Basement No Bargain For Agency Library

By Michelle R. Davis — January 29, 2003 8 min read
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The National Library of Education’s sub-basement floor, closed to the public, houses hundreds of old textbooks. It also housed a hazardous mold and dust-mite problem for a while, now resolved.
—James W. Prichard/Education Week

The National Library of Education, at its conception, was slated to be a vast resource for the public, researchers, and the Department of Education, a refuge where visitors could browse shelves of historical journals, delve into rare education collections, and access material from across the country through a high-tech virtual library.

But since the library’s official creation in 1994, some of those lofty visions have remained elusive. A limited budget and technical problems have hindered progress. Many people who work just floors above its below-street-level site at the Education Department’s Washington headquarters don’t even know it’s there.

Though the library is struggling to shrug off a history of neglect and find its identity, Executive Director Sheila M. McGarr is making progress working to correct its basic problems and make sure people know of its resources. But she said many of her goals are still in the planning stages.

“We’re not ready for prime time just yet,” Ms. McGarr said in a recent interview.

Since its congressional designation as a national library in 1994, and for more than a century before that when it existed as an in-house resource for the federal education agency, the library has fought to gain respect. Though the national library’s creators and early supporters had visions of a facility approaching the prestige of other federal libraries with that label—like those devoted to agriculture and medicine—the result was like trying to tackle War and Peace with a 3rd grade education.

While a 1997 report titled “Access for All” envisioned a “virtual library” where researchers and the public could browse and tap in to the resources, today the library does not yet have its catalog on the Internet. Nor does the catalog— available only in the library or on the department’s intranet—list all the library’s resources. The rare-book collection isn’t included.

The library has other technical problems, too: Its computer records, for instance, don’t track whether material has been checked out or is on the shelf. When a planned bar-coding project is completed this year, it will provide “the first accurate inventory in many years,” Ms. McGarr said.

Such capabilities are standard for local libraries and a must for any library of distinction, said Scott Walter, the assistant director for public services and outreach at the Washington State University Library. “You’d expect the national library to be a leader ... It’s not,” he said. “It doesn’t have the support and infrastructure.”

Though the library has struggled since it descended from the collection of Henry Barnard, the first U.S. commissioner of education, who served in the 1860s, it was held to a higher standard after getting the “national library” designation. Legislation from Rep. Major R. Owens, a New York Democrat and librarian by profession, mapped out the library’s new mission as the nation’s education information repository, as well as service provider to the public and department employees.

To foster that goal and to raise the library’s profile, agency officials decided to move the library from its previous site at an auxiliary department building, alongside the former office of educational research and improvement (now reorganized as the Institute of Education Sciences), which oversees the library. In 1999, the library moved into two sleek floors of the department’s headquarters on Maryland Avenue, down the hill from the Capitol.

But the transfer was ill-fated. The only floors in the main building that could support the weight of the more than 75,000 books, 600 journal subscriptions, and 500,000 microfiche titles were the plaza and sub-basement levels. The areas, both of which are below street level, were smaller than the previous library’s space, and so some collections and papers were given away or tossed.

Today, no one, including Ms. McGarr—who has led the library for only two years—is sure exactly what went where.

Maris A. Vinovskis, an education historian at the University of Michigan, said the library collections suffered. He worked closely with the collections while on the Education Department staff during the first Bush and Clinton administrations, and he was researching a book at the library at the time of the move.

“That stuff was really irreplaceable,” Mr. Vinovskis said. “It’s a very important library and really indispensable with materials most of us can’t get anywhere else, ... but that has really diminished in quality over time.”

But the hex on the new library wasn’t over. Later in 1999, water leaks in the sub-basement, combined with a mold and dust-mite problem, made the air a hazard to breathe. The sub-basement stacks were shut to the public, and library staff members spent only short periods of time there.

After extensive cleanup and environmental testing in 2001, the space was deemed habitable, but was not reopened to the public for browsing. Though the restricted space is modern and bright, a musty-book smell still greets visitors. And on a visit earlier this month, a stack of paper dust masks could be seen perched among the shelves of 1920s textbooks and disco-era journals.

Ms. McGarr said some library employees have pre-existing respiratory problems that are easily aggravated. They wear the masks.

An Afterthought

The new site, to say the least, doesn’t invite unscheduled traffic. Visitors run a security gantlet, then are escorted to the library. On a recent morning, not a single patron pored over books at the inviting library desks.

“The location is not one that lends itself to walk-in customers,” acknowledged Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, the director of the Institute of Education Sciences. But Mr. Whitehurst said attracting impulse readers shouldn’t be the library’s mission.

“The library is providing a useful service and new, high levels of competence,” he said.

Mr. Whitehurst said much of the public’s access to educational information is through the Educational Resources Information Center, or ERIC—the vast information storehouse of the education world, overseen by the library, which provides extensive online data.

Few usage numbers are available for the library, but during 2001, the reference staff received more than 20,000 information requests, most by phone, e-mail, or fax, Ms. McGarr said.

Some say the library remains a departmental afterthought. Last July, for example, the agency evicted 30 library staff members—including some librarians—from their fourth-floor offices above the library itself. They were relocated a mile away to make way for the department’s newly created office of innovation and improvement.

Librarians working their shifts on the circulation or reference desks now have to take a shuttle to the headquarters building.

“Library staff like to be near the library. Period,” Ms. McGarr said.

At first, library workers were incensed by the move, said Ursula Kennedy, the president of Local 2607 of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employees’ union. “They said, ‘We actually have to touch the books and we have to go somewhere else?’” she said.

Some employees eventually embraced their new space and department officials agreed to build three cubicles within the library for the librarians who spend the most time there, she said.

A Treasure Trove

The library remains a trove of educational information with modern-day books on everything from physical education to school violence, reams of government publications, and folders of yellowed legislative histories of laws dating back to the 1950s—and that’s just the first floor.

In the sub-basement are shelves of early American textbooks, a vast collection of journals, and microfiche dating from 1965 for ERIC.

Behind a nondescript, locked door, marked only with a sign the size of a pocket dictionary, is the climate-controlled rare book room. The hideaway is stocked with leather-bound treatises on logic, crumbling 18th-century manuals on teaching (there’s no money for conservation, Ms. McGarr said), and centuries-old foreign dictionaries. The oldest book, in Latin, dates from 1657.

Though some of its contents may be unique, some of the library’s problems are not, said John W. Collins, the head librarian at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, who was on the 1997 task force that studied the library.

For example, though the sub-basement is closed, library users still have access to the material by searching catalog information. They request a title, and a librarian produces it. That’s a common practice, Mr. Collins said. And mold and space concerns are universal issues for libraries.

Many of the basic problems are being tackled by Ms. McGarr, who formerly served as chief of the library division with the Library Programs Service at the Government Printing Office. She’s also taking small steps to hike usage.

Last summer, a reference librarian began staffing part-time the agency’s office of vocational and adult education, aiding researchers and training staff to use databases. Earlier this month, another reference librarian began working at the Institute of Education Sciences in a similar role.

Ms. McGarr hopes to have the library catalog available on the Internet sometime this year. She also is searching for ways to provide more desktop access, so people can use services without traveling to the library itself.

In addition, she would like to hold more training sessions for employees, though Ms. McGarr said that would take additional money. The library budget (not including the ERIC budget or salaries and expenses, which come from the IES) has held steady at $1 million since 1999, she said.

She knows many plans in the “Access for All” report may never come to pass.

“That,” she said, “was a dream document.”


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