Happy Birthday to the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room! The reading room, located in the James Madison Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, opened to the public on May 11, 1982. To this day, the reading room serves as the gateway to the newspaper, comic book, current periodical, and government document collections held by the Serial & Government Publications Division. In 2019, the Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room was named the Washington City Paper’s ”Best Place to Learn about the Past.”
I thought we might take a trip down memory lane to explore more of the reading room’s history and its collections in the digitized newspaper pages available in Chronicling America.*
The history of the reading room can be traced back to January 22, 1900, when it opened to the public in the Thomas Jefferson Building. The reading room for newspapers and periodicals in the Library of Congress opened “for the benefit of visitors from different parts of the United States and from other countries, so that they can find their home papers without difficulty.” Today, many of the newspapers in our collection need to be requested from our stacks, but the most popular are in the reading room for you to browse every day.
Shortly after its opening, Library patrons wrote to newspapers, stating that the Library of Congress and its newspaper reading room “must be visited.” The Washington Times declared: “this collection of old periodicals is of invaluable service to the historian who wishes to deal with any period within the past 200 years.”
As is often the case with any library of size, the problem of finding space to store materials soon became apparent. The funding of a new annex building (later known as the John Adams Building) was approved by Congress in 1930 “to take care of crowding in the present Library of Congress building. The annex will house the bound volumes of newspapers…”
Travis Westly, the Head of Reference, has worked in the reading room since 1985, and he spoke of his experience during his tenure. “While we continue to collect and expand our physical and digital collections—available to Congress, genealogists, scholars, comic book aficionados, or members of the general public—21st-century research needs haven’t changed appreciably over the years.” Since its beginnings and into today, researchers come to the reading room for myriad reasons, whether it be a student finishing a thesis or a history professor searching through resources, an author reading the most recent scholarly articles, or those working in the city who just want to read news from their hometown. The Evening Star shared this tale of a lonely girl from Bozeman, MT, and many other newcomers to Washington who have “sought out the comfort of the familiar—by reading of their native towns, counties, or States” in the reading room. And the daily activities of George Herbert Putnam, 8th Librarian of Congress, included “dips into the newspapers for knowledge of the events of the passing hour.”
Acquisitions that Made the News through the Years:
- A purchase of issues of the Augusta Chronicle, and Georgia Gazette (Augusta, GA), “the state organ of Georgia, which fact gives it its value as a reference file.”
- In 1927, “through an arrangement with the library of the University of Michigan, the Library received nearly complete runs of the Kentucky Gazette (Lexington, KY) and the Detroit Gazette (Detroit, MI), the first permanent newspaper published in the state. The collections were touted as “valuable source material for the history of the early days of the Middle West.”
- In 1935, from N.W. Ayer & Sons, the Library received a copy of a book “containing first pages of 1,314 daily newspapers on March 4, 1933, the date of President Roosevelt’s inauguration.”
- The Casper Daily Tribune reported in 1922, that “the Casper dailies are now in the newspaper file in the reading room of the congressional library.”
Discoveries made in the reading room’s collections:
- At times, scholars took to old newspapers to find the first time a word was used, such as the term “editor.”
- One researcher found a reference to an ancestor in a Rhode Island newspaper from 1791 and the results of that research later became a published book.
- Scholars’ discoveries in the history of transportation can be seen in the Evening Star and the Wolf Point Herald.
- Sometimes, researchers’ discoveries were not found but lost. For instance, in the case of this lost camera.
- In 1952, a “student investigator” was sent to the Library of Congress to look up newspaper accounts of 1950 football games to check to see if a student had played for a fourth season when the rules forbid more than three seasons.
- Bound or jacketed original copies of New Year greetings or addresses handed to subscribers by newspaper carriers, also known as carriers’ addresses, are found “amid the treasure trove in the Library of Congress.”
- In 1960, Melvin Hayes, a former employee of the Toledo Blade (Toledo, OH) newspaper and local author, was featured in the Montgomery Sentinel (Rockville, MD) for his then soon-to-be-published book, Lincoln Runs for President, ” based almost entirely on a study of 1860-61 newspapers in the Library of Congress.”
- Most recently, American poet Walt Whitman’s writings published in newspapers were identified by two scholars who discovered them while examining rare newspapers held at the Library of Congress.
Some things have not changed since our opening. We still maintain a “file of newspapers and magazines that any one may see” (provided a researcher has a valid Reader Identification Card issued by the Library.) You can always ask for assistance from a Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room librarian in-person and via email, chat, or telephone. Speaking of– guess what else has not changed? Our telephone number! The reference librarian on duty can still be reached at (202) 707-5690. For more information on our reading room, please visit Newspaper & Current Periodical Reading Room: A Guide for Researchers.
And if you have any researcher stories of your own, feel free to share in the comments!
*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.