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An Interview with Laura Turner O’Hara, Web Content Manager for the House of Representatives History, Art & Archives Website

What is your academic and professional history?

I went to Stanford University as a student-athlete, intending to be a journalist or professional runner. But I fell in love with history after touring one of the many archival collections on campus my freshman year. I did my undergraduate thesis research at the National Archives the summer before my senior year and knew that Washington was the place I wanted to be. My first job was at the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives. After a year there, I applied for an opening for a research assistant in what was then the Office of History and Preservation under the Clerk of the House. I’ve worked in this office (now the Office of the Historian) for nearly 16 years. Since Stanford, I’ve had an interest in the intersection between technology and the humanities, so I pursued this in graduate school at George Mason University (taking advantage of the unique opportunities provided by the Center for History and New Media). In 2012, I earned my master’s degree in applied history and new media.

Laura O'Hara, Content Manager for the House, History & Archives site. Photograph courtesy of Laura O'Hara.

Laura Turner O’Hara, Web Content Manager for the House of Representatives History, Art & Archives site. Photograph courtesy of Laura Turner O’Hara.

How would you describe your job to other people?

Though our office certainly tracks the history of legislation in the House, our primary focus is the institutional history: how the place, people, and culture of the House of Representatives has changed (or stayed the same) over time. In my present role, I manage the content for the History, Art & Archives website, which is a collaborative project between the Office of the Historian and the Office of Art & Archives (Office of the Clerk). I also plan, edit, monitor, and schedule our Twitter feed (@USHouseHistory). This is in addition to continuing some of my duties as a historian: researching and writing content and answering reference questions. The website and Twitter are two of our primary means for communicating with the public, Capitol Hill staff, educators, academics, and the press, and I make sure it’s accurate, accessible, and engaging.

Do you have any favorite objects in your collection?

Our curators do a great job at acquiring and preserving some real gems. My favorite filter in Collections Search on our website is “Behind the Scenes,” where you can get a flavor of what goes on during the daily comings and goings of the House. You can also get a glimpse of some of the colorful cast of historic characters who have come through (like Dr. George Calver, the Capitol’s first attending physician) or a glimpse at how gavels are produced. One of my favorite House Records is the Engrossing Copy of the Civil Rights Act; you can see the legislative process at work on such a landmark bill. Finally, and perhaps one of my favorite places to spend a rare slow afternoon on our website, is our oral history section. I encourage parents who might be having a tough day to listen to Representative Pat Schroeder of Colorado discuss the time her kids’ pet rabbit got loose on an airplane.

What is your favorite feature of Congress.gov?

I love the legislation search. I can so quickly and efficiently track down the status of a bill or obtain a list of legislation sponsored by an individual and filter that by status. It is so helpful for everything from writing biographies to finding a quick overview of a bill. It’s very intuitive and easy to navigate—that’s the mark of a strong database.

What is the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the legislative process and/or the legislative branch?

There is a vibrant institutional culture of its own here on Capitol Hill, even specifically on the House side. Behind the public face of the House—what you see on C-SPAN—there are a lot of hardworking individuals: members’ staff, but also support staff who have unique skills and experiences. I enjoy watching Joe Strickland, chief reporter of the Office of Official Reporters, demonstrate a 1950s-era stenotype machine.

What has been your most memorable day at work?

This is a pretty amazing place to work and I remind myself of that every time I see the sun set behind the Capitol Building. But one story that sticks out is unique to our office: early in my career, I accompanied our curator on a visit to the widow of a former upholsterer in the House. She said her husband had replaced the seats in the House Chamber shortly after the March 1, 1954, shooting on the House Floor. He had saved one of the seat backs with a bullet hole in it and she wanted to make sure it was preserved in the House collection. The seat had a number on the back, but the seats in the chamber are not obviously numbered. So, in order to identify where the seat back came from, we went to the chamber and lifted up the seat cushions checking for numbers. When we found it, we corroborated that the seat was one of those identified as taking a bullet. It was a fun, hands on experience in uncovering a small piece of history. The seat back remains one of my favorite objects in the collection.

Do you have a favorite non-partisan resource related to civics education that you would recommend to teachers and students?

Our website, of course. We have data at your fingertips (see our Institution section) and we have multiple, fully fleshed-out publications (see our Exhibitions & Publications section). But in particular, I point you to our blog, Whereas: Stories from the People’s House. This is where we write about some of the true gems we find in our research: these stories teach about the history, mechanics, and culture of the House, couched in some relatable and (sometimes) hilarious stories. A few of my favorites are when two congresswomen spent the night on a Naval vessel before women were permitted, or when Speaker Clay asserted his power by kicking Representative John Randolph’s hunting dogs off the House Floor. Someone also once deposited a protest cow in the House Office Building (now Cannon) courtyard. We recently introduced a way to filter and search our more than 350 posts.

What kind of academic and non-academic preparation would you recommend to young people who are interested in getting a job with the legislative branch?

Working as a House staffer is a behind-the-scenes role; we do not always get full or any credit for the work we do, so its vitally important to have well-developed intrinsic motivation. Very little happens in a vacuum in any Capitol Hill office, so it’s also important to embrace being part of a team. I feel grateful to work with a talented and dedicated staff in my office and I’ve learned a lot from my co-workers.

What is something your co-workers do not know about you?

I’ve worked with some of these people for close to two decades; there’s not much they don’t know about me. I’ve been a long distance runner most of my life, but as I get older, I am dabbling in triathlon. My favorite part is, surprisingly, the open water swim. I find it adventurous.

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