Saturday, May 12, 2012

Library of Congress

In March I had to visit the Library of Congress to check on the Baltic materials there and had not calculated travel time adequately, so I only had a few hours and that was not enough. So I had to forgo ogling the amazing Great Hall, which I saw being renovated in 1992 and then completed at a conference reception some years later. I also did not set foot in the famous Main Reading Room this time.

I had gotten a reference question from a friend in Chicago that morning. He is an engineer researching Latvian archaeoastronomy in his free time. In an obituary he read that a man had published articles on this in a nature and history calendar (Dabas un Vestures Kalendars) of 1970-72. Could I help him find copies of this. I know we had this publication and these years at the Latvian Studies Center Library. I am not completely sure, but I think that the University of Washington didn't take these as they don't collect calendars, not realizing that the calendars from Latvia are hundreds of pages long and consist of articles. So I checked WorldCat - 8 libraries in the U.S. own this publication, but most did not list holdings or the ones listed were too recent. The Library of Congress is one of the libraries listed, so I write down the call number, as this is the day I am visiting LC.

I walk into LC and the sound of tourist voices echo in the Great Hall. I stop at the information desk. which is like those for museums or other tourist places with maps, guides, etc. I take them, but ask for the European Reading Room. He gives me directions through a maze of corridors. I see a sign that says "Staff and Researchers only." I almost turn back and then remember, oh yeah, I am a "researcher." Now I have entered the real hallowed halls of LC.

I remember the European Reading room was in upheaval in 2008 when they were thrown out of their space to provide more exhibit space. Now you have to go through the Hispanic Reading Room to get to the European Reading Room. You open these huge twelve foot doors and walk into a mini main reading room with a gilded dome ceiling. At the desk is a familiar face - Harry Leich, one of the few LC people I have known for years from various Slavic studies conferences. It used to be a room for receptions, but now houses the reference materials for the seven most popular European countries and work space for researchers. Printing is free. There is an overflow reference stack area for the other countries, including the Baltics. We walked past some very nice offices in a two story dark wood structure. There was an area for copy machines, microfilm readers/printers, etc. Their latest gadget was Book2net, a book scanner. You set the book down pages up, put in your flash drive, and push a button. It had its glitches, but I used it successfully.

To get to ask for the calendars I wanted for my friend, I needed to get a Reader Card in the Madison building next door. OK, this will be a good experience in seeing the process a researcher has to go through. Most of my previous visits to LC were to catalogers in the Madison building, one of the most confusing buildings I have ever tried to navigate, even though they have tried to color code the corridors like in my childhood Parcheesi boards. Harry suggested I use the tunnels, so I didn't have to go outside or through security again, so I wound my way through the maze, though at one point when I was looking for an elevator, an elderly reader pointed it out to me with the comment "You looked like a tourist - no insult intended."

Registration was painless - you show your ID, they record it. Then you sit down at a computer and fill in your address, age (16-17 or 18 plus) and status. I could indicate I was a faculty member. I also had to fill out some of the same info on a paper form. Then a person pulled up my data, snapped a photo of me, and voilĂ  I now have an LC Reader Card. I should be in the system permanently, but need to renew the card after two years.

While in the Madison Building, I checked out the Prints and Photographs division, that has some Baltic materials. Their restrictions were even tighter than at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. I was only allowed o bring in loose paper (no file folder), my iPad (but had to take it our of the case) and my camera (sans case.) While I was there, cartoonist Pat Oliphant came in and was being helped, the librarian helping me was excited. I still can't say I get half of what is in these collections, but it is a room full of vertical files of images and card catalogs and finding aids. Of course there is the online catalog to many of the images, and so many of them are old enough to be out of copyright that they have been digitized and are available open access. But there are lots of collections still with only card catalog or print finding aid access and a number of unprocessed collections. A simple, but cool reference tool they had was a sheet listing of all the various collections they have that a researcher can use to map out what collection has something pertinent to their research, and so they remember what they have looked at and what still needs to be checked. I keep wondering how we could adapt it in our library for those difficult marketing assignments or just general research.

I returned to the European Reading Room, ordered my calendars, made my copies, and emailed them to the friend. I knew that he would be impressed, but had to laugh when he asked where he could nominate me for a Emmy/Grammy/Oscar for librarians.

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