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Lessons from Dr. Seuss and the Library of Congress

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This guest post was written by Bailey Ward, a 2020 Junior Fellow in the Business Reference Section of the Science, Technology & Business Division,  who is working on a project to identify sources relating to the use of beads in trade.

I never fail to chuckle at the irony of where my research on trade beads has taken me during the past weeks. Although I spend a good portion of my day glued to my desk chair in Williamsburg, Virginia, this project has traveled the world.

Aerial view of Capitol Hill featuring the Madison, Jefferson and Adams Buildings of the Library of Congress behind the Cannon House Office Building, Washington, D.C., Carol Highsmith, 2007.

Many members of the public have no idea that the Library of Congress has international offices – at least I didn’t until a couple of weeks ago. Soon enough, I found myself reaching out to the Cairo office, which resulted in their putting me in contact with the Nairobi office. Within a few days, I was emailing the Islamabad office in addition to the various departments in Washington, D.C. In addition, my research with the Library opened the doors for me to communicate with world-renowned experts in the historical and archaeological field who reside in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Speaking with those who have published significant findings in the exact field that I am delving into not only engendered feelings of excitement but also of responsibility; in reality, forging connections with these people inspired a desire to do justice to their work through the delivery of this project.

One overarching bright side of this internship becoming virtual is that I was able to facilitate this communication easily through Library networks. By forcing us to constantly think outside of the box, my mentor and I would brainstorm each professional or even family connection that we could utilize. Ultimately, we knew that we must capitalize on a well-known benefit of living in the age of technology: easy access to fast information from almost anywhere in the world. Although I will never quite know what would have happened if I had been in DC this summer, I do know that teleworking with the Library has produced some unexpected opportunities. As the old cliché goes, “when one door closes, another one opens.”

Lucky for me, a lot of them have opened. Over the last few weeks, I have been able to compile a wealth of information and viewpoints on my subject from Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and America. Gathering this plethora of perspectives across continents is essential for a thorough examination of trade beads. Although beads can be traced to a specific geographic region (as I have done with Ife beads in Southwest Nigeria), research must be taken  further by conducting a more holistic examination of the items themselves. Where did these beads come from? Where did these beads go? How did these beads get there? Which trade routes were used in the transport of these commodities? Were these beads a part of the larger economic trend? Who made these beads? Were they made domestically or imported from abroad? Were different colored beads worth more due to their shape, size, texture, etc.? Did they hold any religious or political significance? Who used these beads? Did they function as countergifts, commodities or currency? How did they compare to other commodities, goods or currency systems?

From Theatrum orbis terrarum, Abraham Ortelius, 1570.
Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) half-length portrait, seated at desk covered with his books] / World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna, 1947.

Drawing on the Library’s international resources, including reaching out to contacts around the world, was critical to finding answers to these questions and more. It’s not easy to paint a picture of West African trade beads from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries spreading across the map when you are temporarily confined to your hometown. However, my online experience with the Library has allowed me to successfully connect many of the varying puzzle pieces. So what does all of this have to do with Dr. Seuss? Well, I’d like to foolishly believe that thirty years ago one of the things he was thinking about was students like me and the Library of Congress when he famously wrote, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!


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Comments (3)

  1. As a tour guide in New Orleans, I was often asked about the selling price of slaves. I answered that it was not possible to determine since there were at least 200 different currencies in the city at the time, so any reference to a price anywhere was incorrect in today’s currency, although the price is often given in various places. If currency were considered as trade beads perhaps the answer would be clearer, but our experience with the greenback prevents any expansion of thinking

  2. Great article! It never occurred to me that beads were used this way. I’m glad you were able to find the people who could help you thru the Library.

  3. nice article

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