The Corner

Culture

When Librarians Attack

In response to Alien Vs Predator

While the Library of Congress does not often become the subject of political disputes, it has seen occasional dust-ups, including a protracted controversy in the late 19th century over the cement used in its construction.

Nearly a century later, in 1975, the Library of Congress made news when President Gerald Ford nominated Daniel Boorstin to run it. Boorstin was a historian, breaking a tradition in which holders of that job had usually been librarians. When his nomination was announced, scholars rejoiced, librarians objected, and liberal activists blamed him for having followed “conservative administrative policies that, they said, limited the advancement of minorities and women” in his previous job, at the Smithsonian.

Boorstin was confirmed by a large bipartisan majority; his successor, James Hadley Billington, another historian, was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1987 and confirmed unanimously. Now Barack Obama has revived the women-and-minorities and librarian-vs.-scholar controversies with his nomination of a “radical librarian” to replace Billington, who resigned last year amid criticism of his management (which may be overblown).

There is at least one case where the Library of Congress may have helped decide an election. When Senator Theodore Bilbo (D., Miss.) arrived in Washington after his 1934 election and reporters asked what committee he wanted to be on, he replied: “Library of Congress — I want to investigate the Gutenberg Bible.” One of Bilbo’s opponents in the election, Representative Ross Collins, had sponsored a 1930 bill that appropriated $1.5 million to buy the Library of Congress a collection of antique books, including a Bible printed by Gutenberg. Bilbo had excoriated Collins bitterly for this.

Bilbo, a notoriously crude and virulent racist even by mid-century Mississippi standards, was so widely despised that the only committee his fellow senators ever put him in charge of was the District of Columbia Committee. This was an unfortunate choice for the District’s large African-American population. Meanwhile, the seller of the Gutenberg Bible — Otto H. F. Vollbehr, a wealthy German industrial chemist and rare-book dealer — spent his ample proceeds from that transaction on promoting Nazi ideology in the United States. Today, thankfully, Nazis and Jim Crow are long gone, but you can still see the Gutenberg Bible at the Library of Congress.