It did not happen in World War I or World War II or during the Great Depression. But it is happening under Ronald Reagan’s gargantuan deficit and twisted priorities. The Library of Congress is cutting its hours of service from 77 1/2 hours to 54 1/2 hours per week. Responding to a $18.3 million cut in its budget, the nation’s flagship Library — the world’s largest — is closing on Sundays, holidays and will be closed evenings during the week except Wednesday.
That is not all. The Library’s programs for the Blind and Physically Handicapped are being reduced along with its acquisitions and book preservation activities. Most of the doors to Library buildings will be closed to control salary costs. The Congressional Research Service, which does research for Congress, will be diminished as well.
Neither Ronald Reagan nor his White House spokesmen have made any statement about these restrictions, notwithstanding the strong protests by Reagan ally and columnist, George Will and Daniel J. Boorstin, the Librarian of Congress. Here is a sample of Boorstin’s words on February 20th before a House Subcommittee on Appropriations:
“This greatest Library on earth — a monument to our Founders’ faith in knowledge, a byproduct of our nation’s faith in freedom of inquiry will become a byword and a symbol of a nation’s lack of faith in itself, a symptom of a nation in terror and decline. Historians will not fail to note that a people who could spend $300 billion on their defense would not spend $18 million on their knowledge — and could not even keep their libraries open in the evening
“If the announced budgetary policy is pursued for the Library of Congress, the nation’s library — your main resource of knowledge and information — will quickly deteriorate. It has taken two centuries to build this institution. It can be disintegrated in a decade and destroyed in two decades. And so it will be unless the fiscal policy toward the Library is repaired and reversed.”
He could have added a twist that would have melted the programmed smile of Ronald Reagan. The national libraries in Moscow, Tokyo, Madrid and several Third World Dictatorships keep their institutions open in the evenings and on weekends.
There is a rebellion in the stacks brewing, however. On the first evening the Library was supposed to close at 5:30 p.m., instead of 9:30 p.m., more than a hundred users of the Library remained in their seats. The Library policy let them stay until the former closing time of 9:30. The situation repeated itself the next day. On the third day of the protest, Library and District of Columbia Police moved in and arrested 14 of the researchers and students. More people were arrested for refusing to leave in succeeding days.
Statements of support are coming in from all over the country and there is every expectation that the resistance to the deterioration of Library services and materials will grow. More citizens are joining the movement to stand up to the Reagan regime’s anti-knowledge, anti-library, anti-educational support and secrecy policies. The Library of Congress with its beautiful main reading room is a symbol of a belief advanced by our founding fathers, especially James Madison who said: “Learned institutions ought to be favorite objects with every people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.”
Scientists have repeatedly protested against the Reagan Administration’s restrictions on the collection of scientific information and its dissemination. Citizens have sued the Reagan government many times to stop the deep secrecy that sets new records during the Reagan years. Consumer groups have criticized the destruction or curtailment of hundreds of useful consumer publications and brochures which industry lobbyists did not like — such as the Car Book. And just last week, the Joint Economic Committee of Congress excoriated the White House for restricting the quantity and quality of economic and business information that the nation’s economy needs to make intelligent judgements.
So the struggle for the soul, substance and symbol of the Library of Congress will continue to grow and continue to receive broader media attention. The crushing crunch of the massive Reagan deficits of the past five years — in sum greater than the total deficits from George Washington through Jimmy Carter — is beginning. It will be important to watch closely how many traditions and values the Reagan deficit juggernaut will destroy and damage before a concerned citizenry says enough.