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Daniel J. Boorstin: One for the Books

September 17, 1987|BEVIS HILLIER | Times Staff Writer

"A wonderful thing about a book, in contrast to a computer screen, is that you can take it to bed with you," says Daniel J. Boorstin, who retired Monday as librarian of Congress. "You can embrace a book. You can hide it, it becomes part of you. You own it in the best sense of the word--in the sense that it owns you too if it's a great book."

Boorstin was explaining why spending the last 12 years as keeper of 84 million books at the Library of Congress had been rewarding--"though the job was no sinecure." Appropriately enough, he was relaxing before making a speech Wednesday at the dedication of another library, the Claremont Colleges' new $7.6-million complex.

Wiry, bespectacled, shrewd of eye and wry of mouth, he sported a red bow tie with a yellow shirt, an ensemble that had the arresting effect of a set of traffic lights with one bulb missing.

He talks about books with a sensual delight that is rarely inspired by brittle pages and cold print. He is a voluptuary of volumes, a fondler of folios, a Casanova of Caslon type. If all the world were paper and all the sea were ink, that would be just fine with Daniel Boorstin, one imagines.

Boorstin is not actually clearing out of the Library of Congress, bag and baggage, by retiring (his successor is historian James Billington). By an unprecedented act of Congress, he has been made librarian emeritus. "The act provides," he explains, "that I should have an office and clerical assistants and of course a parking place--which is the prize of prizes."

He will be using the library for research. Skeptics wonder whether this will mark any difference from his habits of the last 12 years, considering that in that period he has had several books published, including his 1983 best-seller "The Discoverers" (745 pages in paperback), a history of man's search to know the world and man's self.

Boorstin emphasizes that he got up early every morning and that he worked weekends in the four-story Washington house he shares with his wife, Ruth. He researched at home with books that he was allowed to borrow from the Library of Congress as a staff privilege.

"The Discoverers" joined a long list of works that had left Boorstin garlanded with literary prizes and honorary doctorates. He won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1973 for "The Americans: The Democratic Experience." Now he is beginning "The Creators," a companion piece to "The Discoverers."

The latter, he says, will "do for the arts what 'The Discoverers' did for the sciences" and will cover architecture, painting, sculpting, writing, music and dance--"not battles and treaties, but mankind's fulfillment of itself."

As a creator of books, did Boorstin find the librarian's task of marshaling other people's books and making them more accessible to be uncreative, frustrating drudge work? Not at all.

For a start he loved being surrounded by books. Second, because the library was founded in 1800, had had some good organizers and still has a good staff, he found organization already in healthy momentum. His role, he felt, was to give direction. Some of his first acts were largely symbolic.

"I wanted to open the place up. There are some large, heavy bronze doors in the entrance. Those were kept closed," he said. "When I asked why they were kept closed, they said: 'Why, if we open them, that will cause a draft.' And I said, 'Well, that's exactly what we want to do.' So we did open those doors. That was a symbol to remind people that we were there as the nation's library, the world's library."

'Unwelcoming Gesture'

Boorstin also stopped the practice of searching people for bombs as they came in. "I thought that was a very unwelcoming gesture, and that we should take our chances."

He is proud of the books published by the library during his tenure, including "Treasures of the Library of Congress" by Charles Goodrun. At Boorstin's suggestion, a Center for the Book was established by Congress. One of its aims, he says, was "to encourage people to regard television not as an enemy of the book, but as an ally of the book." He would like to see the titles of relevant books given more often at the end of television programs.

Boorstin has yet another book coming out Oct. 21, "Hidden History" (Harper & Row, $19.95). Dedicated to the Library of Congress, it is an anthology of his works under such headings as "The Rhetoric of Democracy" and "A Flood of Pseudo-Events." A dominant leitmotif is his hatred of dogma and of absolutes.

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