Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is an institution for the American people. It stands shaded by its master, the US Capitol, but it is still an impressive building.
When I studied there about thirty years ago, it was really for the people. There was a casual atmosphere. Although there were policemen about to defend the haven of knowledge against intrusion and theft, they did not seem to be much concerned about these disasters, for they were usually joking among themselves when you entered the building. And when you left they would drop a bored look into your bag and wave you on.
In the main reading room the voices of the library assistants and readers and the banging of the flap door in the main desk echoed into the height of the copula. Books came down with a soft thud on the circles of wooden desks around the middle area, their pages whispering on being opened.
I was greatly awed by the machinations of the biggest library in the world. By the maze of stacks, accessible to the readers with a stack pass, that stretched deeper and deeper into the vaults underground. I was impressed by the bookcases full of reference books that circled up on balconies under the rotunda, and extended into intimate little rooms beyond. The catalogue could not be housed in the big catalogue room anymore and spilled into the hallways around the corner.
Sitting at a desk at the center of the temple of knowledge I learnt to concentrate and let the noises be the backdrop of my study. Other readers were going seriously about their business, and so was I.
The Library of Congress was truly for the people. One day the person sitting at the next desk was not reading. He was leaning his dishevelled head on his folded arms on the desktop, his shabby overcoat hanging loosely around him. As I staked out my place, he looked up with restless, paranoid eyes and smelled his breath of alcohol. Only when I had settled in, did he lay his head down again.
He was one of a kind. More common were the shopping bag ladies, who would come in during the winter like field mice into a house. These street women would sit at the only two available tables in the little coffee shop off the underground passageway from the Main Building to the Annex. Their big bags in which they hauled all their possessions would block the passage and we, the readers, would be drinking our muddy soup from Styrofoam cups, crammed between the walls and the vending machines that sold soggy sandwiches.
The little coffee shop was the underworld in comparison with the lofty reading room. Either was equally open to all the people of America.
But that was then. And this is now. Times have changed, and no doubt the Library of Congress has changed with them.

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