The following is a guest post by Wes Matthews, who recently completed a summer internship in Literary Initiatives.
Every so often, I find myself marveling at the unmatched resilience of human beings. This year, I learned that anatomically modern humans have been around for roughly 300,000 years, which seems like a long time until you contrast it with the over 4.5 billion years that Earth has been in existence. An individual human life seems so almost unimaginably small in the course of our planet’s collective existence, and yet each life is so precious and capable of containing multitudes that we band together to withstand the many uncertainties of our ever-changing world. We are very powerful in that respect.
Resilience is not always a big, extravagant showcase of bravery and fortitude. More often, it is the series of small adjustments that we make in our lives in hopes of making living more bearable for ourselves and others. It is the act of wearing face coverings in public facilities to curtail the spread of a deadly virus that has tragically claimed the lives of millions of people worldwide. It is the choice to receive a relatively new vaccine in order to build up immunity against the same virus. And, of course, it is the ability to work from home in the middle of a pandemic, staring at a computer screen for hours every day, quietly wondering when we’ll ever see some semblance of “normal” times again. Whatever the case may be, true resilience often requires self-sacrifice on a small scale, a willingness to humble oneself and account for the big picture of humanity. Fortunately, there are many institutions that serve to remind us of our history so that this mission of survival seems more manageable. Among the most crucial of these institutions are libraries (in my completely unbiased opinion, of course).
Certainly I am not alone in saying that this past year has tested my resilience more than ever before. I never figured that so much of my college experience would be affected by a global pandemic, that I would spend multiple semesters taking my classes virtually rather than in a classroom setting. In order to push through, I had to adapt my everyday routines, develop different schedules, find new ways of being an active student, and learn to connect with people through Zoom. Of course, my internship in Literary Initiatives was no different. I was daunted by the prospect of navigating professional affairs in a virtual format, especially since my experience with summer internships was limited. But nonetheless, I was very enthusiastic about working for the Library of Congress because of the endless possibilities for discovery that the opportunity held. That was the motivating factor that helped me push through, in spite of my worry that the job would be more difficult than I could handle. I was thrilled to get the inside scoop of what it is like to work in one of the world’s largest libraries.
Even with all the optimism I had stowed away in my heart, my summer internship with Literary Initiatives was more enjoyable than I had originally anticipated. My work mostly revolved around preparation for the 2021 Library of Congress National Book Festival. I was responsible for drafting up, editing, and fact-checking key public information about the festival, namely author biographies. This was an interesting experience because I came in contact with dozens of book titles from a wide variety of genres. Researching these books provided me with a renewed appreciation for all kinds of literature that I myself hadn’t consumed in a while: fantasy novels, cookbooks, logic puzzles, home and garden, children’s fiction, true crime, etc. When I was younger, I knew someone who used to say that he was a fan of all book genres because it takes courage to even write, and the inspiration that authors pour into the things that they write is inspiring in itself. I continue to be awestruck by just how vividly humans can relate our nuanced experiences through literature, rendering ourselves vulnerable with the hope that other people can connect with them. It fills me with hope, too, that so many of these wonderful books are coming out in a time of crisis, even while many people’s minds are preoccupied with more pressing issues. Human connection must carry on, so that we can do the same. Incidentally, I now have a brilliant list of forthcoming book releases that I’m keeping my eye out for!
I also had the opportunity to work on indexing the Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature, an impressive collection of audio-recorded readings from former Consultants in Poetry and other renowned writers. Exploring hours of old recordings filled me with so much wonder and curiosity. These poetry readings showcase writers at their most candid, their voices reverberating with poise as they carefully explain the inspiration behind each poem. I listened to many hours of recorded poetry, and I didn’t at all get tired of it. To hear poets like Robert Hayden, Naomi Madgett, Sybil Kein, and Miller Williams read their own work is simply incredible, and I found myself deeply moved on multiple occasions. In Hayden’s recital of “Theme and Variation,” a poem of his I had never read before, he has this passage that I find entirely fascinating: “Fossil, fuschia, mantis, man / fire and water, earth and air / all things alter even as I behold / all things alter, the stranger said.” This poem reminds me of the certainty that things in my life will change, and there is often nothing I can do to control that. But I can at least be welcoming of the open-ended possibilities that may come with inevitable change, and that will make my navigation of this world so much more enjoyable. Perhaps not easier, but enjoyable.
Yes, I’m afraid it is true, all things do alter even as I behold. Maybe that’s why I didn’t get to explore the ornate halls of the Thomas Jefferson Building this summer as I had once hoped. Maybe that’s why I conducted all of my intern work this summer with a personal laptop that I got five years ago and never expected to use this much. Maybe that’s why the comfort of the past has been seemingly swept from under my feet, and the 24-hour news cycles continue their bleating, and the people of our country continue to spin their webs of worry. But throughout this summer, I learned that change is a precious fact of life that we should embrace and not run away from. I gained a valuable professional experience that I will more than likely never forget, one that will certainly never be replicated. I have realized that despite the disappointment that is bound to fill our lives, there will always be some wellspring of new joys to discover and draw from. But we must listen to the calling of our hearts, disciplining ourselves to cherish and embrace optimism when it seems most unlikely.
I can honestly say that the Library of Congress has treated me very well this summer, and I can’t thank all the warm people who made it possible enough. Farewell to this lovely summer internship of mine, an unforgettable lesson in resilience.