My Job at the Library: Building the Architecture, Design and Engineering Collection

(The following is an article from the November/December 2016 issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine, in which Mari Nakahara, curator of architecture, design and engineering in the Prints and Photographs Division, discusses her job. The issue can be read in its entirety here.)

Mari Nakahara. Photo by Shawn Miller.

How would you describe your work at the Library?

Like other Library curators, I am responsible for building the collection. Acquiring new items for the Prints and Photographs Division is very satisfying, but it is also more complicated than one might expect. It requires an in-depth knowledge of the existing collection holdings, Library-wide collection development policies, research trends and rights-agreement issues, among other concerns.

How did you prepare for your current position?

I received a Ph.D. in architectural design and history in my native Japan. My dissertation on McKim, Mead & White, a New York-based architectural firm from the late-19th to early-20th century, required me to access their original documents held in the U.S. The beauty and rich information in those original, historical documents was a powerful magnet that led me to change my career, leaving academia to become an architectural archivist. I received a Fulbright Fellowship that made it possible for me to intern at Columbia University’s Avery Architectural Archives and the Museum of Modern Art. In 2000, I decided to immigrate to the U.S. to pursue my goal of working at an architectural repository, because this profession was not yet available in Japan.

My first full-time job at the American Architectural Foundation brought me to Washington, D.C., in 2003. Four years later, I was hired as a librarian in the Asian Division of the Library of Congress, and I acquired a library science degree at nearby Catholic University of America. I was honored to be hired as the curator of the Library’s architecture, design and engineering collections last year when Ford Peatross, my predecessor, retired after 40 years of service.

What is the size and scope of the Library’s architecture, design and engineering collections?

More than 4 million items pertaining to the subjects of architecture, design and engineering are housed in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division. These include the drawings of many of the most distinguished figures in the field, such as Richard Morris Hunt, the first American architect who studied at the École des Beaux-Arts, as well as the innovative furniture and house designs by Charles and Ray Eames from the mid-1900s. Hunt designed significant structures such as the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty and the Biltmore Estate and is considered a leading figure in American architectural history. The Historic American Buildings Survey, the Historic American Engineering Record and the Historic American Landscapes Survey are the most popular design collections. They document sites throughout the U.S. and its territories—ranging from one-room schoolhouses to structures designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

What are some of the most memorable items in the Library’s design collection?

The collection holds many memorable treasures. It is hard to pick a few because each has its own fascinating story. Among the highlights are the competition drawings for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which includes Maya Lin’s winning design. She created her entry at age 21 as an undergraduate student at Yale University. The world of design drawings and photographs constantly surprises people because it covers so many more subjects than one might expect.

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