Publication Date

October 1, 1993



Editor's Note: The Council of the Association last December directed the President to call on the Librarian of Congress to protest the closing of the stacks to all researchers. During the meeting on March 19, which produced no relief on the stacks access, the LC was invited to do an article for Perspectives on its services.

The Library of Congress is a closed-stack library. After evidence of widespread theft and mutilation of holdings emerged several years ago, the library ceased allowing stack access, even on an exception basis. Most people do not realize, however, that between 70 and 80 percent of the items in the collections have always been in closed stacks and have never been available to the public or to library staff not directly involved with those special collections.

Closing the stacks has caused some dismay among those researchers who were able, under exceptional circumstances, to obtain stack passes to the library's general book and bound-periodical collections. Most users, however, are relieved that the library of the last resort has taken more stringent security precautions to preserve original material for future generations of citizens and scholars. In fact, since the stacks were closed, the not-on-shelf rate has dropped about 4 percent.

Several other security measures have been implemented, including the requirement that users of the library present valid photo identification when requesting materials and the installation of electronic theft-detection aisles at the exits from the library.

The purpose of this article is to suggest a few research techniques which will enable those researchers who are planning to come to the Library of Congress to locate information as efficiently and productively as possible and to describe several special services for handling extensive or complicated research requests. Those researchers who are not able to come to the Library of Congress in person may find this article helpful in planning their research at their own library.

Where to Begin

Planning ahead is an important part of a successful visit to the library. The library should be used to supplement research begun elsewhere and for materials which cannot be located elsewhere. There are many ways to identify information available at the Library of Congress, including the newly established Internet connection to the LC databases. Researchers who have access to Internet are urged to use LC resources on Internet to explore in advance of arrival how their needs might be met.

Arrival at the Library

Reference librarians at the Reference Assistance Room adjacent to the Main Reading Room in the Jefferson Building will help develop a specific search strategy for a topic, assist researchers in the use of the catalogs, computers, and reference materials and, as necessary, refer readers to other reading rooms for information in different formats.

Subject Access without Walking through the Stacks

Subject Headings. The multivolume set of Library of Congress Subject Headings provides access to the standardized English-language subject category terms that bring together works on similar topics. It is important for the researcher to identify the most specific entry possible for the topic and only later move on to broader terms.

Shelflist Browsing. The shelflist lists books cataloged by the library in call number order just as the books are arranged in the stacks. This searching method complements specific subject heading searching because the classification arranges books in broader topics. Browsing a surrogate shelflist often gives a more complete picture of the entire holdings of the library because it enables the researcher to see all of the cataloged books, including those that may be temporarily off the shelf. There is a microfiche shelflist of books cataloged through 1978 in the Microform Reading Room. More recent works can be located by using the computer to search by class number (“browse call QA76.8”). Alternatively, there is a CD-ROM of LC books cataloged since 1968 that also permits browsing by call number. It is located in the Machine-Readable Collections Reading Room.

Computer Commands. In addition to searching by subject heading and shelflist, the computer’s major advantage is that it enables the researcher to do Boolean combinations of subjects (i.e., “Mexican Americans” and “bilingual education”), to limit searches by language, or to identify books with bibliographies. Also, the computer lists recently received or soon-to-be published books that we have not fully cataloged yet.

For all of these techniques and others, such as keyword searching and citation searching, the librarian will serve as a "knowledge navigator" for the researcher through the huge and complex collections of the Library of Congress.

Book Retrieval Process

Readers at the library must submit call slips for materials wanted from the stacks. In general, delivery times in the Main Reading Room run about thirty to ninety minutes. The delivery time depends on many factors, including the location of the requested item in the stacks and whether or not it must be transported between library buildings. Readers may submit fifteen call slips per hour. Normally, the items requested are delivered directly to the reader's desk. A reader may also opt for "hold" or "overnight hold" service in which requested materials are held at the book service desk for the reader to pick up later in the day or the next day.

Special Assistance

The Collections Management Division provides special retrieval services for those needing large amounts of material from the general collections. For instance, if a researcher requires a long run of a periodical or needs hundreds of books for a special project, a book service manager or supervisor will discuss the individual's needs and try to meet them in the most efficient manner possible. Generally, requests for special service must be made at least a day in advance. For further information, call the Collections Management Division at (202) 707-7400 and ask to speak to Joseph Puccio, Dennis Hawkes, or Ronald Roach,.

Search Services

The bane of all researchers at the library is the "not on shelf" (NOS) response to a request. Approximately 20 percent of all requests result in an NOS response. There are many reasons that a book may be NOS: it may be one of the more than 100,000 books assigned to reference collections, in use by another reader, charged out to a congressional office, waiting to be reshelved, not yet processed through labeling, misshelved in the collections, or missing without a trace, just to mention a few.

Special Search. A further search for any NOS item may be requested at the special search desks. Two types of searches are available—the quick search and the long-term search. The quick search is for those readers who need the item that particular day. The long-term search is an exhaustive search of all relevant files and collections performed intensively for a thirty-day period and is intended for those who are able to return to the library at a later date. The Special Search Section finds approximately 75 percent of all items it is asked to locate.

Advance Reserve. The Special Search Section also offers an “advance reserve” service to those traveling to the library from outside the Washington metropolitan area. Search staff check the library’s holdings for up to three items and report back to the requester. If the items are available, arrangements are made to have them held on reserve for up to fifteen days. This service is particularly valuable to researchers who have determined that the library is supposed to have an item and who plan to make a special trip here specifically to use it. Call (202) 707-7457 or write to Ronald J. Jackson, Head, Special Search Section, Collections Management Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20540-5520.

Other Services

The library has a limited number of shelves and desks where books may be held for long-term use. Shelfholders must use the reading rooms and their books at least once a week, while study-desk holders must use their desks at least four times a week. Applications for a shelf or desk are available in the Main Reading Room, or a request for an application may be made to Victoria Hill, Assistant Chief, Humanities and Social Sciences Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20540-5550.

Important Information

Every researcher must present valid photo identification with a current address when requesting materials from the library's collections. Questions about the identification requirement may be directed to Joseph Puccio at (202) 707-7400.

The hours that the library's reading rooms are open change periodically. Call (202) 707-6400 to hear a recording giving current hours for all of the reading rooms.

We are interested in helping researchers receive the information they are seeking in the most efficient manner possible. Reference librarians are available to explain the databases and to refer researchers to the best source. Book service staff are available to facilitate special book delivery needs. If there are any problems, researchers should contact a staff member and, if necessary, ask to speak to a supervisor. Working in a completely closed-stack environment takes planning and assistance from staff in order to locate the needed information. Our staff are here to help.

Victoria Hill is assistant chief of the Humanities and Social Sciences Division and Joseph Puccio is public service officer of the Collections Management Division of the Library of Congress.

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