Thomas Mann on LC’s Distinctive Role

Thomas Mann’s article, “What is distintive about the Library of Congress in both its collections and its means of access to them, and the reasons LC needs to maintain classified shelving of books onsite, and a way to deal effectively with the problem of “books on the floor””, has already made the rounds of many blogs and listservs; to access the PDF version, click here. As always, Thomas Mann presents a good read and persuasive arguments against transforming the Library of Congress into something it isn’t.

To back up, the mission of the Library of Congress is:

The Library’s mission is to make its resources available and useful to the Congress and the American people and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations.

This is from their mission and strategic priorities 1997-2004. The document goes on to list four priorities that touch primarily on how LC is to acquire, organize, preserve, maintain, secure, sustain, make available to Congress and the American people for present and future use the collection of human knowledge and creativity.

It is unprecedented in human history — and a uniquely American offer — to open public access to an institution that is in many respects the working library of a government and a de facto national library.


What does Thomas Mann suggest the Library of Congress is turning into? In short, he is criticising a report by Deanna Marcum called “The Meeting on Digital Strategy”. His argues that Deanna compares LC to Google, newspapers and their for-profit business model, and Amazon and their business model of making a profit rather than promoting scholarship. In this sense, Thomas Mann suggeststhat Deanna Marcum is one of many who want to turn the Library of Congress into a for-profit business that purports to provide “easy” digital access to current and quick information. It is a striking commentary. However, Thomas Mann provides some persuasive arguments about why LC cannot do this.

  • Preservation
    • From reading LC’s mission statement as well as Thomas’ summary of it, it is clear that LC strives to preserve past and current knowledge and human creativity. It receives as part of this goal millions of free books thanks to the mandate that all copyright books in the US be deposited in LC. In terms of providing access to these resources, LC is unique in that it provides sometimes the only copy of that item. Because not everything has been digitized and items still in copyright are not digitized, this means that LC is the only place to consult these materials. If this stopped, then access to these resources would no longer be available. As Thomas Mann points out, this would be a serious blow to scholarship.
  • Scholarship
    • LC has in its mandate to provide resources for scholars as well as Congress and US citizens. In this sense, it is not just a question of finding quick and easy information that may or may not be relevent. The one stop search box and search results based on keywords is not practical. Thomas Mann gives a good example. What is a person is looking for a document about square footage and population statistics. But the document does not have such keywords as square footage, sq. ft., population, statistics, stats, or some variation of those words. Then any search with these keywords will not yield the wanted document. However, with the amount of results that such a search on Google would turn up, the person probably wouldn’t know the existence of such a document. The key to LC’s way of organizing information is that it does not rely on keywords but a classification based on a hierarchy of subjects as well as a classification alpha-numeric string denoting the primary subject. So if the document does not have any keywords of population or statistics, this would be reflected in the subject headings. Thomas Mann argues that this type of information allows scholars to find relevent information.
  • Access to scholarship and quality of cataloging
    • Given the last example, Thomas Mann points out that easy access to information depends on the quality of cataloging. He was able to find the resource needed because the catalogers at LC put in subject headings and a call number. Unlike Google or Amazon, LC describes each resource and provides several ways of accessing that resource (author, subjects, title, …).
  • Non commercial
    • Another aspect that Thomas Mann sees as separating LC from other libraries is that it is non commercial. Given its mandate to preserve and provide access to human creativity and knowledge, LC is going to collect and make available resources that simply are not current, do  not fit into any business model, and will not make a profit for LC. In fact, Thomas Mann says that without the help of taxpayers money, LC would have folded years ago because it is not in the money making business.

Thomas Mann asks us to question the drive to digitize collections in terms of what is being digitized and the type of access provided with online resources. He also asks us to look at what libraries are and what the Library of Congress means to the United States. If it is a de facto national library, should this be clearly stated in its mission? This is an interesting article and well worth reading whether or not you agree with Mann.

One thought on “Thomas Mann on LC’s Distinctive Role

  1. Pingback: Changing Roles at the Library of Congress » The Dean Files

Comments are closed.