Library of Congress reverses decision to merge Middle East and African reading rooms

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Last week we reported that Library of Congress (LC) officials had decided to move, effective December 2006, the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room (AMED) from its present location to make room for a new permanent exhibition gallery of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of early Americana ("Library of Congress to Consolidate African and Middle Eastern Reading Rooms" in NCH WASHINGTON UPDATE; Vol 12, #40; 19 October 2006). News of the proposed closure resulted in a flurry of protests to the LC by scholars and historians of Africa, the Middle East, and Europe.

The LC has now reversed its plan to consolidate the AMED reading room with the European Division Reading Room. According to the official LC statement, "The Library of Congress' plans for new exhibits in 2007 will not affect the readings rooms in the Thomas Jefferson Building. The statement that was issued to that effect was inaccurate and the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room will not close."

While the statement dealt with the issue of possible closure of the reading room, it did not address where the Kislak Collection would be displayed, nor did it put to rest the concern that "consolidation" of the reading room still may take place, but at some future time.

When contacted by the NCH, library officials seemed unusually careful in avoiding off-the-cuff statements and declined to elaborate on the issue or the discuss specifics. According to a clarifying statement provided to the NCH (the statement ignored specific questions posed to library officials), the LC spokesperson issued a three-line statement: "The Library of Congress is now working on plans for improving visitors' and scholars' experiences. We do not expect the space for exhibits to affect any of the reading rooms. More details will be made available as plans are developed."

It is apparent that the library was caught off guard by the fervent outrage coming from the scholarly community when the LC's plans for the reading rooms were leaked by a library insider a week or so back. Clearly, the LC has yet to definitively decide how it will proceed in the future. At this juncture, all that can be said is, for the time being, the African and Middle Eastern Reading room and other reading rooms will not be closed or consolidated to make room for exhibits in 2007. But vague assurances by LC officials that "we do not expect them [the reading rooms]" to be impacted in the future (beyond 2007) give scholars good reason to keep the LC's development plans under close scrutiny.

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