Man of books opens a new chapter. The librarian of Congress goes back to the stacks
Washington — COME June 15, Daniel J. Boorstin will walk out of the spacious librarian's office at the Library of Congress's Madison Building. If he's as good as his word, he'll take the elevator down and walk right across the street to the Jefferson Building. From then on, you should be able to find him somewhere in the stacks.
``You can take the man out of the library,'' the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian said recently when announcing his retirement as the librarian of Congress, ``but you can't take the library out of the man.''
During the last 12 years, the country's scholarly and literary community could have been pardoned for not being able to distinguish too clearly between the man and the institution. Bookish, passionately committed to reading, outspoken on behalf of such causes as literacy, Dr. Boorstin has been the most visible evidence that the country does indeed have a national library - one of the greatest in the world.
Dapper in a bow tie and checked jacket, Boorstin looks out from the perspective of his office at the place he calls ``an adventuring institution'' and a ``symbol of freedom'' and talks about ``the catholicity and cosmopolitanism of its collections,'' adding that it exists to serve ``the pursuit of learning'' and the ``notion that you can let people learn for themselves and take the consequences.''
``What I've tried to do is to open the place up,'' he says, sitting in a large chair behind a neat desk, adorned with photographs of children and grandchildren. ``To find ways to make it more open, more inviting, more attractive - to remind people that it exists.''
This approach has translated into acts as symbolic as swinging open the bronze doors in the great hall (shut for years) and as substantive as making the stacks more accessible to scholars.
Signs of his open-door policies can be seen around the richly historic Jefferson building in the form of picnic tables on the front steps, events highlighting the ethnic diversity and folklife of the nation, and all manner of festivities that, in the librarian's words ``celebrate the whole wide range of American civilization,'' from commemorations of Sir Francis Drake's voyage to the 50th anniversary of Mickey Mouse.
Boorstin has helped stretch the boundaries of the library far beyond the 22 million books on 636 miles of shelves, the Gutenberg Bible, the library of Thomas Jefferson, and the films, music, maps, and manuscripts that crowd the library's three massive buildings here in the nation's capital.
``He's done a tremendous job as a spokesman for libraries, for learning, for high standards, for scholarship,'' observes Vartan Gregorian, president and chief executive officer of the New York Public Library, who has been mentioned as a candidate for the job. ``Boorstin has not been merely a keeper of the flame.''
He has, in fact, fanned the flames, bringing unaccustomed attention to an institution and an office that generally dwells in paradoxical obscurity. The role of librarian of Congress, which William M. Cochrane, senior adviser to the Senate Rules Committee, calls ``one of the most important jobs in this town,'' has not often been a beacon of light in the national culture.
``One didn't hear from one decade to the next'' from librarians of Congress, observes Stephen Graubard, editor of the intellectual magazine Daedalus. ``They just totally disappeared.'' (An exception is poet Archibald MacLeish.) But Boorstin has used the office as ``a bully pulpit,'' Mr. Graubard says, and has made people aware ``of the book as a threatened artifact.''
Boorstin is credited with initiating an exhaustive reexamination of the library's many roles - from keeping the nation's copyrights to acting as a central card index for the country's libraries - and starting the Center for the Book, a national impetus for reading that reaches from local libraries into the CBS television network's Read More About It program. He fought eloquently for restorations in the library's budget when it received a double dose of cuts during the Gramm-Rudman epoch. He leaves as the library begins an $81.5 million renovation and restructuring of the main facilities into what he is pleased to call ``a multimedia encyclopedia.
``This is the first great library that will have its users' rooms centered around all the resources of the culture: motion pictures, still photographs, maps, music,'' he says. ``The wonderful thing about this place is that you can never define its boundaries.''
Boorstin's success in getting the library's story across to those who control its purse strings stems, according to some observers, from his own personal persuasiveness.
``There's an essential sweetness about him,'' says Mr. Cochrane. ``He's an extremely warm person. He's bold, and will say what he thinks; but he's shy. He's very well thought of over here on the Hill.''
Boorstin insists that at least part of this success springs from his love for the institution.
``I love this place. I just love it,'' he says. ``My wife, Ruth - who has always been my editor and partner, without whom none of my books or this job would have been possible - is not just a bibliophile, but a bibliomane. And we are leaving a small gift, as a token of our love for the library.''
The ``small gift'' will be a $100,000 contribution for the establishment of the Daniel J. and Ruth F. Boorstin Publication Fund, in support of the Center for the Book.
``To be associated with a great institution is a kind of immortality,'' he says reflectively.
During his association with this particular great institution, the soft-spoken but forthright scholar has weathered the criticism that swarmed around his nomination. Minority groups complained about his stated opposition to affirmative action. There were also disclosures at the time that some federal employees had done research for one of his books while he served as senior historian at the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology. (He has subsequently done his writing in the dark hours of the morning before work and won't even keep a typewriter in his office.) The complaint that Boorstin testified against friends who had shared with him a brief, youthful association with the Communist Party also surfaced at the time.
These questions were, however, outweighed by his qualifications, most notably the qualification recommended to Franklin Roosevelt by Felix Frankfurter on the occasion of Archibald MacLeish's nomination to the post: ``[The librarian] should be a man who knows books, loves books, and makes books.''
And Boorstin says he is most happy making books.
His most recent book, ``The Discoverers'' (Vintage Books, New York), rummages around humanity's attic in search of facts that most tellingly spin the story of human history through man's invention and the pursuit of learning. It is this pursuit, and not the warehousing of books and artifacts, that should most properly be the business of the library, he contends; and he has made it his business as librarian to find ``ways to keep the pursuit of learning and of literature delightful and comprehensible.''
Boorstin's wide-ranging mind, philosophical interests, and the long hours spent looking through the lens of history have apparently qualified him to look beyond the magnificent buildings and infrastructure of the library - its light-filled main readers' room constantly churning with scholars - into the essential mission of the librarian's office, a mission captured in the quote from Francis Bacon that opens ``The Discoverers:''
``Nay, the same Solomon the king, although he excelled in the glory of treasure and magnificent buildings, ... maketh no claim to any of these glories, but only to the glory of the inquisition of truth....''
``Man is condemned to learn,'' Boorstin says quietly. ``He must learn. He has no choice. It's man's destiny to learn. ... That's why my world history is not focused on wars and conflicts of various kinds, but on what mankind has been able to learn to make and to imagine.''
Currently at work on a companion world history, entitled ``The Creators,'' one that will trace the artistic achievements of mankind, Boorstin looks out the door of the library to a future filled with books - many of them his own.
``There are a lot of habits you can't break, and one of them is writing,'' he says. ``I hope to do new things, write new books. As [Winston] Churchill said, `To survive is to begin again.'
``I'll be happy to begin again.''