Serious Gatekeepers


The Library of Congress is not a user-friendly institution. The stacks are closed, so if you want to look at a book, you have to fill out a form and ask a librarian to fetch it for you. If you're lucky, you'll get it within two hours. If you're really lucky, it'll actually have the information you were looking for; if not, you're back at step one. And you can't take any tomes home.

Now some of the library's materials have been put on the Internet. Accessing them is a completely different experience: fast, fun, and fruitful. Scouting through its American Memory site (lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem), one can enjoy everything from early Krazy Kat films to haunting old Ukrainian-American music to photos from Orson Welles' famous all-black production of Macbeth. But don't expect any books to join those materials online soon.

"There is something about a book that should inspire a certain presumption of reverence," Librarian of Congress James Billington explained to the National Press Club in April. "It is dangerous to promote the illusion that you can get anything you want by sitting in front of a computer screen."

The Internet, he claimed, is "isolating" and "lonely." Libraries, by contrast, are "a community thing." Ah—now we know why we have to wait so long for our books at the Library of Congress. It's so we'll have time to socialize. Provided, of course, that we keep our communal bonding to a whisper.