Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Wacky World of History

If it isn't bad enough that it is increasingly difficult to find a publisher in European history, the Bushies, in their infinite wisdom, are going to make it more difficult to write European history too. It has just been brought to my attention that the work of European historians at the Library of Congress is to be interrupted indefinitely so that the Library can put up an exhibit on a Republican president who might perhaps divert us from thinking about the current one. Yes, we are about to have more Abraham Lincoln knowledge inflicted on us, courtesy of an administration whose only intellectual or political connection to Lincoln is the suspension of habeus corpus. As Michael Sizer of the Maryland Institute College of Art recently wrote for a post that did not make it onto H-France in its original form:

"I have just been informed that the Library of Congress has decided to close the European Reading Room. This is expected to happen quite soon - perhaps within a month, so that an exhibition on Abe Lincoln can be set up. They have made vague promises to reopen in the future, but this would be in a smaller space, and only after extensive renovations that may in fact not happen due to budget and logistical issues. So it is quite likely that the closure will be permanent, and even if it is not, it will only be after a long time that a new, reduced European Reading Room would be opened. The current space is set to be converted to another exhibition hall, which would bring in more visitors and revenue, but would continue to move the Library's institutional emphasis from assisting scholarly research to serving as a tourist destination.

"As someone who has done extensive research in the European Reading Room, and who has benefited from the excellent assistance of their dedicated staff (who fear that their jobs may also be cut), I consider this to be a very sad decision. Even if you haven't conducted research in the European Reading Room, I hope that you would agree that it is vitally important that our national repository of knowledge maintain a Reading Room dedicated to European Studies. The Library of Congress has more foreign-language materials than English ones, and the European Reading Room serves as an example for foreign visitors (who come through the room frequently on special tours, etc.) of the continuing interest that Americans have in learning about European culture and history. The French holdings at the Library are enormous, and include many titles difficult or impossible to find anywhere else in the United States. While they will still be accessible to readers in the Main Reading Room, the country-specific reference materials, databases, and, of course, the European specialist librarians will be less readily accessible.

"I would encourage members of the list to protest this decision to your congressperson, and also to James Billington, the Librarian of Congress. Previous efforts to close the African and Middle Eastern reading Room, which has fewer scholarly visitors, have been thwarted by protests from the scholarly community before. The Slavic studies folks (the most extensive users of the European Reading Room) are already organizing to express their displeasure. I urge French scholars to do the same!"

I, of course, imagine (wholly without evidence, which is to say it's Not True) that my old Oligarch college nemesis, Chicken Hawk and Bonesman Robert Kagan, having been irritated (but if I remember him correctly, probably not embarassed) by the failure of his lovely Middle Eastern war, is probably responsible for this. You know, he did write that mean book about Europe, also available in large print for elderly McCarthyite conservatives. But in the Wacky World of History, anything is possible, so let's not exclude the possibility! Thanks to Jack Norton, of Northwestern, for passing this story on: Jack tells us that you can click here to join a group of activists organizing to save the reading room.


James said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't it Congress, not the executive branch, who controls the Library of Congress?

Tenured Radical said...


You are wrong. The Librarian of Congress is appointed by the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate.

Anyway, thinketh thou there art no Bushies in Congress?


Anonymous said...

The Library of Congress is upset that the public has caught wind of their decision. Tough cookies. I fault the lack of transparency in the process (none). The European Reading Room was only opened in May of 1997 after renovations to the Jefferson Building.

As a follow up, H-France editors chose not to post professor Sizer's note, why I don't know. I hope it wasn't to duck controversy.

Anonymous said...

Oh, TR, this is atrocious news. Thank you for posting this. I'm even more appalled at the list editors if what Jack Norton says is true. Ugh.

I'd be interested to hear what you suggest as organizing tactics (area-wide? discipline-wide?) for prevention of / resistance to this sort of thing. Perhaps another post?

Anonymous said...

This is Mike Sizer:

H-France published a letter by Katharine Norris of AU this morning on the closing, as well as lists of several people to contact and other things related to the issue. I think they were waiting to get confirmation of details/looking for specific contacts on my letter which I didn't provide.

Thanks for posting this, TR. It is important that the scholarly community's voice be heard on this issue.

Anonymous said...

For coverage by the Chronicle of Higher Education, see (login necessary)

For the H-France post, see

Anonymous said...

Apologies, the H-France URL didn't load correctly. See below

Anonymous said...

URL too long for comment box. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Hi TR, this is a former student of yours, and museum professional. . .

