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.
"If books had not been shelved next to each other, they could have been anywhere," Mann said. "I would have had to have known their names to begin with. This is the kind of capability that is in jeopardy if we don't have more space. We won't be able to continue to shelve books on the same subjects next to each other."
Nobody denies that something has to change, but expanding shelving and storage capacity at the Library depends on Congress agreeing to allocate funds that are in short supply across all agencies.
In testimonies before the Appropriations subcommittees on the legislative branch in both chambers, Librarian of Congress James Billington has emphasized the need for Congress to fund construction of a fifth state-of-the-art storage module at Fort Meade, a 100-acre site in Anne Arundel County, Md.
Thirteen were planned when the module plan was first envisioned in the late 1990s. Four have been built so far, and all are due to reach capacity by October.
Congress has not yet provided funding for construction of Module 5, which would have to be included in the Architect of the Capitol's budget rather than the Library's because the AOC would be doing the construction work.
No money is likely to become available in the near future, though. To avoid an election-year budget showdown, House and Senate leaders have agreed to extend current funding levels through March 2013, and any new line items will have to be fought for tooth and nail. The AOC is more likely to push for an additional $61 million to fix the aging Capitol Dome than funds to give the Library more storage space.
"If the Congress wants to solve this problem, it will have to build a fifth module," Schniderman said.
AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki declined to comment on how the agency is prioritizing Module 5 construction.
In the meantime, the Library will have to make due with floor storage and fixed shelving. It will also probably have to send more items to a warehouse in Landover, Md., which isn't up to optimal standards for storing old and valuable items and doesn't allow for as quick retrieval times as Fort Meade, where there are daily runs to and from Capitol Hill.
At some point, the Library could come up against another challenge in collection management, when the construction of a new staircase to assist in fire emergencies will likely permanently displace some storage space in the stacks.
Library Communications Director Gayle Osterberg acknowledges the problem, while emphasizing that it isn't as though Congress has forsaken the institution entirely. The four Fort Meade modules have been instrumental in helping the Library fulfill its mission, she said, and are just the most recent example of lawmakers funding expansions as the Library has grown.
"Expanding the Library's facilities is critical to ensuring we can fulfill our mission of building and maintaining a current, comprehensive collective of knowledge and creativity accessible to Congress and the nation," Osterberg said. "The current situation is not ideal, and no one is arguing that it is, but we are living in the same budgetary environment as everyone else."