The following is a guest post from Meg McAleer of the Library of Congress.
Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with.
I am a senior archives specialist in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. My title usually draws blank stares from people, so I follow it quickly with the analogy that an archivist is like an archeologist who works with paper. That declaration gets nods of understanding and interest. My work consists chiefly of arranging, describing, and conserving collections of personal papers. Such collections typically contain diverse materials documenting a person’s life and accomplishments, including their correspondence, office files, creative works, speeches, diaries, family papers, photographs, video and sound records, calendars, and writings about the person by other people.
I have worked on a wide variety of collections since coming to the Library, including the papers of civil rights activist Rosa Parks, Congresswoman Patsy T. Mink who authored Title IX, Sigmund Freud who founded psychoanalysis, secretary of defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, and mid-century designers Charles and Ray Eames. I first see these collections in their rawest state, fresh from basements, attics, warehouses, storerooms, and the occasional barn.
Then I begin to survey a collection’s contents by opening its boxes, peering in its folders, and skimming its letters. I am careful not to disturb the original order which can have significant evidential value. I love this part of a project because my learning curve is the steepest. Once I have a handle on the collection’s content, I develop and implement an arrangement scheme that preserves original order when possible and imposes order when necessary, with the overall goal of releasing the collection’s narrative voice.
Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections?
Yes, a fifteenth-century vellum fragment containing part of the Tristram Saga in Icelandic. I love that this story was passed from people to people during the Middle Ages. Although its origins are debated, it was most likely a Celtic legend that was folded into Anglo-Norman medieval literature, and later imported into Norway where it was remade as a distinctive Nordic saga. I am inspired by this example of trafficking in stories because I believe it is at the heart of what I do as a historian and archivist. This item falls far outside the Manuscript Division’s collecting policy which focuses on United States history and culture, so its serendipitous presence among our holdings delights me all the more.
Share a time when an item from the collections sparked your curiosity.
Like most of us, curiosity drives my work as a historian and archivist. Long after I finish a collection, I find that I continue to think about documents that still hold a mystery. Currently tumbling around in my mind is a letter written by Rosa Parks. It is in her papers here in the Manuscript Division and is among her early writings that we think date between 1955 and 1958. This was a critical period in her life that included her arrest for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger on December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. Her act of defiance launched the Montgomery Bus Boycott and a new phase of the civil rights movement.
These short, fragmentary writings reveal Parks’ skill as a writer, her first-person accounts of events, and her astute insights into the South’s complicated race relations. This particular item is a draft letter she wrote to a “Dear Friend,” a person who lived outside the South and who had perhaps asked her to describe the impact of racial discrimination and segregation on her life. Parks drafted her response in pencil on stationery from Montgomery Fair department store, where she worked as an assistant tailor. The letter exposes the many places where Jim Crow lurked, in newspapers, city buses, churches, schools, and public libraries. “This thing called segregation here,” Parks explained, “is a complete and solid pattern as a way of life.” A good portion of her letter focuses on segregation at Montgomery Fair. I found her use of the store’s stationery to be wonderfully subversive. Parks started to close the letter and then crossed out what she had written. She had omitted something that was critically important to discuss. “I am sure you read of the lynch-murder of young Emmett Till of Chicago,” she pressed on. Till was brutally killed in August 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman while on a trip to visit family in Mississippi. The teenager’s murder preyed on Parks’ mind. Decades later, she would tell Till’s mother that she had thought of her son while making up her mind whether to relinquish her bus seat.
What is the mystery surrounding this letter? We don’t know to whom it was addressed, if indeed Parks was writing to an individual and not using the conversational tone of a mock letter for an article she intended to publish. After all, she had crossed out the words “Dear Friend” in her draft. A more intriguing question concerns when she wrote it. We know that she wrote it after Emmett Till’s murder at the end of August 1955. It also appears that she was still working for Montgomery Fair because she wrote, “On reaching my job, which is at . . . Montgomery Fair. ” The store ended her employment on January 7, 1956, several weeks after her arrest. She therefore most likely wrote the letter before then. Curious as well is that at no point in her lengthy discussion of bus segregation does Parks mention her own arrest. Could she have written this letter before her now-famous protest on December 1?
How many of us have wondered what was on Rosa Parks’ mind leading up to her courageous act that defied Montgomery’s bus segregation laws? For example, her views on the injustices of racism that motivated her to take a stand. We may now have the answer.
Tell us about a memorable interaction with a K-12 teacher or student
I recently had the pleasure of meeting with students from the Rosa Parks Middle School in Olney, Maryland. After touring an exhibit of Parks material with one of my colleagues, the students joined me for a discussion. I had brought a photograph with me of Rosa Parks standing in front of their school in 1993. The children literally squealed when they saw it, excited that she had visited their school. They now had a personal connection to her.
I had also prepared a small display of letters written by children to Mrs. Parks, selecting those that posed questions to her. The students and I spent the rest of our time together talking about the fact that the study of history begins with asking questions. With little prompting, they began asking their own. Why did Rosa Parks’ father leave her when she was a small child? What was it like living in the South under segregation? Was she scared when she was arrested? Did she have children? What was it like being famous? The students’ questions emerged from deep within themselves and extended out to form a bridge between them and Rosa Parks. There is a South African word Ubuntu that has many meanings, including generosity, kindness, and hospitality. It can also express the belief that we see our own humanity reflected back to us in our interaction with other people. The study of history is that. We see our own humanity reflected back to us when our intellectual curiosity and desire to know inspire us to connect with people of the past.
What’s one thing you’d like to tell teachers about the materials that you work with or the collections in general?
There appears to be a theme running through my responses – the belief that the study of history begins with asking questions. Some of our questions will couple quickly with answers; others will remain unrequited as intellectual placeholders until we know more. My work as a historian and an archivist begins with questions, and I am growing more comfortable with the ones that remain unanswered for now. Questions flow from children as their active minds work to make sense of the world. We lose this courage as we age. At the community college where I teach as an adjunct, I find that adult students often regard questions as risky because they reveal a lot about the asker. They also shy away from the personal commitment questions require. Yet, questions are the starting gun for analytical thinking, that process of making something greater out of facts. They are fueled in equal parts by our curiosity, desire to know, courage to ask, and ability to think critically. If we are lucky, they may allow us to catch a glimpse of our own humanity reflected back to us from the past.