This is a guest post by Tammie Nelson, project manager for Congress.gov. Tammie reflects on her time at the Library of Congress as she prepares to depart to begin work on a PhD in information studies at the University of Maryland iSchool.
Learned Institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty & dangerous encroachments on the public liberty.
As I pack up my office, I reflect on the value of the Library of Congress and the meaning of the objects that I have saved. Colleagues of mine have retired after four decades; I now realize that it must have taken them months to move out. I have been here at the Library for only eight years, and have found the cleaning of desk and filing cabinet to be a nostalgic experience. I have loved working at the Library and would have also stayed for many decades, but academia is calling me. My last day is Friday, July 21st. I will be reporting for class at University of Maryland iSchool at the end of August, where I will pursue a PhD in information studies.
The agendas, notes, documents, and mementos that have sprung from overflowing desk drawers tell the story of how much I cherish my years working at the Library. This reverie has made me realize that I will continue to visit the Library, only now I will visit as a patron rather than as an employee. I hope my story inspires you to visit in person or virtually. The Library is a generous “Learned Institution” –sharing her bounty online and in person.
While cleaning I came across the training materials from an April 2009 class about THOMAS.gov, given by the Senior Legal Reference Librarian Pam Craig, who later became a good friend. I didn’t know at the time that THOMAS and its successor would become the focus of my career for the next eight years. But I was inspired by its potential from that training class.
It was fun to find the notes from my first THOMAS meetings with Andrew Weber, in June 2009. Beginning with that first meeting, we worked together to make THOMAS everything it could be. Our first enhancement was to increase the search result timeout from 5 to 20 minutes; do you remember that your search results would time out if you took the time to get a cup of coffee? We made many other improvements, all driven by user requests. Andrew and I read and categorized every comment that came in about THOMAS. Today I reread a report of those findings which demonstrates how much our users have cared about the Library’s legislative system, since the inception of THOMAS in 1995. We were able to fill some requests, such as improving the accessibility and visibility of some features, tweaking the global search, and adding the save/share toolbar. We instituted the popular “top ten bills” feature, enhanced the browse reports, and reworked the homepage. While we were happy to deliver these improvements to our users, we were bothered by the fact that we also received many change requests that we could not accomplish due to the aging infrastructure of THOMAS.
I have notes from the very first week of the Congress.gov project, a time of excited activity as we put together an ambitious plan for beta.congress.gov and pulled together a stellar team to make it happen. In addition to the pride of accomplishment in deploying a modernized system, it has been rewarding to finally deliver on some long-standing user requests. THOMAS users had been asking for years that we add a visual representation of the bill’s progress. Congress.gov has the bill tracker. THOMAS users had been asking for years that we support email alerts about members and bill activity. Congress.gov delivers bill, member, Congressional Record, nomination, and saved search alerts. THOMAS users had been pleading for permanent object URLs and the ability to share search result URLs. Congress.gov URLs are fully persistent and meaningful as well. THOMAS user feedback observed the lack of cross-collection searching and search result sorting, and the limited form and command line searching. Congress.gov supports all of this and more.
I have saved Library newsletter articles about THOMAS and Congress.gov’s accomplishments. “THOMAS Receives Third Enhancement for 2010,” “Library Launches Congress.gov,” “Congress.gov Honoree in Webby Awards,” “Congress.gov Loses ‘Beta’ Tag,” and “Congress.gov Adds New Features”. These are all reminders of how lucky I have been to work with such great colleagues. In my notes from the project’s first week, I wrote that a key success factor was “a fabulous team” –true for any project of course, but imperative for this one. We have accomplished so much during these years. It’s all been possible because of our talented and dedicated multi-disciplinary team, with collaboration as our top priority. There are too many people to name, so I’ll just send a big thank you to all team members, past and present.
Working on THOMAS and then Congress.gov has given my career at the Library meaning. I had never before worked on a project with such a profound impact: our website reaches people in all U.S. states and territories and across the globe. Congress.gov serves the members of Congress and the people they serve. It has been so gratifying to demonstrate this system to teachers and students and family and friends, real people who need easy access to this information. And the project has kept me very busy. But between meetings and presentations and designing and documenting, I have found time to enjoy the many intellectual offerings of the Library and this is also apparent in the objects I have found as I clean my office.
I have saved the ephemera from various lectures and panel discussions given here at the Library. Lunchtime lectures and exhibit gallery talks and Law Library symposiums have provided such a wide spectrum of wisdom to me during my years here. I try to make time to attend the NASA lunchtime lectures: scientists visit the Library to give lectures on sun spots, launch projects, and more. I recently attended the “2017 Total Solar Eclipse” lecture, where they distributed posters of the eclipse’s path. The Law Library has sponsored some of my favorite learning experiences here at the Library, in honor of Law Day, Human Rights Day, and Constitution Day. A dynamic presentation by Professor Risa Goluboff on Constitution Day 2013 almost convinced me that I should go to law school. The lecture series on the Magna Carta taught me as much as any history class. I uncovered inspiring notes that I scribbled on the back of a meeting agenda from when I made the very good decision to squeeze a panel discussion between meetings: a priceless event where friends of Rosa Parks talked about her life and legacy. Finding these objects brings back memories from so many other valuable lunchtime and evening author talks, curator talks, visiting professors, films, even concerts. The Library hosts so many events like this, open to the public–and many are also webcast either live or after the fact.
