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Research Guide in Focus – Louisiana Purchase: A Legislative Timeline

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This is a guest post by Ann Hemmens, a senior legal reference librarian with the Law Library of Congress. Ann has contributed a number of posts to this blog, including posts on Free Public Access to Federal Materials on Guide to Law Online, U.S. Supreme Court: Original Jurisdiction and Oral Arguments, and Domestic Violence: Resources in the United States

The year 2023 will mark the 220th anniversary of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase treaty (8 Stat. 200), through which the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory (approximately 828,000 square miles in North America) from France. This doubled the size of the United States and promoted continued westward expansion.

The Library develops new research guides to help promote its varied collections and services, such as the collection of guides from the Law Library. Additionally, we are moving existing guides from older formats to the modern platform. We recently moved the research guide, Louisiana Purchase: A Legislative Timeline, from the American Memory: A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation website to our new platform.

As part of this transition, we interviewed the author of the original guide, Ken Drexler, a reference specialist within the Library of Congress’s Research and Reference Services Division. In this interview, Ken gives us an overview of how and why the original guide was created in 2002, the impact it has had on educators and researchers, and descriptions of some of the interesting aspects of its history.

Why and when did you create the original guide, Louisiana Purchase: A Legislative Timeline?

The original idea for the Louisiana Purchase: A Legislative Timeline came from my supervisor, Marilyn Parr, in late 2002. At the time, I was a member of the Digital Reference Team, which was a new group of reference specialists responsible for helping patrons navigate the Library’s website, and, in particular, the American Memory digital collections. In preparation for the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase in 2003, Marilyn thought it would be a great idea to create a timeline using the legislative materials in A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation

A screen capture of a Research Guide titled "Louisiana Purchase: A Legislative Timeline" taken from the Library of Congress website.
Research Guide Louisiana Purchase: A Legislative Timeline,

Do you know, maybe through metrics or comments or references in articles, how researchers have used your guide? Do particular groups (e.g., K-12 students) find it helpful?

The guide has proven useful over the years for students of all ages, including K-12 students working on their National History Day projects. A Century of Lawmaking is one of the earliest American Memory collections and it can be difficult to use, even for experienced researchers. The idea behind the guide was to pull out all the relevant congressional debate related to the Louisiana Purchase and its aftermath so that researchers could quickly and easily focus on the content, rather than getting bogged down in navigating the site.

In addition to being linked to by a number of K-12 and university libraries, the guide has been referenced in books, journal articles, and websites such as Wikipedia. I was pleased to recently see that the guide had been cited by the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History and in a lesson plan developed by the New York Times Learning Network.

You have created dozens of LibGuides at the Library of Congress, including one specifically on the Louisiana Purchase. How do you see this new LibGuide version of the Timeline relating to your other guides?

The Legislative Timeline nicely supplements the Louisiana Purchase: Primary Documents in American History guide, which is much broader in scope. The Louisiana Purchase guide is part of the Primary Documents in American History series, a collection of guides that focus on the most important documents in U.S. history. You’ll find in this guide a wide variety of primary sources related to the Louisiana Purchase, not just legislative materials, including newspapers, maps, manuscripts, and printed ephemera. It also contains links to external websites and a selected bibliography.

What do you find most interesting about the Louisiana Purchase?

For me, the most interesting aspect of the Louisiana Purchase is how the rebellion in Saint Domingue (present-day Haiti) played such a critical role in the eventual deal between France and the United States. Napoleon had sent troops to suppress the rebellion, but high casualties due to yellow fever and combat compelled France to withdraw its forces in late 1803. With the loss of Saint Domingue and an impending war with Britain, Napoleon’s plans to reestablish an empire in the New World were abandoned and the decision was made to sell all of Louisiana to America. France’s misfortune proved incredibly lucky for Thomas Jefferson and the American negotiators, which is why for $15 million, or approximately four cents an acre, the Louisiana Purchase is considered the greatest real estate deal in history.

To make this guide, you spent a lot of time in the Annals of Congress (a predecessor to the Congressional Record), the U.S. Statutes at Large, and the House and Senate Journals. Please share your insights about these resources.

In my original research, I used the online versions of these publications in American Memory. One of the main difficulties in using the Annals of Congress on A Century of Lawmaking is that it is not full-text searchable. Instead, the Annals of Congress only consists of digital facsimile images with searchable descriptive information (e.g., indexes and page headings). I quickly discovered the best way to find references in the Annals of Congress was to browse through the indexes for each volume to find the relevant page numbers. Although I used the scanned online indexes, it was really no different than looking in a print index and doing it the old fashioned way.

My decision to include some references to the House and Senate Journals, especially for any roll call votes, came about because, on occasion, there are discrepancies between the Annals and the official journals. The Annals weren’t published contemporaneously, but were compiled between 1834 and 1856, primarily from newspaper accounts.

Any other comments you want to provide?

I would just like to thank you and the Law Library staff for converting the timeline into a LibGuide. When I originally created the timeline I was new to the Library and it was my first online publication. In fact, it was so long ago that I hadn’t even been trained on HTML coding so I compiled the links in a Word document! It’s so nice to see it finally updated as a LibGuide after all these years. Hopefully, it will get even greater exposure now as a LibGuide, especially as we approach the 220th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase.

We encourage researchers to visit the Louisiana Purchase: A Legislative Timeline guide as well as the many other research guides from the Law Library of Congress and other divisions of the Library of Congress.

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