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Collecting the Globe: The Library Abroad

Two men sit in a small room, lined with books from floor to ceiling.

Acquisitions librarian Abdus Salam (right) selects titles from a local bookshop in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Collecting at the Library of Congress literally never stops.

The massive collections of the world’s largest library are the product, in part, of a staff that acquires material around the world, around the clock.

To facilitate its acquisitions work, the Library operates six field offices abroad, stationed across 11 time zones from South America to Southeast Asia.

At any given moment somewhere on the globe — perhaps in Rio, maybe in New Delhi — an employee is acquiring an item to add to the more than 171 million others already in the Library’s collections.

They do so in the face of all manner of challenges: everyday hassles like bureaucratic red tape and unreliable transportation and extraordinary events such as violent social unrest, coups or natural disasters.

The hard-to-find material these offices acquire helps provide Congress, analysts and scholars critical information they need to do their work, today and in the decades ahead. Their mission is unique: The Library of Congress is the only library in the world that operates such a network abroad.

“We are at the forefront of preserving today’s scholarly and cultural output for future access in one shape or form for the generations to come,” said William Kopycki, who for 12 years has served as field director for the Cairo office and temporarily also oversees the Nairobi office. “There is no other institution operating on the scale that the Library does, and that is what makes it the world’s greatest library and a name familiar to all people.”

In the early 1960s, the Library established nearly two dozen field offices around the world — a recognition of the importance that developing regions would play in post-World War II affairs and of the need to better understand these places.

Six of those offices still exist today, set in cities across South America, Africa and Central and Southeast Asia: Rio, Cairo, Nairobi, Islamabad, New Delhi and Jakarta.

These offices confront significant challenges in carrying out their mission.

They cover vast geographic areas, deal with an enormous variety of languages, rely on underdeveloped infrastructure, negotiate bureaucratic processes across dozens of countries and even persevere through natural disasters — in 2015, the Kathmandu suboffice survived a magnitude 7.8 earthquake.

The employees there, at times, face conditions that make just getting to work dangerous.

Massive, violent protests in 2011 and 2013 forced the temporary closure of the Cairo office (located in the U.S. Embassy) and the evacuation of its director from Egypt. In 2012, protestors targeted the embassy and actually came over its walls; the Library’s staff was sent home just an hour beforehand. Pakistan is so risky for Americans that the director of the Islamabad office oversees its operations from neighboring India.

A world political map with countries hosting Library offices highlighted.

The Library’s offices around the globe.

Oppressive governments pose another challenge.

In some cases, Library staffers have been detained and questioned by authorities. In the past year, the Kuala Lumpur suboffice went to great lengths to get books the government had banned. In some places, suppliers may face difficulties if it’s known that they are acquiring for a “foreign entity”; suppliers sometimes risk their livelihoods, and in some cases their lives, for performing work for the Library.

But the offices persevere, no matter the circumstances — even through coups.

“Coups, whether in Myanmar or another country at a different time, do not stop our staff from seeking to find library resources that make our collections the best in the world,” said Carol Mitchell, who serves as the field director of the Jakarta office and previously held the same position at the Islamabad office. “When there is a regime change — whether Suharto or the next regime change — our staff with their incredible intellectual curiosity and contacts developed over decades will help the Library document those changes.”

Despite the challenges, the overseas offices manage to collect a huge range and volume of material — in fiscal 2020, over 179,000 newspapers, magazines, government documents, academic journals, maps, books and other items that represented about 120 languages and 77 countries and jurisdictions.

As one might imagine, such work gets complicated.

Each office is responsible for a group of countries in its region — the Nairobi office alone covers 30 countries and jurisdictions in Sub-Saharan Africa. The Jakarta office, which covers Southeast Asia, processed material in 43 languages in fiscal 2020: English, Malay, Chinese, Tamil, Tetum, Portuguese, Indonesian, Filipino, Thai, Burmese, Khmer, Vietnamese and Lao in addition to many subnational or minority languages. The two dozen staffers in Islamabad collect in three countries that speak a combined 19 different languages.

Two women and a man stand in a small bookstore, in front of bookshelves and a brightly painted yellow wall. Each is holding a book and facing the camera, smiling

Ade Farida (left), head of acquisitions for the Jakarta Office, meets with representatives of Insist Press Book Stores.

Such an effort requires knowledgeable people at the source, wherever that may be.

Each office is led by an American field director and staffed by Library employees recruited from the local populations — 212 locals across the six offices.

They serve as librarians, linguists, accountants, administrators, IT specialists, preservationists and shipping experts and use many of the same tools as their Capitol Hill counterparts — they perform, for example, real-time cataloging work in the Integrated Library System. In fiscal 2020, the offices created or upgraded nearly 31,000 bibliographic records.

Their knowledge and skill is the key to accomplishing work that requires negotiating so many different languages and cultures. They know what material to get and where to get it, how to navigate cultural nuances and often-tricky political terrain.

To gather material, field office staffs establish relationships with commercial vendors, who regularly acquire material on their behalf. They also work with individuals to find hard-to-get items — such as academic journals and government publications — not readily available in the marketplace.

They also make acquisition trips into the field: a literary festival in Singapore, say, or a local market six hours south of Yangon to get books in the Mon language.

For the offices, these trips are among the most rewarding and challenging work they do.

“Such acquisition trips are important so we can see for ourselves what the state of publishing in a given country is, make connections and contacts with government and other persons who can help facilitate our work, meet with our vendor or representative and otherwise get a front-line view of things,” Kopycki said. “The book publishing industry and distribution in most of our countries is still in dire need of development and modernization, and even if there is good distribution of books within one country, it does not mean that that distribution extends outside its borders.”

The offices select material in collaboration with collections divisions on Capitol Hill, choosing works for the importance of the subject matter, the quality of scholarship and the extent to which they add to the knowledge of a topic.

All that collecting requires a lot of something else: shipping, which sounds simple but often is anything but. Shipping out of country may require navigating a gantlet of bureaucracy: export permits, reviews by censors, payment of taxes.

Then there are the sheer logistics of moving large quantities of items from one far-away place to another.

Books printed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, must be moved to the Library’s representative in Riyadh, where they are combined with other material and shipped to Cairo. At the Cairo airport, they must be cleared and moved to the Library’s offices at the U.S. Embassy. From there, staffers process the materials and then, after a sufficient quantity is ready, send them off to Washington.

The work of these offices benefits more than just the patrons of the Library of Congress; employees there, in effect, serve as the eyes and ears for other libraries via the Cooperative Acquisitions Program.

Through the program, the overseas offices provide material to 80 institutions in the U.S. and 26 in other countries. Those resources allow analysts and scholars everywhere to gain new perspective on the world — and will allow future generations of scholars to do the same.

“It is not just the Library’s collections that make what we do unique,” Mitchell said. “It is the concept behind those collections that is equally important. That concept remains. It is important that we as global citizens have the capacity to learn and understand.”

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