By DONNA URSCHEL
The statistics are mind-boggling: more than 111 million items -- books, recordings, photographs, maps and manuscripts -- in the Library of Congress, the world's largest library.
This treasure trove covers 532 miles of bookshelves -- or as Dr. Billington once said, "Imagine the distance from Washington, D.C., to Detroit, every inch of the drive lined with books."
So, considering the magnitude of these holdings, this next fact may seem incongruous: the Library is a choosey institution.
It is selective. It has standards. Contrary to popular myth, the Library of Congress does not have a copy of every book ever published.
"Our objective is to get every book the Library wants and no book it doesn't want," said Michael W. Albin, acting director for Acquisitions and Support Services.
What the Library wants has everything to do with what it does. According to Dr. Billington, the first priority of the Library is to serve the information and research needs of Congress.
The second priority, he said, is "to preserve, secure and sustain for the present and future use of Congress and the nation a universal collection of human knowledge, including a comprehensive record of American history and creativity."
Essential to this mission are nearly 150 employees in the Acquisitions and Support Services Directorate. Every day, they make "yea" or "nay" decisions on what stands on the shelves of the Library of Congress and what will therefore find its place in posterity.
The materials pouring in come from copyright submissions, the Cataloging in Publication program, purchases, exchanges with national and international institutions, transfers from other federal agencies and gifts. In fiscal 1996, more than 23,000 pieces were received by the Library each working day. (Copyright law entitles the Library to two copies of every book, map, chart, dramatic or musical composition, engraving, cut, print or photograph published in the Unites States and submitted for copyright.)
When the material arrives, it is handled "piece by piece" to determine whether it meets the Library's guidelines.
Every day at 1 p.m., Lolita Silva, a selection librarian, dons her apron, grabs a pencil -- red at one end, blue at the other -- and walks down to the Copyright Office to go through recent submissions. She and another selection librarian, Hartley Walsh, examine about 600 books per day and decide which books to keep for the Library's collections. A red "X" on the title page means "no," a blue check indicates the Library wants one copy and a yellow slip inserted in the book means it wants both copies.
The Library usually rejects individual company sales manuals, advertisements, coloring books, elementary and high school textbooks (except in U.S. history), instructors' manuals, student workbooks and self-published books except for genealogies, local histories and other publications of special interest. It accepts trade, university press, small press and original mass market publications. Phone books, city directories and children's books are also added to the Library's collections. The Library collects materials in all subjects, except technical agriculture and clinical medicine, which are kept by the National Agricultural Library and the National Library of Medicine.
"My judgments are based on experience," said Ms. Silva, who peruses the books at height-adjustable tables designed to prevent backaches.
Ms. Silva and Mr. Walsh are guided by the Collections Policy Statements, which fill a 3-inch-thick looseleaf notebook. The Library has been formulating these policies over the past 45 years, basing them on three fundamental principles: collect materials necessary for Congress to perform its duties; collect books and materials that record the life and achievement of the American people; collect records of other societies, past and present.
On this particular day, Ms. Silva finds an "interesting mix" of books. She places a big red X (no thanks) on Developing Educational Leaders, a publication that appeared to be a seminar handout. She places a yellow slip (two copies, please) in Louisville Slugger: The Ultimate Book of Hitting.
The University of New Mexico has sent in a large shipment. Ms. Silva figures she'll take most of them, including Amphibians and Reptiles of New Mexico, and Yesterday's Train: A Rail Odyssey through Mexican History. After working on the job for nearly 26 years, Ms. Silva is familiar with the quality and types of books sent in by the various publishers.
What if she's uncertain about a book? "That usually means you should keep it," Ms. Silva says.
The accepted items are sorted and directed to the proper divisions and offices. Any surplus copies and those that are rejected start a different journey. Some are sent immediately to the Library's Exchange and Gift Division, where they might find a home in a foreign land as an exchange item or elsewhere in the United States as a donation to a public or school library.
The Exchange and Gift Division maintains exchanges with nearly 10,000 libraries, academies of sciences, universities and think tanks in the United States and around the world. About 90 of the libraries are the official national or parliamentary facilities of various foreign countries.
Donald P. Panzera, chief of the division, said the exchanges are pretty even: "They send us a certain amount, we send them comparable documents."
The foreign national libraries are sent a package of several thousand reports, journals and other U.S. government publications produced by the Government Printing Office (GPO). For the libraries that want fewer publications, they are sent a partial GPO set of 2,000 items.
In addition to the official government publications, a big part of the exchange program involves the Library's surplus materials. The unwanted and extra material from copyright is part of this group, as well as the surplus materials, about 800,000 a year, that are transferred to the Library from federal libraries and agencies.
Librarians from the Exchange and Gift Division pick through the surplus, put together lists of items and offer them to the foreign and U.S. libraries in the exchange program.
