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The Research Quest: One Junior Fellow’s Journey through the Library of Congress

(The following is a post by Jaime Conlan, Junior Fellow, Hispanic Division, summer 2019.)

“I’m an open book,” I said to a crowd of my university alumni at a networking event, referring to my future career plans, which I have yet to pin down. I didn’t think anything of it, until a friend shouted from the crowd, “Classic librarian pun!”

A doodle to better conceptualize my journey as a junior fellow.

When I walked into the Library on my first day of the Junior Fellows program, I was a clean slate. Not just an open book, but one with many blank pages yet to fill. I expected to learn a lot, to get work done, but I never expected a treasure-map adventure of sorts to unfold before me.

Discovering the Library’s collections felt like picking up clues to a mystery whose resolution is waiting for me in the future. As with any good journey, mine was filled with twists and turns, unexpected changes of plans, enlightening moments, and a lot of snacks.

My project started simply enough. My mentor, Reference Librarian Talía Guzman-González tasked me with creating a transcultural teaching guide for the Americas about a specific topic of my choosing. I spent weeks searching the catalog, earnestly delving into the immense pleasure of checking out books. Ultimately, I accumulated 25+ books to read to narrow down a topic.

Based on those 25+ books, I developed a huge plan for a guide!

My original planning board for a full-length, magazine-style teaching guide.

The guide was a lot to take on for a 10-week internship that was quickly flying by, but I was determined to try and complete it. As I read bits and pieces of all the books I had checked out, I also began exploring other divisions of the Library. I began to pick up even more clues that would shape my project into what it inevitably became: a series of teaching handouts about primary resources related to the Americas available from the Library.

Having worked as a newspaper journalist at my university, my personal passions led me to the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room. It was there that I encountered the gargantuan microfilm machines that readers can use to crank through pages and pages of newspapers. I spent hours in that reading room, submerging myself in wealth of information that can be found in one historic newspaper. When I left, I spent even more time back at my desk in the Hispanic Division pouring through the digital newspaper archives available on Chronicling America. I felt a seed being planted in my mind, but I wasn’t sure what it would become. I left it to germinate.

As my research progressed, I made multiple visits to the Prints & Photographs Reading Room, falling in love with the tactile feeling of holding a magnifying glass and uncovering clues in old photographs.

Here I began to encounter some obstacles to my quest. Questions arose, such as: Will these prints or photographs be digitized before my internship ends? Are these photos appropriate for a public school curriculum? How would these even fit in my guide? I was beginning to learn that there is one big obstacle that comes with working in the world’s largest library: there are astounding bits of knowledge and beautiful resources and clues everywhere, but you have to focus on what’s relevant and be selective.

Credit: Jamie Conlan.

In the Prints & Photographs Reading Room, I asked to have some unprocessed materials unearthed. One of the librarians and I looked over some striking prints. We found beautiful items that I could not use in my own teaching guides, but that she may be able to use for her own research. It felt as though her own journey briefly intersected mine, and clues not meant for me could be passed on to someone else for a different investigation.

I ruminated on these realizations as I continued to create an entire booklet. The theme of the booklet changed by the week as I discovered more pertinent materials and realized others would no longer fit. The theme kept changing, and I kept trying to make everything work and get it done on time, when another clue presented itself when we visited the Learning and Innovation Office.

Talking with the staff of the Learning and Innovation Office was one of the most enlightening conversations I had at the Library, not just for my personal project this summer, but for potential ways I can apply my skills in the future. I picked up an abundance of clues to help me on my journey, as I learned how to test my work with actual teachers, phrasing things precisely both to be concise and to avoid controversy, and referencing the many other publications that the Learning and Innovation Office produces.

I left with my head spinning and ready to make a drastic turn in my project that eventually helped everything fall into place. No longer did I have to smoosh clues together in an effort to make a cohesive book, now I could run wild, designing distinct handouts on different topics, then sending them to my former teachers for their thoughts and comments.

John Hessler (right) explaining the Codex Quetzalecatzin.

With the clues now falling neatly into place, I avidly took over designing new creations. My presentation for Junior Fellow Display Day was nearly complete as well, but I had to make one more important stop that I had been waiting for since the beginning of my fellowship: Going to see items from the Kislak Collection, behind closed doors in the Geography and Map Division.

One handout that I made is a guide to the Codex Quetzalecatzin, a 16th-century indigenous map. Seeing it online was astounding, but seeing the original in person was jaw-dropping. John Hessler, the curator of the Kislak Collection, guided me through the map, providing me with insight I never would have had otherwise.

Another clue. Another stepping stone that let me know I was in the right place doing the right work, here at the Library. This map, so full of information and insight into an entire culture through the ample imagery and symbols, seemed to me a poetic parallel to my journey this summer. When I left, I began idly doodling the “treasure map” you see at the beginning of this post. I felt this quest for discovering the true treasures of the Library mirrored my own path to discovering more about who I am and where I’m going. It’s still a mystery, but I’m enjoying the journey.

As with all great journeys, goodbyes are difficult, and I couldn’t have done it without some faithful friends.

With my mentor, Talia (right) on Display Day.

My colleague, Giselle (right), visiting my table during the Junior Fellows Display.

A Handbook for 18th-Century Country Living: Andrei Bolotov’s “Ekonomicheskoi magazin” (Economic Storehouse)

(Guest post by Christine Ruane, Professor Emerita of History, University of Tulsa) Tucked away in the stacks of the Library of Congress’ Rare Book Division are 40 small, leather-bound volumes of an 18th-century Russian periodical entitled “Ekonomicheskoi magazin””(Economic storehouse). Each book consists of 400 pages of what was then the latest scientific advice on how […]