A Library’s Global Reach

Posted June 9, 2009 at 3:26pm

The Library of Congress takes its mandate as the research arm of the legislative branch very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that it isn’t content to stick to the confines of Capitol Hill.

The Library’s Overseas Operations Division incorporates six offices — from Nairobi, Kenya, to Rio de Janeiro — in parts of the world “where there was not a robust and stable mechanism— for acquiring materials already in place, according to Beacher Wiggins, who serves as acting Overseas Operations Division chief and director for acquisitions and bibliographic access.

“Congress is keenly interested— in the kinds of materials that these offices collect, Wiggins said. Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the African and Middle Eastern Division, said many of the books collected have a direct effect on policy issues. For instance, she cited manuscripts written in Arabic that described how to make peace with warring tribes, referencing traditional methods and Islamic law. International scholars often research at the Library of Congress because it frequently has the largest collection of less-accessible countries’ manuscripts outside of those countries, she added.

Among the materials collected recently are the artifacts displayed in the “Obamabilia From Africa!— exhibit in Deeb’s division. (See related article.)

The Nairobi office first started collecting newspapers, clothing and posters related to the election of President Barack Obama in November 2008 and soon enlisted U.S. embassies across Africa in building the collection.

The offices were originally established as part of the Agricultural Trade and Development Act, which was initiated in 1954 under the influence of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). Wiggins said they were first launched in poor countries as a way of repaying the debt that they owed to the U.S. by exchanging materials for funding.

“It’s a history of having some funds in particular areas of the world and some forward-thinking librarians working with Congress coming up with ways of liquidating, if you will, some of the original debt and at the same time getting materials from those countries as sort of a quid pro quo,— he said.

The first three offices opened in 1962 in Cairo, New Delhi and Karachi, Pakistan, and have shifted to different cities over the years. Today the overseas offices have to be appropriated funds and received an authorization of $14 million in fiscal 2008, Wiggins said. That number includes $4.4 million paid to the State Department for the space that Library employees occupy in embassies and $5 million for salaries. After a request from Congress, the Library is reviewing the offices to make sure they are still serving their purpose in regions that make sense as part of the fiscal 2009 appropriations process.

Each office employs an American field director and local staffers. The largest office, located in New Delhi, also has a deputy field director who’s an American. Because of security issues, the director of the Islamabad office works out of the New Delhi office and travels to Pakistan six to eight times each year. Some of the larger regions have “sub-offices,— where one local reports to the field office. The smallest office is in Rio de Janeiro. Additional offices are in Cairo; Nairobi, Kenya; and Jakarta, Indonesia.

If money were no issue, Beacher said he would like to add an office in China as well as in western Africa to supplement the offices in Cairo and Nairobi.

In addition to supplying books and materials to the Library of Congress, the overseas offices serve a second role as part of the Cooperative Acquisitions Program. Eighty American institutions and 25 foreign institutions, including academic libraries, think tanks and government agencies, receive alerts from the offices periodically letting them know what materials the Library of Congress has acquired recently and how they can arrange to get copies. The Library charges them only the cost of the book and shipping.

“We consider ourselves the national library, and we have a service orientation,— Wiggins said. Part of Wiggins’ “fairly monumental— task is approving acquisitions that the overseas offices request. He said he rarely turns them down.

“The Library of Congress is one of the few national libraries that has a universal collecting policy,— he said.