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"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."