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Library of Congress: the Unexpected Diplomat

Maps in the Library of Congress Madison Building. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

One doesn't typically expect terrorism to become a topic of discussion at hearing about library funding.  

But that's exactly what happened on March 17, as the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee assessed the budget requests of the Library of Congress and the Architect of the Capitol.  

"You're the world's resource and we've been reading the news reports of ISIS members destroying artifacts of ancient civilizations," the panel's chairwoman, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, said to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, teeing up a question about a little-known aspect of the Library of Congress. "How has the library's overseas operation been impacted, if at all, by any kind of ongoing terrorist activities in the Middle East?" the West Virginia Republican then asked. Billington went on to describe how the library provides expertise on salvaging and protecting materials. Mark Sweeney, the associate librarian for library services, noted increased security costs for protecting its overseas offices.  

All of the LOC's six overseas offices are in often unstable regions, but that's by design. The offices serve areas that may not have systems in place to archive and catalog books, publications, newspapers, maps, etc.  

"Modern collection infrastructure doesn’t exist in a whole lot of places," Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the ranking member of the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, explained in an interview. "So the reach of the Library of Congress [extends] to places where we would lose these important publications to history, to the ashes, or to floods, or to the simple lack of ability to share and preserve them."  

In January 2010, Wasserman Schultz led a congressional delegation to the Middle East, and they stopped at the LOC office in Cairo, Egypt. At the time, the Florida Democrat chaired the subcommittee, and she thought the trip was an ample opportunity for its seven lawmakers to learn more about the overseas offices.  

"Members walked around the office and really enjoyed listening to the excitement and enthusiasm of the director," Wasserman Schultz said, describing the Cairo office as a "normal looking" with sparse walls. "He clearly loved his work. ... He was very clear about how important it is and what would be lost if we were not there."  

The Cairo office acquires materials from 23 countries in the surrounding region, including Iraq, Syria and Yemen. In 2011, the office temporarily closed as nonessential U.S. personnel left the country during the Egyptian revolution. Beacher Wiggins, the acting chief of the LOC's overseas operations division, said in a phone interview that Cairo is one of two offices with the highest security risk. The other is in Islamabad, Pakistan.  

The remaining offices are located in Jakarta, Indonesia; Nairobi, Kenya; New Dehli, India; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For lawmakers, these offices play a vital role in understanding the tumultuous developments in Middle East.  

"If you want to understand the Middle East, and what groups there are saying abut the United States and our allies, then we need to be out aggressively collecting pamphlets and propaganda that’s only available if you have personnel on the ground," Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn, told CQ Roll Call. Murphy was part of the CODEL that visited the Cairo office five years ago when he was in the House, and he said he did not know these offices existed.  

"I never knew that there was a Library of Congress facility outside of the United States, so the visit was eye-opening," Murphy said. "I gained an appreciation for all of this material in Arabic that we wouldn’t get our hands on unless we had personnel on the ground in the Middle East."  

Those materials include maps, newspapers, pamphlets, videos, recorded sounds and photographs. One office even acquired Osama bin Laden's autobiography, Billington noted in an April 2010 appropriations hearing.  

According to Wiggins, in 2015 these offices are expected to cost the library $10.1 million total, a fraction of its more than $600 million dollar budget. That cost does not include $2.5 million in annual security fees, though the offices are typically housed in U.S. embassy compounds.  

Like other legislative branch agencies, the LOC has been hit by budget cuts in recent years, and the overseas offices have had to adjust to the shrinking budget.  

"Probably the most impactful hit has to do with acquisitions travel,” Wiggins said. “As the budget is cut, the directors have to prioritize and think which countries it wants to visit any given year. ... It calls on them to rethink how they can take advantage of being in the local area.”  

Wiggins said despite budget cuts, the library is not looking at closing any of the offices. Between 1962, when the offices were established, and 1986, the LOC operated 23 overseas offices. But in 1987, that number shrank to six, which are still in operation.  

"We’re not looking actively at this point of closing any,” Wiggins said, adding that they weren't looking to expand either. "I frankly don’t expect that we would establish a new office any place, just because it’s so expensive.”  

Wasserman Schultz said the legislative branch budget is a frequent target for lawmakers looking to cut spending, but she has never had to make the case that these overseas offices must remain intact.  

"I don’t think most members know that we have overseas offices for the Library of Congress," she said. "If they ask, we are able to talk about it in hearings. And Dr. Billington has a very thorough, justifiable response. And then we have those of us who have been out to see them that can back them up. But it’s not come up. It’s not an extraordinary amount of money.”  

Wiggins pointed out that these offices have robust acquisition practices. In 2014, the offices acquired more than 800,000 items, and reformatted more than 1.3 million pages of newspapers, periodicals and pamphlets. The materials came from 79 countries and spanned 120 different languages.  

The LOC also employs more than 200 foreign service nationals, with an American director leading each office. The local employees are vital to the collection process, since they know the languages and understand their regions' cultures.  

As Wasserman Schultz noted, these offices also play an important role as the United States works to foster relationships in the Middle East.  

"It’s also part of American diplomacy, where it’s a positive foot forward for the United States," Wasserman Schultz said. "It’s a really good way to show good will and the United States’ good intentions, because obviously this is these nations’ historical record as well, that they would lose if not for our preservation efforts.” The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.