(The following is a story written by Mark Hartsell, editor of the Library’s staff newsletter, The Gazette, for the July-August 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine.)
The sun truly never sets on collecting at the Library of Congress. At any given hour, somewhere on the planet, an employee is acquiring material to add to the world’s largest library.
Scattered across 11 time zones, from Brazil to Indonesia, the Library’s six field offices acquire hard- to-get publications from developing nations for its own collections and those of other U.S. and global research institutions. It’s a vast undertaking that requires knowledgeable people at the source. Wherever material is published—be it Syria, Pakistan, Cambodia, Rwanda, Nepal or Suriname—the Library of Congress is, in some fashion, there.
“Really, for much of what we collect, no other libraries do so on this scale,” said William Kopycki, director of the Cairo field office. “We’re the only library in the world that has this concept of overseas offices.”
In the years following World War II, the Library and U.S. academic institutions recognized the importance developing regions would play in a changing world—and the need to better understand the history, politics, religion and culture of these far-flung places. So, the Library, beginning in the early 1960s, established nearly two-dozen field offices around the globe. Today, six remain, in Cairo; Islamabad; Jakarta, Indonesia; Nairobi, Kenya; New Delhi and Rio de Janeiro. Their mission: supply the Library and other research institutions with tough-to-acquire primary materials from developing regions to ensure Congress, analysts and scholars get critical information.
A WORLD OF CHALLENGES
Carrying out that mission in developing countries presents serious challenges. War, terrorism, political unrest, censorship, poverty, huge geographic distances, scores of languages, underdeveloped infrastructure, unreliable power grids and a lack of publishing standards all pose difficulties.
In 2011 and again in 2013, massive, violent political protests forced the temporary closure of the Cairo office and the evacuation of its director, Kopycki, from Egypt. The U.S. State Department at times denied approval for acquisition trips for fear that an airport would close and leave Cairo employees stranded – decisions, Kopycki said, “made to keep us safe.”
Islamabad is risky enough that the director oversees that office from 430 miles away in New Delhi, flying back to Pakistan’s capital city several times a year. The Library’s office in Nairobi is located in the U.S. embassy complex built after the 1998 bombing of the old embassy. Last year, terrorists attacked a shopping mall in Nairobi, killing nearly 70 people.
“Just coming into work can be challenging, given the critical threat faced by this country with terrorism,” said Pamela Howard-Reguindin, former director of the Nairobi office, who now heads the Islamabad office.
AT THE SOURCE
Despite the difficulties, the overseas offices collect a huge range and volume of material: government documents, newspapers, magazines, academic journals, monographs, books, maps, DVDs, CDs and, in recent years, websites—in all, more than 663,000 items in fiscal year 2013.
The offices also cover a vast geographic and linguistic range. In the last fiscal year, they acquired and cataloged material from 79 countries in about 120 languages. Such an effort requires knowledgeable people at the source, wherever on the globe it may be.
“The only way to get some of these materials is to be there and pick them up as they come hot off the press, so to speak,” said Beacher Wiggins, who directs the overseas offices for the Library of Congress. “Particularly in areas where there may be dissident views or dissident groups that challenge the government or espouse a different view, you wouldn’t get these through normal publishing channels. By the time you got that kind of information, it would be two or three years later. Firsthand scholarship would suffer. Congress wouldn’t necessarily get firsthand accounts of what’s going on.”
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE IS KEY
Each office is led by an American director and staffed by locals—about 240 in total—who serve as librarians, catalogers, accountants, information technology specialists, shipping clerks and drivers. Most of the catalogers and librarians have library science degrees or advanced degrees.
The local employees’ knowledge and linguistic skills are invaluable in navigating the myriad cultures and languages, the huge geographic spaces and the sometimes-tricky political terrain. They also possess another important skill: They know what to get and where and how to get it.
“Because the staffers are local, they know the language, they know the culture,” Wiggins said. “They know when it might be imprudent to advertise that they are collecting as a U.S. government employee.”
Each overseas office covers a group of countries in its region. The Jakarta office, for example, collects from Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam. The Nairobi office covers 29 countries over a gigantic swath of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Material is gathered through a blend of methods—relationships with commercial vendors, bibliographic representatives who collect on the offices’ behalf and acquisitions trips made by field office staff.
“We do know the sources, where to get things,” Kopycki said. “It’s how to engage to get the things that are really unique and special.”
The materials they choose—in collaboration with the collections divisions in the Library’s Capitol Hill offices— are selected for the quality of scholarship, the importance of subject and the extent to which it adds to the knowledge of a topic. Sometimes they represent new cultural trends, such as graphic novels produced in North Africa and drawn in Japanese anime style. Other material frequently is controversial and from underground sources.
“We spent the last couple of years in particular since the Egyptian revolution gathering ephemera and pamphlets,” Kopycki said. “This culture of publishing ephemeral materials with heavy political tones was really unknown in Cairo the past 30 years.”
SHARING WITH THE GLOBE
Many institutions benefit from the hunting and gathering done by the Library’s local employees.
The offices provide material—some 375,000 items in the last fiscal year—to 80 other U.S. institutions and 24 foreign institutions through the Cooperative Acquisitions Program. Those institutions could acquire major commercial publications from some developing nations on their own. The Library field offices do what they can’t: acquire less-accessible material and items from harder-to-cover countries.
“That’s really a unique service, not just for our parent institution but for our participant libraries as well,” Kopycki said. “We’re acting as their eyes and ears to get materials that otherwise are not readily available.”
All that collecting requires a lot of other work— cataloging, accounting, processing, packing and shipping—to make sure everything arrives safely and in the right place. Shipping is a big part of what the offices do. In fiscal 2013, they collectively shipped about 180 tons of material by sea and air freight to the Library and Cooperative Acquisitions Program participants.
“It’s all these things that you don’t picture a traditional librarian doing that our staff does in order to make sure that book, that newspaper, that DVD arrives in the hands of a researcher in Washington,” Kopycki said.
The flow of that material, gathered at the source in countries around the globe, helps ensure that the Library of Congress, and other libraries, have the firsthand resources Congress, analysts and scholars need now, and decades in the future.
“These areas still are in turmoil and, in some instances, changing their worldview or becoming a powerhouse,” Wiggins said. “The overseas offices are critical in supplying Congress information as well as supplying research materials scholars might need 10, 50, 100 years from now.”
Download the July-August 2014 issue of the LCM in its entirety here. You can also view the archives of the Library’s former publication from 1993 to 2011.