was in the works for almost two years,” Kondoyanidi added. “They were preparing this exhibition for a long time. What enrages me is that disregarded the scholarly community. … It was a slap in the face of the entire scholarly community that uses the European Reading Room.”

Kondoyanidi and other researchers also argue that the new exhibit space is a misuse of resources and emblematic of the Library’s new -— and troubling, to some scholars — focus on boosting attendance with a perceived fun-for-the-whole-family approach.

“We believe that the Library of Congress is not only for exhibitions, it’s not only for touristic purposes, but it’s also, first and foremost, for doing research,” Kondoyanidi said. “The Library of Congress is a depository of unique texts that scholars access at their own will. The whole idea that the room has not been used is ridiculous. … The Library of Congress is turning into Disneyland.”

Library spokesman Raymond said it is difficult to determine how much money was spent to rehab the room in 1997 or how much it will cost to overhaul the new adjacent space.

Depending on the final cost, a House Democratic source said, the Library could draw on an already appropriated $2 million-plus account to pay for moving and rebuilding the European Reading Room.

But should costs overrun — or other projects jump in line — the reconstruction may be in jeopardy, the source said. And any new funds likely would come from the pending appropriations supplemental bill, which President Bush is expected to veto if lawmakers cross the line in the sand he drew Tuesday.

“I made my position very clear to Congress and I will not accept a supplemental over $108 billion,” Bush told reporters Tuesday.

With the presidential veto looming and feelings of betrayal still fresh, many researchers are taking a wait-and-see approach on their new quarters, a circular tiled room that reverberates the slightest sound.

“We hope now it is solved and we’ll move into the other room,” said Carola Dietze, a German Historical Institute fellow. “It echoes and is much smaller.”