This post was written by 2021 Junior Fellow Sean DiLeonardi.
In my first week as a Junior Fellow at the Library of Congress, I was made to feel welcome by smiling faces, virtual tours, and access to numerous resources, affirming in every way possible that the Library was a new professional home. And yet I couldn’t help but feel, as one often does in a new home, a tinge of self-doubt. Was I in the right place? I have long worked in public schools or universities, but never a federal institution. I am about to complete my Ph.D., though in English, not in library science. My training is in literary studies, but my fellowship project will deal with arithmetic, business, and education. And finally, my research focuses on contemporary culture, primarily after 1945, while the materials I will be analyzing span one, two, even three centuries of history. Was I having Junior Fellowship identity crisis?
If some of these feelings accompanied me into the fellowship period, there were several indications that they weren’t to last. The first was the grounding presence of a good mentor. Under the guidance of Nanette Gibbs, a Business Reference and Research Specialist in the Science, Technology and Business Division, I would be working on a project called “Arithmetic, Numeracy, Literacy, Imagination.” From our first meeting, Nanette brought a passionate energy, an almost frenetic love of learning, to all our interactions. Through her, I was quickly introduced to the intellectual and professional climate of the Library of Congress. It was clearly a place that valued the process of preserving information and sharing resources, a place where many individuals were working on fascinating projects, a place that housed a multitude of collections that probed the borders of human culture and history. It was, in other words, a place I could get used to.
Beyond excellent mentorship, it also became clear to me that I was entering into a rare opportunity. During my ten weeks with the Library of Congress, I would have access to a collection of materials composed largely of textbooks, cypher books, or treatises in the history of math—a collection most of which had never been digitized and, as a result, was generally understudied. Indeed, the fact that few scholars or researchers were aware of these materials was part of the point of my being there. By combing through these yellowed pages, I would collect information about what was there waiting to be found and communicate this information to future researchers for the benefit of further study. Having done some original research before—including at the Library of Congress!—I knew that the process was slow and meticulous, accompanied by discoveries both small and large that fueled the engines of curiosity. A bit like a treasure hunt, only this time, the treasure wasn’t for me but for future generations of learners. I was to play a small part in the process of preserving and disseminating knowledge.
Though mentorship and opportunity were enough, had any doubt remained, it would have been swept away finally by the actual experiences during the first week. As fellows, we were granted an inside look into the impressive history of the Library, complete with tales of murder and mystery, as well as a virtual tour of the Great Hall and its architectural secrets. As part of a professional development series, we were introduced to Junior Fellow alums who had gone on to have careers at the Library. And then came the actual start of my project, when I was given access to the materials I was studying. I began, somewhat at random, with an arithmetic textbook from 1871, with an odd enough name to grab my attention (Orton’s Lightning Calculator), when there on page one, I was struck by the fact that the author thanked but one individual: a nineteenth-century poet. Immediately, a stream of questions came to mind, and I hadn’t made it past the title page. What was the nature of the relationship between the author and the poet? What role did the poet play in the writing of the textbook that compelled the author to feel “deeply indebted”? More generally, in what unforeseen ways will other historical records reveal a relationship between poetry and arithmetic, literacy and numeracy, imagination and education? What rich, interdisciplinary routes were waiting to be traversed? Perhaps the most important question I could ask, though, was one that emerged from the rush of discovery to quickly diminish that sense of identity crisis altogether, assuring me that I was exactly where I needed to be. Who else was going to start answering these questions but me?