LOC Officials Defend Collection’s Security

Posted October 24, 2007 at 6:40pm

Lawmakers questioned Library of Congress officials Wednesday on why they can’t find at least 10 percent of their general collection — raising questions about the agency’s inventory, funding, security and priorities.

But in the end, members of the House Administration Committee seemed reassured by the LOC officials, who testified that the agency’s security is effective. Instead, questions focused on the Library’s slow-moving efforts to catalogue the movements of every individual item in its general collection. Without that cataloguing, officials simply can’t tell what is missing and what is misplaced.

“They certainly have to know what they have,” House Administration ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) said after the oversight hearing. “They have to make sure that what goes out the door comes back.”

In March, the Library’s inspector general reported that 17 percent of the collection could not be found — a total Library officials say is now 10 percent — thanks to an archaic inventory system, which can lead to items being misplaced or simply looked for in the wrong place.

But since 2002, the Library has been working to update the system by putting an electronic tag on each of 17 million items. Those items under the upgraded system can be scanned and run through a computer, updating their status every time they are checked out or moved to a new facility. Originally slated for completion by 2010, the agency has completed the transition for only 20 percent of the 17 million items. About 8 million items from different collections were entered as they moved to facilities in Fort Meade, Md., and Culpeper, Va.

House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) said after the hearing that the system for completing this process may need to be looked at again.

“It should get redone,” he said, but added that it’s the same old complaint. “Everybody needs more funding and more staff.”

Librarian of Congress James Billington said at the hearing that the effort is difficult and costly. The Library has received about $1.1 million a year for the program since beginning it in 2002.

“The size and complexity of our ongoing inventory efforts have no precedent in the library community,” he said, later adding that the “costs will be astronomical on an inventory of this size.”

Ehlers agreed that the project may be behind schedule because of limited funding for a process never before attempted by such a large agency. But he also added that the Library desperately needs an effective inventory system.

“I think we have to temper it a little,” Ehlers said after the hearing. “If we don’t give them funding to do the full job, then we can’t put all the responsibility on them.”

Missing books is a problem at every library in the nation, and several librarians interviewed at the hearing estimated that the percentage of “not on shelf” books is higher in individual libraries because of open shelves and a lack of security systems. The “not on shelf” number is a reflection of how many books requested cannot be found in the place they are supposed to be.

But some committee members, including Ehlers, urged the library to look at private-sector businesses such as Wal-Mart and Target that are able to keep ongoing, accurate inventory counts.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R) maintained that the Library’s calls for more staff and funding were unnecessary, comparing it to creating a new inventory process for criminal histories when he was California’s attorney general.

“This fact of the matter is it wasn’t more money, it wasn’t more manpower, it was having the right system in place,” he said.

Getting that system in place, however, is hard to do when the Library adds an average of 10,000 items to its collections every day, officials said. It is not a museum, they explained; it is a constantly growing institution. Materials must first be acquired and then inventoried, said Deanna Marcum, LOC associate librarian for library services.

“Our first priority has to be to acquire the material in the first place because without them we can’t provide access,” Marcum said. “Acquiring has to come first.”

Several witnesses from the American Bar Association at the hearing also brought up inventory problems at the LOC’s Law Library. Former Rep. Bill Orton (D-Utah), a member of the ABA standing committee on the Law Library of Congress, testified that the Library cannot catalogue, classify and shelve items quickly enough because of funding shortages. But while the larger Library may find it hard to get any increases for its inventory process, committee members hinted that they would work to solve this problem in a new way: a partnership of public and private funds.

“I think there’s room to work on this, but it will take a little time,” Ehlers said.