Summer at the Library of Congress

We are pleased to welcome Heather Ball as our first Guest Contributor. She is a current student at the Graduate School of Library and Information Studies at Queens College in New York. We thank Heather for her contribution to NewArchivist!

Hello burgeoning archivists! I thought it might be interesting to share my experience from working at the Library of Congress this past summer. I was a Junior Fellow in the Manuscripts Preparation division, and my task was to fully process a roughly 45,000-itemed collection from accession to boxing and foldering. Though I didn’t quite complete the task in my three months there, I did accomplish and learn a heck of a lot. I also learned a lot about the Library itself, and about how collections are received and processed. One of the things that I found most interesting is that the Library is a lending library; anything that is on their shelves is open for user perusal—even the books from the Jefferson Library exhibit. Items out at our storage facilities in MD can even be retrieved and delivered to users in one day. Just imagine the enormity of the holdings, and the implications of this process- the Manuscripts Division alone has roughly 60 million items!

On my second day at the Library, my archivist came to me and another Fellow in the division and asked if we would give a presentation to tour groups from a local university the next morning at 9am. We eagerly agreed, so my archivist brought us into the bowels of the stacks to the “core” collection (approx. 100 of the library’s most popular items). These items are housed separate from their original collection so that tours or viewings can be put together quickly. She told us to pick eight items that best exemplify the library’s holdings, do some research, and write up a little bio of each piece. In two hours we picked our items, researched them, and prepared a presentation. The group was thrilled with our picks (which included a 15th cent. Icelandic MS; a bail petition from accused witches in 1692; a letter between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams talking about the tenuous relationship with King George; a Shaker painting from 1853; a punch card, plate and instructions from the first tabulating machine in 1895; the Woman’s Bible from 1898; a flag from the NAACP in the 1930s; and a telegram from 1941 announcing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), which was a great feeling for a new professional.

During the summer, the Junior Fellows were taken on many tours of the Library, its facilities, and touristy DC sites. But one of my favorites was when we took a drive out to Culpeper, VA where the Moving Image, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library is located. It’s a gorgeous campus, and we were taken into their stacks, conservation labs, recording studios, and even the nitrate film freezers. As we were in the conservation lab, I started to drift away from the tour and poke around at the work stations. While I was bent over someone’s table looking at reel containers, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to see one of the conservators. Thinking I was going to get in trouble for touching his stuff, I sheepishly started to apologize. But he asked me if I wanted to take a closer look, so he pulled over a noisy overhead magnifier, turned on the work table light, and let me look at the reel up close, only to see John Wayne! He told me that these reels were from Rio Bravo and Rio Grande (John Wayne movies) and needed to be touched up because they were being shown in Culpeper’s own theatre next weekend. Apparently every Friday and Saturday, Culpeper has a movie night where they show a movie that has recently been conserved. The ultimate goal is to prepare the reels for storage, but before they get tucked away, the staff invites the public to come and view them.

While I was working in the Manuscripts Division, my task was to process the papers of Meg Greenfield, a journalist and editor of the Washington Post for over 30 years (among many other accomplishments). Since her papers are still closed, I unfortunately cannot talk about some of the gems that I found, but rest assured she has some very interesting material in her collection. I did a rough sort of the collection, composed a processing proposal, and ultimately processed two of the four series my archivist and I designated for the collection. Family Papers and personal correspondence were the most interesting sections, but took the longest to process- there were about 15,000 items! It took a few weeks to get through each piece, then determine who the sender was (a lot of the letters and cards were signed “Me”, or used a nickname), but finishing that section of the collection was the best feeling in the world.

Laugh as people may, I seriously LOVE my job. It doesn’t even feel like work, and I was amazed at how quickly the days went by. On top of that, since it was deemed a learning internship, I was allowed to attend lectures and seminars throughout the library. I’ve also had training sessions with the archivists in the Manuscript Division, so now I am trained, LoC-style.

Since my collection was closed, I also worked on the letters of Sigmund Freud for my presentation at the end of the summer. The Library recently acquired seven letters written by Sigmund Freud to his childhood friend, Eduard Silberstein. When I first looked at these letters, I must admit that I didn’t have the slightest clue about Freud, except that he was the father of psychoanalysis. That being said, I had to do a lot of background research on both him and Eduard Silberstein, as well as the early years of Freud (from which these letters date). Out of the seven, I picked two to showcase: one from 1873 (which has a fingerprint of Freud’s on it!), the other from 1879. Both of them are written to Eduard after one of Freud’s school examinations, but the timbre is drastically different in each. In the first one, when Freud is only 17, the tone is that of a typical student surviving any college exam. He talks about being exhausted after his “pitched battle”, and that he could sleep for weeks after his ordeal. The next one is much more clinical, seemingly typical of Freud the doctor, where Freud sounds bored with being tested. He implies that he not only bested all the other students, but is on par with his instructors and that testing is frivolous considering he is the smartest. I thought it would be interesting to highlight how the change in voice in these letters mirrors the change in Freud’s life, both personally and professionally.

During our final week, we had our closing Q&A session with Deanna Marcum, the Associate Librarian for Library Services, but more importantly, the past president of CLIR (one of my favorite library resources). I know people may be rolling their eyes, but she is the equivalent of a library-world celebrity, so I was very excited. The group had a great session, and afterwards I went up to talk to her. For those of you who don’t know me, I tend to put my foot in my mouth at the most inopportune moments, so it shouldn’t be surprising that this was one of them. I became completely star struck and babbled on about how great she was and what amazing work she did not only for CLIR and DLF, but for the library field in general. Since it’s a bit blurry due to my frenzied accolades, I can’t remember if I specifically called her a “rock star” or a “superstar”, but it was one of the two. Thankfully, she is an extremely gracious and humorous woman, so she found my little bit amusing.

Although I am still a hard-core medievalist (I have my first two degrees in Medieval Studies), it is very interesting to be a processing archivist. Even though there is a lot of information for medieval manuscripts, not a lot is copiously and finitely known about production, authors, or motives behind them. With archival work, I am sifting through a person’s entire life, so I got to see sides of Meg Greenfield that the public wasn’t privy to. I’ve seen all of her professional activities and papers, but what added a deeper and even intimate layer to the collection were her personal papers. This kind of connection isn’t usually forged with a medieval manuscript (though I usually create one for myself!) and brings a deeper bond between an archivist and their work. I’m so glad that I had this opportunity at LoC to broaden my perspective.

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