This is a guest post by 2021 Junior Fellow, Hannah Spring Pfeifer. Hannah is pursuing graduate degrees in American History and Nonprofit Management at Villanova University.
Nothing about working in a library ever appealed to me when I was younger. Perhaps media depictions are to blame for convincing a child that libraries are silent spaces and librarians are ready to shush the loudest breather in the reading room. Thankfully, working and learning in the humanities proved the “Marian the Librarian” stereotype incorrect. With age comes wisdom, and though I cannot claim to have much wisdom at the mere age of 23, the past two months working as a Junior Fellow with the Library of Congress (LOC) have taught me immeasurably more about the value of libraries than the previous 22 years and 10 months combined.
I applied to be a Junior Fellow on a whim. It was the middle of the pandemic and the end of my first semester of graduate school. I was alone in Philadelphia for both my birthday and Christmas, my family back home in Syracuse. During the grey fog of winter break, time seemed meaningless and I was growing restless, ready for a new task. Then came a mass email from a professor, suggesting a list of summer fellowships and internships for 2021. This included the Library of Congress Junior Fellows. I found myself constantly returning to the Internship and Fellowship Programs’ site page about the program, reading through the opportunities for 2021 and watching the Display Day videos from the summer before. Junior Fellows kept me going even before my first interview.
When I was accepted, I definitely did a little happy dance, because finally something in this crazy world was going right. This fantastic opportunity was more than I ever dreamed, and despite spending my early months in 2021 running around to get my fingerprints taken and then re-taken after they were lost in the mail, I was excited. My friends and family all joked about National Treasure, willfully ignoring that I could not actually be in D.C. due to COVID-19. Nevertheless, if it had not been for the virtual component, I never would have been able to accept the position.
Onboarding was a whirlwind: meeting new people, seeing new faces, and learning all the new lingo and acronyms which the federal government seems to adore. It was the start of a marvelous journey through applied skills and infinite education opportunities. My mentor, Lynn Weinstein, made it clear early on that I could be as independent as I liked, which was exactly what I needed to hear, although we always met at least once a week just to talk and summarize a to-do list. This flexibility also helped me feel a renewed sense of control that COVID-19 had stripped away.
As I dove into the collections on George Westinghouse and his films, I realized the challenge that lay ahead: conducting research based on material culture, yet completely virtual. The LOC has no shortage of information on the champion of the Electric War, but it was a matter of digital access versus institutional access. Much lay in books held in off-site repositories and not yet digitized, which meant they were put in the “maybe later” folder on my desktop. Even though “maybe later” now means after the internship is over, I am still excited to plan a visit to the LOC and view some of these precious resources in person. Engaging with material culture will never cease to invigorate me.
Through researching, writing, and analyzing the Gilded Age business industry, my world opened up. Suddenly I was producing blog posts and research guides that anyone could use, providing resources to those interested in Westinghouse, DuPont, the business of medicine, and so much more! In doing so, I met and attended endless webinars by librarians, historians, and other LOC staff who gave me and all the other Junior Fellows their intellectual support and enthusiasm. I cannot overstate how much that means, particularly when starting in a huge organization like the Library of Congress. Meeting with people who all took different paths to get to the same place, who followed their professional passions wherever they needed to go, also gave me hope for my future in the humanities, the fickle career field that it is.
The Junior Fellows program and the Library of Congress itself were both personally and professionally fulfilling. It constantly reminded me that learning is a lifelong process, but one to be enjoyed and celebrated. Although I have yet to experience the LOC in person, even a virtual internship was sufficient to make it clear that this is not a silent space, but a sacred one. It is filled with some of the most brilliant people in the nation passionately preserving global heritage and increasing access to items of our shared past. I am beyond happy that I took a chance and applied to be a Junior Fellow; it paid off immensely. And who knows, maybe all of the LOC staff are right and I will find myself returned to the Library again!