Library of Congress: The Unexpected Diplomat

By Bowman, Bridget | Roll Call, April 14, 2015 | Go to article overview

Library of Congress: The Unexpected Diplomat


Bowman, Bridget, Roll Call


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One doesn't typically expect terrorism to become a topic of discussion at hearing about library funding.

But that's exactly what happened on March 17, as the Senate Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee assessed the budget requests of the Library of Congress and the Architect of the Capitol.

"You're the world's resource and we've been reading the news reports of ISIS members destroying artifacts of ancient civilizations," the panel's chairwoman, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, said to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, teeing up a question about a little-known aspect of the Library of Congress.

"How has the library's overseas operation been impacted, if at all, by any kind of ongoing terrorist activities in the Middle East?" the West Virginia Republican then asked. Billington went on to describe how the library provides expertise on salvaging and protecting materials. Mark Sweeney, the associate librarian for library services, noted increased security costs for protecting its overseas offices.

All of the LOC's six overseas offices are in often unstable regions, but that's by design. The offices serve areas that may not have systems in place to archive and catalog books, publications, newspapers, maps, etc.

"Modern collection infrastructure doesn't exist in a whole lot of places," Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the ranking member of the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Subcommittee, explained in an interview. "So the reach of the Library of Congress [extends] to places where we would lose these important publications to history, to the ashes, or to floods, or to the simple lack of ability to share and preserve them."

In January 2010, Wasserman Schultz led a congressional delegation to the Middle East, and they stopped at the LOC office in Cairo, Egypt. At the time, the Florida Democrat chaired the subcommittee, and she thought the trip was an ample opportunity for its seven lawmakers to learn more about the overseas offices.

"Members walked around the office and really enjoyed listening to the excitement and enthusiasm of the director," Wasserman Schultz said, describing the Cairo office as a "normal looking" with sparse walls. "He clearly loved his work. ... He was very clear about how important it is and what would be lost if we were not there."

The Cairo office acquires materials from 23 countries in the surrounding region, including Iraq, Syria and Yemen. In 2011, the office temporarily closed as nonessential U.S. personnel left the country during the Egyptian revolution. Beacher Wiggins, the acting chief of the LOC's overseas operations division, said in a phone interview that Cairo is one of two offices with the highest security risk. The other is in Islamabad, Pakistan.

The remaining offices are located in Jakarta, Indonesia; Nairobi, Kenya; New Dehli, India; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For lawmakers, these offices play a vital role in understanding the tumultuous developments in Middle East.

"If you want to understand the Middle East, and what groups there are saying abut the United States and our allies, then we need to be out aggressively collecting pamphlets and propaganda that's only available if you have personnel on the ground," Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn, told CQ Roll Call. Murphy was part of the CODEL that visited the Cairo office five years ago when he was in the House, and he said he did not know these offices existed.

"I never knew that there was a Library of Congress facility outside of the United States, so the visit was eye-opening," Murphy said. …

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