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Five Questions: Constance Carter, Head of Science Reference Section

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Senior picture of Constance "Connie" from Smith College, Class of 1959

What is your background?

Born in Whitefield, NH, I spent my school days in Lancaster, Keene, Nashua and Manchester and at Northfield School for Girls in Massachusetts.

In my freshman year at Smith College, I announced that I didn’t think it was necessary to leave America’s shores. Thus the college was pleased when my first job turned out to be in Trinidad, BWI.  Smith had taken this provincial miss and had expanded her vision enough that she’d sought and found employment abroad. This was truly the meaning of a liberal arts education!

William Beebe, Trinidad. Photo by Constance Carter, ca 1959.

I graduated from Smith with a degree in Zoology in May 1959.  My job as Girl Friday for ornithologist William Beebe, of Bathysphere fame, was to start that October.  Following my graduation in May, a curator at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) suggested that museum work might be a good career move after my time in Trinidad, and invited me to visit.  My visit to the MCZ included a tour of the museum’s 250,000 volume library, where we found the librarian wringing her hands in distress: her head of reference and circulation had suddenly left on a four-month leave of absence.  This was serendipitous for me, given that my father had just cut off my allowance.  I found myself accepting a temporary position as librarian. Soon after, while browsing through the card catalog, I noted a book on the tufted titmouse had been classified with the mammals and not with the birds!  I decided, right there and then, that my mission in life would be to save the scientist from the non-zoological librarian.  I took to librarianship like a duck to water, and Harvard had a cataloging job waiting for me, at $2800 per year, when I returned from Trinidad. 

Why did you want to work at the Library of Congress?

I fell in love with the Library when we read Lucy Salamanca’s Fortress of Freedom in my “The Library in Society” course at Chapel Hill.  When I spotted a bulletin board memo announcing a Library of Congress “Special Recruit” program, I thought, “this is for me.”  Since a requirement was  a nomination by the Library School, I asked the Dean to nominate me.  She looked horrified—the memo had been posted in error.  She’d planned to nominate her assistant, but because of the mishap agreed to send in my name as well.  In her letter to the Library, she maximized my strengths, minimized my weaknesses and went on to write glowingly about her assistant, who had no weaknesses.  The final paragraph read, “these are both excellent candidates, but if you can take only one, take”—and, of course, it was not my name.  However, the Library of Congress panel chose me, instead of the Dean’s assistant—and here I am 46 years later.


Connie showing Alice Waters (Chez Panisse owner and the Edible Schoolyard founder) the Library's 19th and early 20th century school gardening books, 2005.

How would you describe your job at the Library of Congress?

Memorable, challenging, and totally fun.  I really love what I do and with whom I do it.  I am so fortunate in having a talented, dedicated, and creative staff who manage me with deft and skill.  My librarians run the section and leave me time to be a member of the team and to actually generate content.  Making the Library’s collections come alive is intoxicating. I love that my staff is known for always going the extra mile and that their assistance has been acknowledged in print and online by so many researchers.  Each one of them has a special talent and my only real job is seeing that they have the tools, time, and resources to flourish.

Do you have a favorite Library collection or program?

Memory and Imagination: New Pathways to the Library of Congress. This is a 1990 film featuring Isaac Stern, Julia Child, Penn & Teller, Francis Ford Coppola, and others talking about the collections of the Library of Congress–what they meant to them personally and mean to civilization as a whole.  I used to take my personal copy to schools, libraries, and to friends of the library groups when I spoke about the Library.  To see Julia Child seated on a stool in Rare Book stacks surrounded by old cookbooks, Isaac Stern poring over a music manuscript with violin under his chin, and Penn &Teller in a locked cage with Houdini material—awesome.  I wish the Library would do another film with Yo-Yo Ma, Lidia Bastianich, and David Copperfield using the collections.

If you weren’t a librarian, what would you want to be?

I’d like to have gone to Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management and be the housekeeper of the White House/Blair House.  I grew to love the history of the White House when I spent time there working on the designs for Lady Bird Johnson’s White House china in 1968. I enjoy making people feel warm and comfy—everyone would get a few of my oatmeal chocolate chip cookies left on the pillow at bedtime.

In 2006, Connie was awarded the first Madisonian Award established by the James Madison Council for excellence and dedication to building, sustaining and providing access to the collections of the Library of Congress. She has trained, encouraged, and served as mentor for a cadre of reference librarians.

Comments (14)

  1. I am grateful for Connie’s true dedication and enthusiasm — and mentorship.

  2. If only the world could be made up of Connie’s what a wonderful world it would be!

  3. Connie is every bit as special in her personal life. She is a gem and we all love her.

  4. And those oatmeal chocolate chip cookies are delightful, indeed.

  5. Connie Carter is everything a librarian and a human being should be: active and passionate in her chosen career. She’s a wonderful example and mentor to everyone around her, and the Library of Congress has been lucky to have her for so many years.

  6. I met Connie through the Einstein Fellowship program and she is INCREDIBLE! She later agreed to take my family on a tour when they came up and it was the highlight of their DC visit. She is a national treasure.

  7. Thanks

  8. Connie took my graduate class from So CT State University on a behind the scenes evening tour of the L of C about 5 years ago. The moon was full and poking through the beautiful windows and it was the most special night. What incredible energy Connie has. Unforgettable!

  9. Connie is truly a national treasure!

  10. Thank you, Connie. You are a dynamo.
    The LENIHAN family
    (Cherry capital)

  11. I had the wonderful pleasure of meeting Ms. Carter yesterday, when she welcomed our large and lively group of quilt artists to the Library of Congress. She truly is a national treasure. I am blessed to have met her and loved her regaling of stories as broad and varied as the Library itself, all told masterfully! Thank you so much! I hope our paths cross again!

  12. Connie is a national treasure! Her passion and enthusiasm for her work is inspiring. I can’t wait to read her book!

  13. Saw you were highlighted by Daniel Stone in
    his The Food Explorer book as queen
    of America’s public archives_congrats

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