Monday, January 19, 2015

Library of Congress Research

We have all been to a library or two in our lives.  I grew up in a small New England town that had a pretty good library.  As a child, I hung out there every chance I got.  Loved books - still do.  I recently had the chance to spend some "quality" time at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC and I have to say, it is pretty impressive.  Having said that, I need to add that gaining access is complicated.  But if you are going to spend the better part of a day in a library, this is definitely one of the best.

The reason I needed to use the Library of Congress is because it is one of only two places on the East Coast (the other being the New York Public Library) where I could access a reference book entitled, Uniforms and Equipment of the Imperial Germany Army, 1900-1918.  My maternal grandfather was in the German Army in WWI.  I have bits and pieces of his uniform (epaulets and buttons) and all of his service medals, but very little knowledge of what he did, what rank he held, what he did to get the medals, etc.  As my husband and I were planning a trip to New England for Christmas and were planning extended stops in Washington, DC and New York City along the way, it was the perfect opportunity to gain access to this reference material.  We decided that since the LOC had been recently renovated and there were some fantastic exhibits to enjoy, the NYPL lost out.

Main Hall of the Library of Congress
I did my homework ahead of time.  I went on line and looked up the book I wanted at the LOC, copied all the information from their catalog, and sent an email to the librarian asking how to go about getting my hands on this book.  I had lots of questions, most of which were answered in the FAQ section of the the Library of Congress website.  But just to make sure I wouldn't be wasting a lot of time on the day of my visit, I asked how the book is accessed; was it necessary to request the book ahead of time, and if so, how long in advance; how long could I have access to the book; could I take scans/photos of the material in the books, etc.  All the usual stuff.  I don't travel with a scanner (although hand-held scanners are permitted in the Jefferson Reading Room).  I use a scanning app on my phone.  So of course, I needed to know if cell phones were allowed - and they are, so long as they are in silent mode.  Having done the homework, and asked the questions, I assumed I was "good to go" when I arrived.  Not exactly ...

One of many quotes along the walls
I overlooked a VERY important part of the equation.  I needed a library card.  Before I go any further, let me clarify that I didn't find this out until I showed up at the door of the reading room, which is in the main LOC building.  I should have known!  Somehow that part of the "how to access the libary" got overlooked.  As it turns out, getting a library card is not a difficult process, but it did require that I leave the Jefferson Building and travel to the Madison Building.  It took less time to get the cards than it did to get to the department that issues them and back again.  Did I mention that it was POURING rain that day and we had already checked our coats?  Lucky for us, like most government buildings in Washington DC, the two buildings are connected by a rabbit warren of tunnels.  In order to get our cards, we needed to find the correct elevator, travel down to the sub-basement, wind our way to the next building, find another correct elevator and take it to the third floor and then wander the halls looking for the proper department.  That done, it was a simple matter of providing proper, photo, ID; filling out a form on-line; getting a photo taken; and, voila! we had our cards.  My husband also got a card because he was going to help me with my research and wander around the reading room - he, too, loves books.  For all of you who may be considering a visit to the LOC, all the preliminary paper work for the card can be done on-line up to two weeks before you plan to show up.  Once you have a card, you can reserve books on-line up to forty-eight hours ahead, and they will be waiting for you when you arrive.  Your card is valid for two years, at which time it can be renewed in person.

Denise's brand, new library card
So, cards in hand, we go back to the LOC Jefferson Reading Room, having only gotten lost once, and stand in a short line to sign-in, at which point the guard points out to me that my purse (which contains my tablet, bluetooth keyboard, notes, pencils, highlighters, wallet, lipstick, etc.) is too large and I can't bring it into the reading room.  You can't bring a receptacle into the reading room larger than 9.5" x 6.2".  My purse was 10"x 6".   They want to make sure you can't sneak out a book - although considering the level of security and RFID tags, I can't imagine anyone pulling off such a theft.  Back to coat check I go (another winding trail) to empty my purse of those things I need for my work.  When I check the purse, I get a very cute transparent plastic bag to put my stuff in.  Okay, am I ready NOW?  YES!

Back I go, we sign in, flash our new library cards, and enter one of the most impressive libraries I have ever had the privilege of visiting.  Although I have seen this room many times from the gallery above it,
View of Jefferson Reading room from the Gallery
I had never actually been in the Jefferson Reading Room.

Before entering the actual reading room there is an ante room lined with books and very knowledgeable, helpful librarians who were able to tell me exactly how I get the book I want and how the whole system works.  So we enter and find a desk to work at.
Jefferson Reading Room Desks
At this point, I fired up my tablet, signed into the LOC using a temporary password provided to me by the librarian, set a new, personal password, and proceeded to request the book I wanted.  Having made the request, I questioned the librarian on how long I would have to wait and was told forty-five minutes to an hour.  Way too long!  "Can't I just pull the book off the shelf myself?"  Of course!  Now, I have to find it.  Thankfully, the librarian was very helpful.  She led me to an alcove, lined with books and containing a door labeled "Genealogy Resources".
This door opened on to a room approximately the size of a football field, lined, for as far as I could see, with shelves of - you guessed it - books!  As it turned out, the two volumes I needed were in the second stack.  Easy Peasy!  Books in hand I headed for my desk and got to work.  We were there the better part of 3 hours and were able to find most of the information I was looking for, as well as a lot of stuff I didn't know I needed but was grateful to have stumbled upon.  One of the more valuable lessons I have learned while researching my family history is to always be aware of  "stuff" you weren't looking for that can be useful - sometimes, crucial - to your work.
My husband wandered around the various alcoves for a while, looking at books, honing in on some about stamps and coins.  The library has a number of these alcoves around the perimeter of the room.

It was like working in a cathedral.  I have to admit, we didn't want to leave.  But we did, because there was a fabulous exhibit on the Magna Carta and, of course, the exhibit containing the books which Jefferson sold to the LOC in 1815 for $23,950.  By 1814 when the British burned the nation's Capitol and the Library of Congress, Jefferson had acquired the largest personal collection of books in the United States.  Jefferson offered to sell his library to Congress as a replacement for the collection destroyed by the British during the War of 1812.  A second fire on Christmas Eve of 1851 destroyed nearly two-thirds of the 6,487 volumes Congress had purchased from Jefferson.

The Jefferson Collection

The current exhibit at the LOC represents all the books from the original collection.  Some of the books are originals, some were replacement copies purchased from or donated by private collectors or found in the LOC collection, and some are represented by place-holders while the search for replacements continue.  The original Jefferson books are indicated by a green ribbon placed between the pages like a bookmark.  It was truly awesome to be only a glass-thickness away from a book that was handled and read by Thomas Jefferson.  If you love history, have an affinity for books, and any level of admiration for Jefferson, this simple and elegant exhibit will blow you away!

We left the library after a productive day, very proud of our new library cards, and feeling very grateful for the monumental, centuries-long efforts to preserve, protect and enrich this valuable resource.  And it's there for all of us to use, for free.  If you don't live in the greater Capitol area, and can't volunteer (Oh, how I would love to volunteer there!), you can always make a donation to help support this quintessential public library. Even if you don't need to use the library for, well, research - you should consider a visit the next time you are in Washington, DC.  You will not be disappointed.

-- Submitted by Denise Doyon

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