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Access to Knowledge

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(The following story by Jennifer Gavin is featured in the January/February 2016 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)

From MARC to metadata, the Library’s catalog records and expert staff provide access to a treasure trove of knowledge.

Image of mural in Thomas Jefferson Building
A mural by Charles Sprague Pearce in the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building. Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division

In the beginning—that is, in 1800—the Library of Congress consisted of 740 books and three maps, all tucked into a room in the U. S. Capitol. Finding the right book, or map didn’t take long.

Today there are more than 162 million items in the collections available to researchers. Books and other printed materials numbered more than 38 million; there were 70 million manuscripts, 5.5 million maps, 14 million photos and nearly 2 million films. To discover and access these resources, researchers need a guide.

Often, it’s a research librarian—a modern day knowledge navigator—encountered in-person in one of the Library’s 20 reading rooms, or, for many, through the “Ask a Librarian” service online. Many an author whose work was researched at the Library of Congress will speak gratefully about the direction and extra effort delivered by such librarians to patrons, daily.

But even a trained research librarian has to know how to use a system to locate that particular book, serial title or other object in the great trove that is the Library of Congress.

Enter the Library’s catalogers—the great, unsung heroes and heroines of the knowledge delivery business. They stave off chaos and ensure access to knowledge by establishing order from the start.

“Catalogs”, “finding aids”, and “metadata” are all terms used to refer to the description of resources in the Library’s collection. “Description” itself is a broad term, referring to information about a resource’s physical properties as well as providing controlled name authority data about its creator and assigning subject headings and classification numbers to reflect its content. Catalogers create descriptions using internationally established
standards so that catalogs in the largest to smallest libraries can represent the same resource in the same manner.

Back in the day, the Library created and maintained vast handwritten, or typed cards stored in acreages of card catalogs—tall chests of specialized drawers that held indexing material used by researchers to locate books. Today, cataloging is computerized and the output is shared with other libraries, sometimes in multiple formats.

The move to automating catalog records was led by a seminal figure in library science, Henriette D. Avram, who joined the Library of Congress in 1965 and created the MARC (machine-readable cataloging) format. Avram, who was not formally trained as a librarian, had learned computer programming in an earlier job at the National Security Agency. But upon her arrival at the Library, she steeped herself in Library needs, knowledge and lore so she could determine what data would underpin MARC, a system that won worldwide adoption and earned Avram many awards, including some of the highest honors bestowed within library science.

MARC made it possible for cataloging data to be entered, accessed and stored on mainframe computers and shared cooperatively with partner libraries around the world.

To succeed the MARC format in the age of the semantic web and linked open data technologies, the Library of Congress is leading the effort to create a new bibliographic data carrier called the Bibliographic Framework Initiative. BIBFRAME will be a carrier for library data that will be shareable not only with other libraries that share the same systems, but on the World Wide Web through a semantic technology called linked open data.

BIBFRAME will open the world of bibliographic data to the linked open data world, making library data truly interchangeable in the web environment. The many years of effort the Library of Congress and its partners have put into creating thesauri and establishing authorized headings for creators can be redeployed and ultimately used to help “organize” the web as well as make library resources instantly findable through search engines for the users.

The Library’s catalog is freely available online. It includes references to resources in all formats and may provide links to materials that have been digitized. Interlibrary loan services are available to researchers from other libraries who find that the only copy of a material they need for their work is available at the Library of Congress.

Today, many books, newspapers, magazines, manuscripts, maps, films, photographs and other library materials are freely available on the web. Some 52.3 million digital files are available from the Library of Congress through its website and many are in the public domain.

“Digitization will become more and more extensive over time, and more books and other library materials are ‘born digital,’ said Beacher Wiggins, the Library’s director for acquisitions and bibliographic access. “Yet even when we digitize an item, we also maintain the original for its archival value.”

Whether you choose to access its resources in person or online, the Library of Congress is working to ensure that you will always be able to find the “it” you’re looking for in its vast collections.

Elihu Vedder’s mosaic of “Minerva” on the second floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building depicts the goddess of wisdom and peace. Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division
Elihu Vedder’s mosaic of “Minerva” on the second floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building depicts the goddess of wisdom and peace. Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division

Comments (6)

  1. Is there an article or web page that documents how to get documents transferred between the Library of Congress and outlying municipal or university libraries? It would be great after this great article about what is available to pass along the information on how to tell what can only be seen in one of the Library of Congress locations, what can be requested to be sent to a researcher, what the costs are, how long to expect it to take, and who can be a receiving entity. Feel free to use Austin, Texas as an example. 😉



    • Thank you Pete for your interest. Many of the Library’s collections are digitized and available online. Simply search for an item or subject of interest to see what the Library has available online: Items in the public domain or otherwise free of restrictions should be able to be saved or printed at home. Otherwise, researchers will need to access the Library’s collections on-site. Here is more information:

  2. So who can get an e-library card and can one apply for it online? Do you have to be an American citizen living in the USA and it’s territories? A blog on this would be most appreciated. Thanks. 🙂

    • Thank you Nathan for your interest. The Library does not issue e-library cards. However, you can apply for a Reader Registration Card for use in our research areas. You can pre-register online, however, you must still report to the Library’s Reader Registration Station to complete the process. Here is more information on the card and registration process:

  3. Always happy to know that you are only an email away!

  4. Thank you Erin Allen. ☺

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