A New National Library Fuels the Engine of Education

By Floyd, Nancy L. | American Libraries, November 1995 | Go to article overview

A New National Library Fuels the Engine of Education


Floyd, Nancy L., American Libraries


Changes are happening in the federal bureaucracy faster than you can reshelve a book. Reinventing. Downsizing. Flattening. One of these changes attests that libraries are still valued in America. It reassures us that there are people in power sold on the idea that libraries are good for us. Why? Because in March 1994 Congress authorized the National Library of Education (NLE).

The legislation creating the NLE was proposed by U.S. Representative Major Owens (D-N.Y.), a former librarian who understood the need for such a library. "As the U.S. Department of Education strives to fulfill its mission to reform and improve American schools," Owens said, "it must have the expert assistance that only the National Library of Education can provide to make the latest knowledge about the best educational practices coherent and readily accessible to teachers, parents, school administrators, and educational researchers. The U.S. Department of Education is our national engine for educational excellence, and we look to the National Library of Education to provide the fuel."

NLE's mission is to be a one-stop shop for all information and referral on education in the country. Its customers-students, educators, and researchers at all levels-will benefit from the library's careful collection, preservation, and wise use of research and other education-related information. Located on New Jersey Avenue in Washington, D.C., the library will promote widespread access to its materials and expand its coverage. With other major libraries, schools, and educational centers, it will provide a network of national education resources.

A century-old core

The new library had a head start. The Department of Education (DOE) already had an Education Research Library, which was the largest federally funded library in the world devoted entirely to education. It began a century ago with the private collection of American schoolbooks from Henry Barnard, the first commissioner of the Office of Education. It was nurtured by Commissioner John Eaton during his tenure (1870-1886) and enriched by several private donors.

The earliest volumes in the library's special collections date to the fifteenth century. Other special collections include rare books published before 1800, mostly in education; historical books (1800-1964); early American textbooks (1775-1900); modern American textbooks (1900-1959); and children's classics.

More recently, other special collections were added to the library: material from the former National Institute of Education, the former Office of Education, and DOE, including reports, studies, manuals, archives, speeches, and policy papers. In addition, the library acquired the historical collections of Kathryn Heath, a former employee of the Office of Education, and Elaine Exton, a Washington education writer.

Today, the NLE houses more than 200,000 books and about 750 periodicals, in addition to studies, reports, Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) microfiche, and CD-ROM databases. It holds books on education, management, public policy, and related social sciences; dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks, directories, abstracts, indexes, and legal and other research sources in print and CD-ROM; current and historical journals and newsletters; and more than 450,000 microforms. The library also has a legislative reference service that maintains the department's historical record of legislation affecting education.

Last fall, library staff rewrote the collection development policy, as mandated by the legislation, to reflect the expanded scope of the library. The policy outlines the breadth of the collection, describes in detail how priority levels will be assigned in future book selection, defines the library's users, and designates what services are appropriate to a national library. Along with this, the library is in the final stage of buying an online public access catalog, essential if the NLE is to reach out to a larger audience like its models, the National Library of Medicine and the National Agricultural Library.

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