It will be the first time since the nation's chief repository for books and knowledge was built in 1897 - except occasionally during times of war - that the Library of Congress will close its public reading rooms on weekday evenings.
"No, people won't die, nations won't fall, fortunes won't be lost," wrote Margaret Shannon, a self-described researcher and seeker of knowledge, in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. "But it will be a great loss, a silent tragedy."
Tonight, some who feel as Shannon does plan to stage a silent but eloquent demonstration in the Main Reading Room - no chanting, no marching, no picketing. It is an open secret that, when the doors are scheduled to close at 5:30 p.m., an undetermined number of protesters, many of whom are writers, scholars or researchers and have assigned study desks at the library, will keep on doing what they love to do: They will read.
They plan to continue reading to protest cutbacks at the library caused by Gramm-Rudman, the deficit-reduction law. Russell Mokhiber, an organizer for the demonstration, said they would read on and on until 9:30 p.m., the library's weekday closing time for decades.
There with them in spirit will be 11 members of the literary society International PEN. Those men and women of letters - among them Raymond Carver, E.L. Doctorow, Rose and William Styron, and Calvin Trillin - last week sent a cable to President Reagan and congressional leaders begging that the ''unprecedented cuts" scheduled to take place at the library be canceled.
Beginning tonight, the library's reading rooms will not be open to the public, as they have been since the library was built, on any weekday evening except Wednesday. In addition, the rooms will be closed on Sundays.
Under the Gramm-Rudman law, which calls for a balanced budget by 1991, $18 million must be cut in 1986 from the Library of Congress' current $238 million budget. Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin had asked Congress for $248.6 million to restore earlier budget cuts.
In addition to slashing hours at the library, which also is the official research arm of Congress, Boorstin has begun reducing his staff of about 5,200 people by about 300. He also is spending less on acquisitions, preservations and cataloguing, and is cutting services for the blind and handicapped.
The library's Congressional Research Service, which studies topics for federal lawmakers, also has been cut back.
Craig Dooge, a library spokesman, said that the Gramm-Rudman cuts will affect libraries around the nation because the Library of Congress will be acquiring and cataloguing about 25,000 fewer volumes per year than it has in the past. The Library of Congress provides cataloguing and data for libraries in the United States and around the world.
The demonstrators believe that knowledge and the search for it are sacrosanct and should be immune from Gramm-Rudman. Mokhiber, a public interest attorney, said the cuts at the library manifest "the highest disregard for the American people" because they reflect Congress' and the Reagan administration's "inverted priority" of "bombs before books" and other human concerns.
Although he declined to be interviewed on the subject, Boorstin told Congress at a hearing late last month that "historians will look with amazement and incredulity" upon budget cuts that are forcing cutbacks at the library. Boorstin said he did not mean to be an alarmist, but said: "The only analogy I can think of is the burning of the ancient library in Alexandria in Egypt" in the third century A.D.
Marti Morris, 35, has been going to the library to do primary source work every weeknight for five years. It is for a textbook she is writing on the history of wide-screen movie processes from 1930 to the present. Because she is working full time to support herself, Morris said, nights are the only time she can do her scholarly digging.
Aside from delaying her own book, Morris said the cutbacks at the library have "far-reaching consequences" because they will delay the dissemination of information being gathered there by other scholars.
Morris, who planned to be part of the read-in, said: "Libraries are not commodities that can be bought and sold. The dissemination of information should not be based on whether or not you can afford it."