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Last Updated

11 Dec 2002

Source: Los Angeles Times, May 16, 2002.


Mailroom Meltdown at Library of Congress

Security: As the Postal Service uses irradiation to combat possible anthrax, photos and videos are arriving burned or ruined.


WASHINGTON -- At the Library of Congress, the fight against terrorism has left a bit of a mess.

Lyrics and tunes submitted for copyright protection by a musician in Texas dreaming of a big hit are melted into a jellyfish-like mass, their Spanish words quieted by damage.

Photographs of potentially historic value are fused onto cover sheets where the caption ink has melted off, making them impossible to decipher or preserve. A videotape of an oral history interview conducted for a special project to capture the memories of war veterans is not playable.

The culprit? Irradiation, the kind postal authorities have been using for mail sent to certain Capitol Hill ZIP Codes since anthrax sent through the mail -- including to two U.S. senators--killed five people last fall.

The process of zapping the mail is so intense -- postal officials originally used an irradiation level 25 times greater than that used to kill bacteria on beef -- that letters routinely arrive yellowed, crinkled and sometimes burned beyond recognition. Even though the thermostat has since been turned down to a mere 10 times the normal zap, the mail is being cooked at temperatures as great as 170 degrees, and damage is noticeable.

"The letters look like they're about 125 years old," said Jeff Guide, a top administrator at the Library of Congress. "If there was cellophane on the envelope, it's disappeared, melted away."

Few are crying over burned, wrinkled mail in government offices. Most letters or invoices are legible, and the truth is that many constituents and vendors, mindful of the anthrax scare, have switched to e-mail and faxes.

But much of the material sent to the Library of Congress -- irradiated because the building is connected by tunnel to the House and Senate ventilation systems -- is destined for the collections or is submitted for a copyright. Officials are gearing up to contact those who sent in now-damaged material in the hope that they have copies.

Postal authorities, who did not return calls to discuss the problems at the library, now reportedly are X-raying packages, as they do for anything sent with Federal Express or UPS, rather than irradiating them, which they are continuing for letters. "We're back on track now," said Peggy Bulger, director of the Library's American Folk Life Center. "But there was a brief period when I don't think anybody knew irradiation was quite as caustic as it was."

The library still is in the early stages of assessing damage, in part because of lengthy delays in processing the irradiated mail, which is trucked to Bridgeport, N.J., for irradiation, then aired out back in Washington.

Guide, the library's point man for the postal problems, estimates that 3 million pieces of mail are missing. Mail bins in 12 tractor-trailers, some dating to November and December, have yet to be delivered and examined, he said.

Librarians face a daunting task of sorting through the mail -- a normal day brings 22,000 items -- and then contacting publishers, authors, musicians, filmmakers and donors to seek duplicates of what is mangled, melted or missing.

"We do not have a lot of volume yet, but my staff is now trained to assess damage," said Nancy Davenport, director of acquisitions for the library.

Even if items survive the irradiation process intact, Davenport and her staff are marking them as irradiated -- for history's sake.

"The journals and serials that have yellowed and embrittled look as if you left the Sunday newspaper in the sun," she said. "The moisture is sucked out. We are marking each item in case we ever discover a way to re-humidify them later."

The Copyright Office, which in its 132-year history has issued copyrights for everything from Mark Twain novels to the Ken and Barbie dolls, has asked Congress for an emergency bridge appropriation of $7.5 million to make up for the shortfall in $30 registration fees paid by those who are seeking copyright protection for their works.

Robert Dizard, who directs the Copyright Office, said the library did not want to furlough any employees while it waits for the mail. And Davenport reports that her costs of acquiring items for the collection -- for which the library pays postage -- have risen dramatically, given the increased use of FedEx and other services.

But the greater costs could be in lost materials.

Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, who directs the American Folk Life Center project to record the memories of veterans of World War I, World War II, and the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, says only one videotape has so far shown up in unusable condition.

"It's a great relief," she said. "Of all the things we've gotten, only a few were crisp, and only one videotape was affected. We're not alarmed."

But in an irony lost on no one, irradiation affected another project launched by the Folk Life Center: recording and assembling Americans' reactions to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Students at Michigan State University sent in six computer discs of photographs recording memorials they witnessed and 10 taped interviews they conducted in East Lansing. The photo discs have been replaced, but eight of the nine students neglected to make copies of their interviews, leaving the melted mess part of the library's database of the country's encounter with terrorism.