Gifts are another source of material for the Library. More than 46,000 items arrived in Exchange and Gift in fiscal 1996, and more than 2.5 million pieces were received by custodial divisions. Gifts come in many packages. They could be as simple as a family donating their generations-old Bible or as complicated as the extensive papers and letters of a U.S. president or Supreme Court justice.
Mr. Panzera said many unusual items find their way to the Library. He was pleased with the recent gift acquisition of a 1911 commemorative work on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. It had been owned by a man who worked on the railway, and his relatives donated it to the Library.
"People just appear at the door. One man said he was visiting from Colombia, had written a book on the drug trade and offered it as a gift. It turned out to be a very good addition to our collections," said Mr. Panzera.
Overseas offices in six locations around the world also purchase books for the Library's collections. They concentrate on acquiring hard-to-get foreign publications. The offices -- run by American directors and staffed by 150 to 200 Foreign Service nationals -- are in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Cairo, Egypt; Nairobi, Kenya; Islamabad, Pakistan; New Delhi, India; and Jakarta, Indonesia. The offices are regional and conduct their purchasing efforts in 66 countries.
In addition to serving the Library of Congress, these offices run cooperative acquisitions programs for nearly 100 institutions, primarily academic research libraries, such as Harvard, Yale and the University of Illinois. Representing so many institutions gives the Library leverage in negotiating purchases and prices.
Although they began primarily as acquisitions units, these overseas offices are conducting cataloging and preservation efforts, such as microfilming.
Linda Pletzke, acting chief of the Order Division, concedes it is difficult to quantify the division's scope and responsibilities. Administering a fiscal year 1997 library materials budget of $8.5 million, supplemented by gift and trust funding, she takes pride in the knowledge that her staff has direct contact with book trade people throughout much of the world while maintaining a close working relationship with most of the divisions and offices within the Library, and that her division deals with material in virtually every format available.
"The Order Division is responsible for all purchase acquisitions for library materials, mostly foreign, that are not available through exchange, gift or copyright deposit," she says. "This is accomplished through a large network of dealers everywhere in the world except those areas served by the Library's Overseas Operations (OVOP) offices and the Hispanic Acquisitions Section of the Exchange and Gift Division."
Ms. Pletzke believes one of her biggest challenges is keeping within budget. The constant change generated by world politics and the recent explosion in technological advances mean flexibility and the capability to respond swiftly are essential requirements to maintaining an uninterrupted flow of materials to the Library.
Jim MacLeod, head of the Subscription and Microform Section, directs the purchase of periodical and serial titles through another complex network of vendors around the world for the Library's general collections, reading rooms and offices. "The great majority of our microform sources are acquired via purchase," he says, "while we also handle formats such as video and audiotapes and photographs. Many of these materials are destined for archival collections, such as those of the American Folklife Center."
Mr. MacLeod's Section is also responsible for the acquisition of electronic resources, some of which the Library purchases, such as CD-ROMs, and some to which access is purchased, such as OCLC First Search. Pat Barber, machine-readable materials coordinator, explains that "within the past year, the Library has begun purchasing full-text files such as Johns Hopkins's Project Muse." Often complicated licensing negotiations are conducted in acquiring these materials, she adds. This is a very dynamic field, and the Library is now in a better position to take advantage of this. Ms. Barber points out that the recent reopening of the area-studies reading rooms, with their enhanced capability to use electronic resources, has led to a surge in demand for these materials within the Library.
Valerie Mwalilino is the head of the Order Division's African and Middle Eastern Acquisitions Section and faces challenges of a quite different kind. "The African and Middle Eastern states," she says, "have little organized book trade. Political, economic and social instability, as well as significant distribution problems, mean that we make a very focused and concentrated effort through dedicated and determined individuals to acquire materials from those areas not covered by OVOP. And, in spite of all the adversities they encounter, they do just that." Compounding the difficulty of their task, she adds, is the fact that these materials are in many thousands of languages, most of them in non-Roman scripts.
The Exchange and Gift, Order and Overseas Operations divisions and the Acquisitions Bibliographic Support Project plan to reorganize "geographically" in the near future. The new units will be Anglo/American; African/Asian and Overseas Operations; and European/Latin American Acquisitions divisions. The acquisition duties within each unit will combine purchase, exchange and gift work.
The final step in the acquisition process is called "disposal." The small number of purchased materials that are rejected (about 100 a year) and the thousands of castoffs from Exchange and Gift aren't just thrown out with the trash. These items are placed on shelves in the basement of the Madison Building, where they can be examined and selected by federal agencies, book dealers and school librarians. The book dealers work out a trade or exchange; the others receive the items free. And the books no one wants are dispatched to the General Services Administration for disposal.
It's these ins and outs of the Library of Congress that result in a priceless storehouse of universal knowledge.