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Overflowing Shelves Threaten Library of Congress' Mission

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

For the repository that prides itself on having the largest and most diverse collection in the world, constant additions to its shelves should be a good thing for the Library of Congress.

But the centuries-old institution has a problem: It's running out of room.

The Library of Congress, which provides research support to lawmakers and the public alike and serves as a clearinghouse of virtually every type of information imaginable, has more than 151 million items in its possession. In fiscal 2011 alone, the LOC received more than 4 million new items.

Of the 151 million, 23 million are books. They line the floor-to-ceiling shelves of the white-walled stacks that make up several floors in the Thomas Jefferson Building.

The books are also in some places where they don't belong - on the floor, in some cases lining the entire length of an aisle, and on the metal carts used to wheel volumes throughout the library.

This overflow situation has reached a tipping point, said Saul Schniderman, president of the Library of Congress Professional Guild.

"The Library of Congress here on Capitol Hill can't handle all the material that is coming in," Schniderman said, adding that about 1,250 new books come into the Library each day. "Not only can't they handle it, it is now beyond the crisis stage."

Schniderman and others said books are fundamentally vulnerable on the floor, where a maintenance issue such as a leak or flood could destroy older and valuable tomes. Books obstructing narrow passageways between stacks also present a safety hazard for reference librarians.

The lack of adequate storage space could also threaten the integrity of how the Library of Congress does its business and assists patrons. The Library could soon begin to store books in boxes by height rather than by call number, a system known as "fixed shelving" that better uses every available space on a shelf. Though books on certain popular subjects will be exempt from the new shelving system, as identified by the Congressional Research Service, fixed shelving could create problems for reference librarians.

"A few years ago, I had a question from a Member of Congress who wanted to know what the level of knowledge of economics was among the founders, what books they would have known about on economics," recalled reference librarian Thomas Mann, a 30-year veteran of the Library and author of "The Oxford Guide to Library Research."

The topic, Mann said, was obscure enough that he had difficulty locating specific titles. Because volumes were grouped together in the same classification area in the stacks, however, he was able to find what he was looking for.

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