I'm wondering whether European historians would be less horrified if the LOC was going to replace the reading room with a public exhibit that examines American-European relations over the last 400 years, interpreting and giving context to documents that might otherwise be difficult for non-scholars to understand.

I completely sympathize with the loss of a working space for European Studies on the National Mall. But I also sympathize with the LOC's attempt to engage with a non-scholarly audience. After all, how many European scholars would there be if at age nine they hadn't been brought to see the Gutenberg Bible at the LOC or a copy of the Magna Carta at the National Archives?

How do you, as a historian, think that the balance should work between scholarly/non-scholarly space in archives and libraries?

Susan said...

TR, just telling you, but our Senator Dodd serves on the Special Joint Committee on the Library of Congress.
He will take our e-mails.

I take Anna Pinkert's point about the need to balance outreach with scholarly services. But I remember as a kid being as mesmerized looking at the beautiful reading rooms with all the books as by the exhibits. In other words, part of the display/public education comes from people seeing that there is a European Reading Room, and an Africa/Middle East one.

Tenured Radical said...

Well yes, Susan -- i agree with you, and I do think Anna's point is well taken. I think, however, that one context to put all of this in is that we are currently operating in an environment in which Republicans have been starving the budgets for cultural production of all kinds, and that this is a deliberate strategy to decapitate what they regard as an inherently liberal intelligentsia. So to the extent that I believe in the mission that Anna is advocating for, I would question why these two values need compete with each other.

Oh! I forgot! The military budget!


Anonymous said...

Who is in fact behind the decision to close the European reading room? The Librarian of Congress, himself a distinguished scholar of Russian history (and originally appointed in 1987, by the way)? Or the congressional Special Joint Committee--a group led by some of the most liberal Senators? Or someone else entirely?

It is easy to point the finger at "Republicans" without a shred of evidence to support it.

Anonymous said...

This is Mike Sizer: The impetus behind the closure comes from Congress in this case, who insist on having the Abe Lincoln Bicentennial in a fancy place. It is unclear what Billington thinks about it, but he's obviously not doing a decent enough job advocating for users of the Reading Rooms, and, I would argue, in reminding Congress what the Library is for. That's his job!

As for the argument about the exhibit space being more useful for more people than a Reading Room... we have museums for exhibits. The problem is not that an exhibit is going up, the problem is that it is going up IN THE LIBRARY AND NOT A MUSEUM. Sure, the American History Museum is under renovation right now, but it seems very short-sighted to diminish the research emphasis of the Library in favor of making it serve as a museum.

It's also part of turning the National Mall into a passively experienced place for its citizens rather than a place that people USE (the new Capitol visitor center is part of that, as are the changes in the museums).

Anonymous said...

I find Mike's point about passivity vs. activity very compelling.

There is also, it seems, a difference between including display space for exhibits in a library (Anna's point about the value of seeing manuscripts is important) and turning a library into a museum.

There are many ways to bring students and the public into archives and libraries to see how they work and what they hold while still having them function primarily as research space. There are many good models for that.

Unknown said...

I have been informed by reliable sources that the primary people pushing for the closure are Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and (on the library side) Deanna Marcum, the Associate Librarian for Library Services.

The most effective way to oppose this is to contact a member of the Joint Congressional Committee on the Library, especially if you are a constituent. The members of this committee can be found here:

The American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (of which I am the Executive Director) has been urging its members to contact these Senators and Representatives and also Dr. Billington. Hopefully, this will have an effect.

I'm glad the non-Slavic Europeanists are also getting involved.

Dmitry Gorenburg

Anonymous said...

Leave it to TR reflexively to work conspiratorial conservatives into every discussion, no matter how unrelated to the issue at hand. And it seems from the previous commentaries that Congress may indeed have more to do with the closure than TR suggested early on. BTW, TR, this from no "chickenhawk" academic, but a VFW life member.

Anonymous said...

From Susan Smith-Peter
The decision to close the Reading Room is both outrageous and very damaging to me personally. I am doing work on Siberian regionalists and the Library of Congress holds the best collection of them in the country. In addition, the reference materials on the walls of the rooms are of great importance to scholars of Russia, as so little material has been digitized on Russian history. My tenure year is coming up, and I need to do the research now, not who knows when it will open again. I fell particularly saddened because the Russian history community has already had to deal with the closing of the main pre-revolutionary historical archive in Russia, RGIA. At the time, I thought something like that couldn't happen in America, but it seems that it can.

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