The main reading room at the Library of Congress.

The main reading room at the Library of Congress. Library of Congress

Meet The US Treasure Hunters Racing To Protect Artifacts From War

Amid escalating violence in the Middle East and Africa, the Library of Congress is on a mission to secure history.

They're always searching. Maps, magazines, music, posters, books, and videos—a never-ending hunt for history. It takes them across the globe, through war zones and political unrest, the types of places where it's best to blend in—or occasionally travel in an armoured car. And they race to do it, hoping to snap up artifacts before they're lost or intentionally destroyed.

These are not just any librarians.

But the employees of the Library of Congress's Overseas Offices don't have just any job. They're tasked with tracking down critical-yet-obscure materials from around the globe and bringing them stateside, all with the goal of making sure Congress—and anyone else who wants to use its library—has access to the world's most current and comprehensive collection of information.

It's not an esoteric pursuit. The material that the overseas offices send home are used by lawmakers and their staffs to help shape policy, and daily updates from the overseas offices are sent right into the inbox of some congressional staffers and the Congressional Research Service to quicken the flow of international information to Capitol Hill.

"For Congress, it's a matter of helping them prepare legislation related to the areas," Beacher Wiggins, the library's acquisitions and bibliographic access director, said. "If there is a war going on, and if there is an increase in a request for funds, say from the White House, to send more troops to this area, we could have some firsthand information that Congress would not otherwise have because we have it in a local language, and Congress would have it immediately."

They've been at it for half a century. In 1958, Congress permitted its library to establish locations overseas. Specifically, they're set up when research materials can't be retrieved any other way.

The library collects resources from just about every country and language; typically, acquisitions staff work with international vendors, who send materials to the library's Capitol Hill home. But this model doesn't work in areas without a robust infrastructure, or those ruled by regimes with little interest in sharing.

And so the library sets up offices to find materials that couldn't be accessed otherwise. Twenty-three such offices were established from 1962 to 1986, yet slowly, many of these closed as the need for an office in that location diminished. The number has since been whittled down to six: New Delhi; Cairo; Rio de Janeiro; Islamabad; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Nairobi, Kenya.

Each has a similar set-up. An American heads the office, but the rest of the staff, 216 in total, are locals—and for a very distinct reason. "We need to have people on the ground because they're sensitive and insecure areas," Wiggins said. "They need to be local or native people of that culture so they can, one, blend in, they have connections, they are able to set up relationships that an American cannot do."

The local staff collect materials where they live. They go on acquisitions trips to gather more items. They pack and ship what they've found not only to the Library of Congress but to national and international libraries, universities and research institutions through a pay-to-play program called the Cooperative Acquisitions Program. And sometimes, they establish a bibliographic representative in a nearby area who ships the goods to the overseas office for processing and packaging to the Library of Congress.

A January, 2011 issue of an Iraqi daily newspaper is set out on a table of African and Middle Eastern Reading Room and Division; daily newspapers are items the Library of Congress' overseas offices collect. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Miller, Library of Congress photographer)

To some degree, the work involves exercising caution, particularly on acquisitions trips to hostile regions. But it's less dangerous for natives to go into unstable areas as they're more in tune with a community's customs. "They're pretty much OK," Wiggins said, "because they're local, and they know the culture, and they know the language and they fit [in]. Whereas if we had an American staff there they wouldn't because they stand out like a sore thumb among the local and native."

The people on the ground work hard to get materials, which sometimes aren't sold by publishers or may be banned by the government, and that can mean taking risks to track them down. And the key formula is making connections and knowing where to look (like in the right marketplaces), according to Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the library's African and Middle East Division.

"We get materials that are so rare—they don't need to be ancient to be rare—they're modern and contemporary materials that Congress might need," Deeb said, "but they're difficult to get and the librarians go out there, and they get them."

Yet, because these regions can be prone to violence, the offices themselves need to be secured. Since most are inside the U.S. embassy compound, the library helps pay a fee for the local guards to protect the office and/or the home of the American director. But in areas with political unrest, extra precautions are taken: In Islamabad, the American director doesn't live in Pakistan, but flies to and from the country throughout the year to oversee the office. In Cairo, the office was closed to Americans for more than three months, and the director was ordered to stay in the United States until the region stabilized. And it shuttered again in 2013 for more than two weeks during the ouster and removal of President Mohamed Morsi (though local staff continued working during the closures).

Sometimes, historical documents are destroyed. Take Somalia. A civil war has plagued the region, and the country's written history in essence cannot be found inside Somalia, according to Abdulahi Ahmed, who works in the library's African and Middle Eastern Division.

So, when Ahmed, a Somali native, decided to coauthor a book detailing the history of Somali arts and plays before the 1991 civil war, he used the library's resources on the country, which the Nairobi office had collected. "The library saved Somalia," Ahmed said. "Everything that was written about Somalia and written in Somalia, we have a copy here. You will not find it in any other place in the world. It's here."

Now, Somalia is trying to rebuild its library in its capital, Mogadishu, and has asked the Library of Congress for help in bolstering a collection. And that is at the heart of what these offices exist to do.

"We say the library is the world's memory. And especially now with all the turmoil going on in Africa and the Middle East," Deeb said, "the offices that provide those books are really doing a great service not only to the library and to Congress, but in the long run, to history because they're preserving the work created by people whose own heritage is being destroyed by war."