The Madison Building: Library or office space?

You might know from reading Caroline’s blog post about the beginnings of the James Madison Memorial Building that former ACLS President Dr. Frederick Burkhardt was an important player in helping secure the Madison Building for the Library of Congress when the plans were first developed. What you might not know (until now!) is that former ACLS Executive Associate James N. Settle fought for the Library to retain its claim on the building when some members of the House wanted to take it over as another office building in the mid-1970s.

I found a folder devoted to this debate, of which I was previously unaware. A newspaper clipping in the front of the folder explains the situation: the building was being coveted by members of the House as a prime piece of real estate that could add to their office space. The author states that the move to take space from the Library of Congress is awful, as “there is both real and symbolic grandeur to that institution and what it represents.” This editorial, published by the Washington Star on November 26, 1975 (if the handwritten note in the corner is correct), is absolutely scathing.

When ACLS’ James N. Settle heard about this, he sent out a call to arms:

Many of you have undoubtedly heard that before the end of December an attempt will be made, within the House of Representatives, to convert for use as an additional congressional office building the Library of Congress James Madison Memorial Building scheduled for completion in 1980…I assume that scholars in all disciplines share the alarm with which we view this threatened loss of desperately needed space for the Library of Congress. If you are willing to participate in an effort to save the Madison Library building for its intended purpose, I suggest that you write to your own Congressman and perhaps, for reinforcement, to your two Senators – and that you urge appropriate colleagues to join you in the effort.

This impassioned letter obviously found the right audience, and Executive Associate Settle got replies from many people who were equally disturbed by the idea. Richard S. Kirkendall, Executive Secretary for the Organization of American Historians, sent Settle an update just a week later:

This office has been dominated by the issue of the Library of Congress for the past week. We have been bombarding our members as well as Members of Congress, getting a good response from our members.

Settle even received a response from (now former) Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin on December 17th, 1975:

I appreciate the support of the American Council of Learned Societies of the Library of Congress and its occupancy of the Madison Building. As you no doubt have read in the press, the tide seems to have waned. Our next step is to obtain final authorization. I trust you will also support us in this endeavor. Many thanks.

It’s wonderful to see that ACLS leaders continually played such a large part in advocating for the Library of Congress to have extra space in Washington. Another document in the folder titled “Facts about the Library of Congress James Madison Memorial Building” outlines the reasons that the Library should be able to keep the building: at the time, the Library was in the dire position of splitting up their staff and collections in 10 locations outside of its existing two permanent locations on the National Mall (the Jefferson Building and Adams Building). Staff members were working in areas not suitable for working conditions, and collections were increasingly being sent off-site, which made it difficult for researchers to get them in a timely manner. On top of this, the Madison Building was designed specifically for Library needs, with very few windows available as well as large storage areas that would be inappropriate for offices. The argument ends on a strong note:

Conversion to general office space would cost millions of dollars, further delay in completing the building, and Library staff and collections would have to be further dispersed resulting in deterioration of service to the Congress and the public to say nothing about the danger to the collections which constitute the cultural heritage of this Nation.

It’s certainly hard to argue with that.

Also interesting is “The Collections at the Library of Congress,” which illustrates the importance of the Library while also showing its serious need for more space. At the time this was printed, the Library held more than 74 million items. Assuming this was published around the same time as all of the other documents in the folder (1975), it’s incredible to compare it to the numbers offered on the Library’s website today:

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, with more than 155.3 million items on approximately 838 miles of bookshelves. The collections include more than 35 million books and other print materials, 3.4 million recordings, 13.6 million photographs, 5.4 million maps, 6.5 million pieces of sheet music and 68 million manuscripts.

It’s a good thing they were able to keep the Madison Building!

Obviously the members of the House who wanted to take over the Madison Building for House office space were unsuccessful, but think of what would have happened if they hadn’t been. It is “one of the three largest public buildings in the Washington, D.C. area,” and it’s in a prime location right at the end of the National Mall (and right next to the other two Library of Congress buildings). At this point, that area is pretty much filled up with buildings, so there’s no space to build more. The Library still has off-site storage, but the space in the Madison Building allows them to keep an enormous part of their collections very close to where most of the Library’s reading rooms are located. This means that researchers (including members of Congress!) get the materials they need much more quickly, as materials stored off-site need to be transferred and should be requested in advance.

What another great way to tie the ACLS and Library of Congress together.

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