The exhibitions in the Thomas Jefferson building were a luxury, a world-class museum down the hallway from my desk! The Herblock Foundation donation of Herbert L. Block’s personal papers has been a source of wry (sometimes painful) humor to me since the 100th birthday exhibit opened in 2010. My memento of that exhibit is that I purchased the book “HERBLOCK: The Life and Works of the Great Political Cartoonist”. A small, one-year-at-a-time exhibit remains, which is currently displaying 1967 (which happens to be the year of my birth; a nice farewell.) I have saved a few other rotating exhibition brochures, “The Last Full Measure: Liljenquist Family Civil War Photographs”, “The Long Struggle for Freedom: Civil Rights Act of 1964,” and “The Red Book of Carl G. Jung: Its Origins and Influence.” Looking at these few brochures brings to mind many others. If you live nearby or visit D.C., please be sure to visit the Thomas Jefferson exhibitions, an ever changing bounty of artifacts and knowledge. As you can see from the links above, the exhibitions are physically temporary but are immortalized on the pages of www.loc.gov.
On a sad note, I came across the program from a “Celebration of the life of Robert N. Gee, Esq.” a favorite colleague from my first few years here. I learned so much from Bob and have never known anyone else who could speak with such animation about Congressional publications.
I found a stack of Veterans History Project pamphlets that I will bring home with me; I make it a habit to hand them out to anyone who might have a relative to interview.
I found a stash of Congress.gov pencils which reminded me of my favorite National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) story. An American government teacher stopped by the Library of Congress booth and talked about how much her students love Congress.gov. When I told her that I was the project manager for the website, she said, “They’ll never believe that I met you!” and insisted on having her photo taken with me. I’m pretty sure that was my one and only chance at being treated like a rock star. I have also enjoyed participating in several panel presentations at the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) conferences with my Law Library colleagues. Our standing-room-only AALL panel discussion in Philadelphia, which included Andrew Weber, Christine Sellers, and Bob Gee, was about improvements to THOMAS.gov; we were bursting at the seams with the not-ready-for-prime-time news that a THOMAS successor was being planned. This year Andrew Weber, Hanibal Goitom, and Tariq Ahmad compared the features offered in Congress.gov to other legislative information sites from around the world.
In the lower layers of my archeological desk dive, I found the item description packet from a rare books special exhibition from 2010. I cherish the serendipity of my attendance at that exhibition. I had enjoyed getting to know the Library during my first 8 months on the job, but had not yet seen anything rare and unusual. I said to a friend, “I wish I knew someone in the Rare Books Division”. The very next day I found a badge on the floor of the ladies room. I picked it up, spent some time tracking down its owner … and met Rosemary Fry Plakas, who in thanks invited me to a Rare Books Division event! There were many treats in that evening, but a highlight for me was a first edition of Galileo’s Starry Messenger (1610), Robert Hooke’s Micrographia (1665), a 1770 book about the colonies that belonged to Benjamin Franklin, with emphatic margin notes in his hand, James Madison’s copy of the Federalist Papers (with notes in his hand), and Susan B. Anthony’s annotated copy of her trial transcript. Through Rosemary, I also learned cool facts about the curation of the Thomas Jefferson’s Library exhibit.
I uncovered a flashcard from helping my daughter study for her American government AP exam: What is a “Joint Committee”? Answer: a committee “formed to administer to a relatively mundane matter such as the Library of Congress.” I find us anything but mundane!
I found notes from tours that I have given of the Library and the Capitol Building, and a thank you note from 4th grade students (all now in high school). “We really enjoyed seeing the basement full of Law books!” along with a very accurate drawing of the Capitol Building with Senate and House wings correctly labeled. I have enjoyed giving tours; it is a privilege to share the beauty of these buildings with others!
My author escort badge from the 2013 National Book Festival is a reminder of many years of volunteering, in several different capacities. Escorting Susan Cooper and getting to know other children’s authors through her was a precious highlight. I also enjoyed several years working with Jane Mandelbaum in the Children’s Pavilion, and last year’s stint ushering in the Main Pavilion all day was an exhausting but rewarding marathon. If you can make it to the National Book Festival, please do! It’s a fantastic experience.
A cookie fortune that is taped to my desktop, “Rest is a good thing, but boredom is its brother.” This quote reminds me to embrace my busyness. I am almost never bored; and certainly there is no excuse for boredom when surrounded by the riches of this Library. When describing all the awesome side benefits of working at the Library (e.g., access to the world’s largest library, lunchtime and evening lectures, world-class museum exhibits a short walk from my desk, intelligent colleagues with diverse and interesting expertise and hobbies), I have often compared the setting to a college campus. Apparently I have decided that I like that so much I need to move to an actual university.
One last desktop artifact: the following phrase, written on a post-it note and attached to my monitor:
Littera scripta manet
which I copied from the ceiling of the Librarian’s Ceremonial Office.
The written word remains.