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Michael Hill: Hero to the Historians

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When Michael Hill opened his mailbox in 1982 and found a letter from renowned historian David McCullough he was astounded, and his life changed forever.

Author and researcher Michael Hill. Photo courtesy Michael Hill.

Two months earlier he’d sent a letter to Mr. McCullough offering his research services, the envelope addressed only to David McCullough, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts—no zip code, no street address.  Somehow the letter found its way to Mr. McCullough, who was about to begin work on his Pulitzer Prize winning biography of President Truman.

Mr. McCullough contacted Mr. Hill, and the two had lunch to discuss a collaboration.  Mr. McCullough tested Mr. Hill, giving him small research projects, liked what he saw, and Mr. Hill has been an essential researcher for him ever since.

After nearly forty years in the business, Mr. Hill has established himself as a premier investigator: he is author of the biography Elihu Washburne, co-producer of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary, and conducts research for Evan Thomas, Michael Korda, and Nathaniel Philbrick.

He’s such a treasure that the likes of Ken Burns is astonished that David McCullough even shared Mr. Hill: “You could tell it was a dutiful decision on David’s part whether he would let me know about this extraordinarily resourceful human being,” Mr. Burns remarks in Minneapolis’ Star Tribune.

And that’s not the only place where Mr. Hill is highlighted: Brian Lamb interviewed him on C-SPAN’s Q&A.  After he plays a clip of Mr. McCullough singing Mr. Hill’s praises, Mr. Lamb begins his first question with, “The Mike Hill!  After all these years of hearing your name….”

While the Library of Congress’ Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room has changed–today it’s not even in the Jefferson Building–researchers still can find a wonderful selection of newspapers from across the 50 states and from around the world in the new Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room! Washington Times (D.C.), January 4, 1903

Today Mr. Hill is an unassuming presence in the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room.

Often fellow researchers see him cheerfully scrolling through reels of microfilm and have no idea he’s conducting intense research for noted scholars.

What he’s looking for is factual information to confirm an author’s take on whatever the book is about.  He points out that he himself comes across “a nice little jewel or turn-of-phrase” that adds a different color or perspective to the project.  It was in our very own Newspaper Reading Room where Mr. Hill by chance came across references to Elihu Washburne in the French newspaper Galignani’s Messenger, which led to his own book on the subject.

Masthead, Galignani’s Messenger, Paris
The French newspaper Galignani’s Messenger, published in English, offered accounts of Americans and Britons in Paris. Given its Anglo audience, it’s not surprising to see advertisements for American newspapers, such as this ad for the New York Times. Galignani’s Messenger, February 12, 1860

And it’s not just the library where a lot of good material is found that helps Mr. Hill’s research, it’s library staff that contribute so much, too.  “This is something I learned very early on,” Mr. Hill explains, “when you’re working on a project…you let everybody…know what you’re working on and particularly librarians and archivists to bring them in as a partner in the research process.”  Some authors and researchers keep tight-lipped about their work so as not to tip off others to their project.  But the more people who know about it, the better served the researcher and author are.

Evening Star (Washington, DC) March 12, 1944

So the next time you’re researching at the Library’s Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room, go ahead and discuss your work.  And who knows?  You just might get some tips from the Mike Hill!

Thank you to Michael Hill.

Comments (5)

  1. This was a great article. I wondered who the people were that helped people at Ken Burns to produce the fantastic shows that he does. I’m curious if Mike has ever given any lectures or interviews about his work ? I’ve heard Mr. McCullough speak ( in interviews and in person ) recently I had the good fortune to be at one of his book signings. It would be interesting to hear what MIKE has to say about his work and his research. If there any links I hope someone will share them. “Sam” NYC

  2. Great write-up!

  3. Interesting article, and congratulations to Mr. Hill for succeeding in this fascinating career. But don’t forget there are dozens of researchers and historians doing the same thing every day at LOC. You can find their contact information on the Researchers page if you wish to hire one of them.

  4. I am researching the death of Wilbur Wright from typhoid fever. How can I get in touch with Michael Hill? Thank you.

  5. It is thrilling to see Mike’s success in his career. I actually have very fond memories of Mike from when I was a child. Mike actually dated my mother. He would take my older brother and I out for “Dude’s Appreciation Night” and we would listen to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” in the car. I still remember those warped floorboards he had in his home; he would make joking references to Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart”. We also went on a vacation to a beach house with Ken Burns and family. There’s a VHS somewhere with my brother and I playing in the sand with Ken Burns’s children. Very good memories. If I ever make it back to the Fredericksburg area, I’ll have to look him up.

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