IF you can't bring the people to the United States Library of Congress, why not bring the Library of Congress to the American people.
That is the thinking behind a new magazine that debuted this month called ``Civilization.'' Billed as ``the magazine of the Library of Congress,'' this bimonthly publication joins another Washington-linked institutional magazine, Smithsonian, in catering to upscale readers. The Smithsonian already has a circulation of 2 million.
Like Smithsonian magazine, where for $22 a year, subscribers gain membership to the Smithsonian Institute, which publishes the magazine, Civilization offers a somewhat similar plan. For $20 a year, a reader becomes an ``associate'' of the Library of Congress and receives a year's subscription to Civilization magazine. Other benefits include discounts on books, gifts, and art, notification of cultural events, and behind-the-scenes library tours.
``The Library of Congress is the largest repository of knowledge recorded in the history of the world,'' says James H. Billington, who heads up the Library of Congress. ``We have over 105 million items, including books in 450 languages.''
But many of the vast collection of documents, films, paintings, and artifacts, Mr. Billington says, remain ``untapped'' by the general public. Besides bringing the Library's vast collection to individual Americans, the magazine can also help ``build a broad national constituency'' for the Library, he says.
A cross culture of content
Civilization, which printed some 300,000 copies of the first issue, looks a little like a cross between Smithsonian and American Heritage. Articles are based on exhibits, documents, and materials found at the Library of Congress.
The cover story in the premier November-December issue, for example, is a retrospective profile of Thomas Jefferson. The issue also contains articles on Nazi-era film director Leni Riefenstahl, the black middle class in the US, computer discs, and contemporary Moscow. Also, there is a portfolio of photographs by Toni Frissell from the library's collection of 300,000 of her images.
The new magazine is actually a partnership between the Library of Congress and L.O.C. Management Corporation of New York, a group of private investors. Under a licensing agreement with the private investors, the Library receives a one-time payment of $250,000 plus a gift of $1 per member.
The magazine is ``entirely supported by private funds,'' says Stephen Smith, editor of Civilization, and it is editorially independent of the Library of Congress. And none of its approximately 10-member staff are employees of the Library of Congress. Mr. Smith held down key posts at Newsweek, Time, and Knight Ridder newspapers.
Good writing, wry humor
Smith says he wants a magazine that connects past events to the present. His target audience: ``smart, curious, and engaged readers,'' who ``value good writing, wry humor, irony,'' and fun. What he doesn't want, Smith says, is a magazine just for intellectuals, although he suspects that ``intellectuals will very much approve'' Civilization.
But the question in New York, the magazine publishing-capital of the US, is whether a new, upscale journal such as Civilization can compete for advertising dollars in a field already dominated by such national publications as Harpers, the Atlantic, The New Yorker, Smithsonian, and American Heritage?
``It's a very tough climate for magazines right now,'' says Fred Danzig, editor of Advertising Age, a trade publication. ``While revenues and advertising pages are up at many magazines over last year,'' he says, ``it seems like a new publication comes out about every week. But of late, more of them have failed than succeeded.''
According to Mediaweek, a trade publication, ad revenues and total ad pages for magazines jumped sharply at the end of the summer, as the US economy continued to post strong economic gains.
Currently, ``there are some 10,661 magazines in the United States,'' says Beth Dempsey, an associate of Gale Research Inc., in Detroit. Gale Research is a reference publishing house. Most magazines, about 8,000 of them, are trade, technical, and professional magazines, Ms. Dempsey says. Some 2,650 are general circulation magazines. But many more media outlets, including magazines, tend to go out of business than are started up, she says.