On Librarians of Congress

 

Dear Editor:

 

I did not think twenty years ago I would say it, but I mourn Daniel Boorstin (obituary in Metro, Feb. 29).

 

Toward the end of his tenure as head of the Library of Congress, Dr. Dan was viewed by regular users like me, and by knowledgeable staff members privately, as an intellectual lightweight who had no concept of a true research facility. (This was especially reflected in the allocations of space during a period of renovation of the main building.) Some also faulted him for the episode your article notes where he caved in to the House Un-American Activities Committee in testimony some decades previously.

 

However, while there was great anticipation upon the appointment of the current Librarian, who appeared to have serious academic credentials (people had been worried, the joke being that President Reagan would choose Charlton Heston), he has not applied them well. At least under Boorstin's concept of the Library as one of the citys monuments it was kept open during lesser holidays like Presidents Day. At least in his time qualified scholars could still bypass the inefficient book delivery system and go into the stacks themselves after a certain amount of procedure to get a permit.

 

But neither is the incumbent's idea that of a research facility: he sees the institution more as a storage vault. It is true that a new office of scholarly programs resulted in an upgrade to the research seminars held there (at least those on subjects dating from before the twentieth century, where official ideology tends not to have a position the presenter must worry about). However, normal scholars not blessed with one of the new endowed positions, but still miraculously allotted an assigned desk or at least a shelf, can no longer even carry Library materials duly charged to them between reading rooms to consult while looking up some item in a special collection. The need for so-called security had already gotten so oppressive that we barely skipped a beat on the occasion of 9/11: The only innovation needed to get in step with the general paranoia in the city was to subject staff to the indignities that researchers had suffered at building entrances for some time.

 

And as to politics, at least Dr. Dan did not institute an annual lecture named after a certain former official some of us consider a war criminal, where apologists defend the governments outrageous policies.

 

So I say Daniel Boorstin, rest in peace.

 

Sincerely,

 

(3/1/04)

 

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