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An Australian Librarian Visits the Library of Congress

Brendan Bachmann is a library science student from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He spent two weeks with Business Reference staff at the Library of Congress in January 2020.

Coming from a very different background, having worked for six years in various public libraries in Australia, it has been a fascinating experience spending two weeks working at the Library of Congress. I thought it might be worthwhile to compare some of my distinctly different experiences in this library to those in public libraries in Australia, to give a sense of the diversity of libraries.

The first, most significant point of contrast is an obvious one – the sheer scale of the Library of Congress. Until now, I’ve never worked in an individual library with more than 50 employees nor more than 100,000 items. The Library of Congress has three thousand staff and over 150 million items. It has been evident that such a large workforce comes with myriad benefits and an incredible diversity of knowledge and skillsets, but also comes with challenges in the sense that there is no way you can possibly know and communicate with all of your colleagues, leading to a risk of work silos. Having such a large collection means that if you’re looking for a book, the Library of Congress probably has it, but makes keyword searching the catalogue borderline overwhelming. 

Another difference is the sense of history within the physical spaces at the Library of Congress. The Australian public libraries I’ve worked in have all been built in the last two decades, with sustainable design and a focus on usability. The Jefferson and Adams buildings, where I spent much of my time at the Library of Congress, are beautiful, historic pieces of architecture, which I honestly spent a lot of time just admiring, but of course they also inevitably come with some impracticalities around certain features having to be retrofit. Compared to my public library experience, the Library of Congress is much statelier and certainly much, much quieter. A self-selecting group of researchers, who are for the most part seemingly middle-class adults use the library. This contrast certainly makes for very different experiences on the reference desk!

Photo courtesy Brendan Bachmann.

Something that took a little while to get used to is the distinctly different mechanisms of the library. Books are arranged by the Library of Congress classification system, whereas back home, the Dewey Decimal system is the default for nonfiction collections. In addition, due to the sheer size of the collection and for preservation purposes, the vast majority of content is not available for on-shelf browsing. Books must instead be ordered to a reading room, not able to be taken outside the library. Barring exceptional circumstances, if a book in a public library is damaged it will be removed from the collection. The Library of Congress has a dedicated conservation department, one of the favourite departments I visited, where experts give books like the one pictured the tender loving care they need to survive, using a range of old and new techniques. Additionally, they create custom boxes for titles that need additional protection.

The longevity of Library of Congress staff impressed me. I have some colleagues who have worked in one public library for a decade, occasionally even two. But at the Library of Congress, many staff have multiple decades of experience at the institution and have worked well beyond Australian retirement age. From anecdotal evidence, this is in large part due to the interesting and varied nature of the work – if you’re enjoying your job, why would you retire?

Photo courtesy Brendan Bachmann.

In the public library sphere I come from, the focus is almost entirely on assisting customers with their varied information needs, some of which may be beyond a traditional librarian’s role. At the Library of Congress, my work over two weeks focused on the collection. My initial task was creating reference guide content about marketing resources for small businesses. Creating this guide gave me some valuable experience in using the library’s collection. As previously noted, all Library of Congress resources must be accessed inside the institution. Luckily, the library has a range of great reading rooms, including one specifically dedicated to science, technology and business in the Adams building. I ordered Library of Congress resources through the online catalogue and picked them up here, with titles often available within the hour, as well as making use of some of the excellent subscription databases. Another task was writing posts for the department’s blog. Researching these was a really interesting and enjoyable process. One post focused on a pamphlet that has recently come into the collection, which among other things advertises fake meat products produced by J. H. Kellogg. I decided to use this as my angle for the blog post, and using a variety of resources I put together a short piece. These sources included photographs from the wonderful Prints and Photographs Online Catalog, books from the Library of Congress’ physical collection, and newspaper advertising from the Chronicling America collection of digitized newspapers.

Overall, it was an unforgettable experience, and I’m still pinching myself that I got to spend some time working in this incredible institution. Thank you to my mentor Natalie Burclaff for her assistance and patience during my time there, as well as Nanette Gibbs from the Library of Congress and Sue Reynolds from RMIT, who made this experience possible.

Note: Due to editor error, I forgot to include some of of the pictures Brendan took of the front of the Adams Building and preservation.