Wednesday, March 26, 2008

A One-Way Ticket to Nowhere

Library patrons report that construction workers appeared in the European Reading Room on Wednesday. No one was entirely sure why. To plan its destruction? The destructive urge is a creative one, and the quick pace of events creates more questions than it answers.

For instance, what about the theory that this room will be "re-located" back to the SE Pavilion? Before we even examine the notion, let's note that the proposed "re-location" will require a trans-valuation of the library's mission. Right now, the Library enables reading and research. There is also room for exhibits. By converting the research facilities into exhibit facilities and cramming the core activities into the equivalent of a corner office, the library will denigrate its own mission. Such a change will diminish the emphasis on reading in favor of looking, and cursory looking at that. This will amount to tourism of history rather than the real thing. The LC has higher values and should not trade them away for empty space.

Matters of principle aside, fundamental considerations seem to preclude the likelihood of "re-location." Here are some factors for consideration by all parties involved:

* Transparency: When WMATA intends to shut down a bus line, it announces the proposal in advance to riders and calls a public hearing to assess public support before undertaking action. This type of transparent procedure could have helped obviate the present controversy.

* Transition: No one appears to have a transition plan for the ERR. How long would this take? What guarantees would researchers have that it will return? What would happen to the researcher shelves in the meantime?

* Reference Collections: the SE Pavilion could not possibly accommodate the existing reference collections, even if bookshelves lined the walls up to the ceiling. What would happen to the reference collections? Would they all go back to Cataloging to be re-entered in the general system? How long would they be in transit and thus unavailable to researchers? If the Library were concerned about under-use of these materials, it would be extremely counter-productive to render them inaccessible for an unforeseen duration. Low availability of books in circulation has drawn Congressional ire:

* Seating: How many seats could actually fit into the SE Pavilion? The diameter of the room is not very wide. Accounting for lost square footage from newly-erected bookshelves and a staff desk, it would seem that only a few seats could be accommodated.

* Acoustics: the SE Pavilion currently is not separated from the ERR by a wall. Were the current ERR space to become a tourist-filled exhibition, the SE Pavilion would need a rather significant floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall sound barrier to create a quiet research environment. Construction of this does not seem feasible.

* Capital Outlay Expenditures: Refurbishing the SE Pavilion will no doubt require the purchase and customization of bookshelves, electrical and telecommunications infrastructure, as well as desks.Are funds allocated for this purpose in FY '08? If not, what process is needed to approve Capital Outlays? Does the Architect of the Capitol need to sign off on all plans? This could be an extremely lengthy process.

In light of these and other factors, "re-location" to the SE Pavilion seems extremely unlikely at all—and certainly unfeasible this year. Unfortunately, the presence of construction workers indicates that the process of "de-location" is already afoot. It looks like the ERR has a one-way ticket to nowhere.

Luckily, we are getting reports that scholarly associations, the media, and local embassies have picked up this story. Let's hope that they can investigate these factors more thoroughly. Cramming the Library's core activities into a corner is not a serious option. The European Reading Room needs to stay where it is. Period.

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