These are some of the several quiet moves that hint at much larger changes underway at the Library of Congress.
As libraries adapt to an increasingly networked and digital world, leading institutions are rethinking their use of physical spaces as well. At the Library of Congress, that means consolidating multiple reading rooms and making the experience of in-person researching more like the kind of one-stop shop we’ve come to expect online, a controversial plan that’s still being debated.
At the same time, planners are trying to make online presentations feel more intuitive by designing collections of photos and navigation tools on the library’s Web site so that they operate like Facebook, Amazon.com and other popular sites. Digital and physical changes play off one another.
For the first time in 40 years, a small team is also reinventing the way the library catalogues resources, developing a system that’s designed to become the new global standard. Elsewhere in the library, staffers are creating the institution’s first holistic online strategy of the Internet age and restructuring its stable of Web sites.
Bill Kellum, who oversees Web and mobile initiatives at the library, is leading an effort to centralize online resources by reining in the sprawl of countless Web sites that sprang up independently from various divisions of the library in the 1990s. Something similar is happening offline as the library weighs a plan to merge several existing reading rooms into the Main Reading Room.
“People compare libraries to churches,” said Kathryn Zickuhr, a researcher who has studied how libraries are changing for the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. “People talk about them as sacred spaces. Libraries evoke this sense of awe, this place of stillness and quietness and reflection. So there’s this central tension we’re seeing between the more traditional role of libraries and newer roles libraries have taken on.”
The Library of Congress claims to be the largest library in the world, with more than 155 million books, recordings, photographs, maps, documents and other items.It adds about 11,000 new items to its collection every day.
But where the Library of Congress used to meticulously index documents before making them public, it is now experimenting with sharing some resources before they have been fully catalogued. One of the most recent examples is the decision to make some of the papers of American Red Cross founder and civil rights activist Clara Barton available online.